Only one thing in Hockey may be shrinking faster than the number of NHL teams with a realistic chance of dethroning the Calgary Flames: the average tenure of an NHL coach. Since April, nine coaches have been replaced, bringing to 56 the number of coaching changes since the start of the 1984-85 season. In fact, it's far easier to separate a coach from his job than it is to break a team's grip on the Stanley Cup. Of the five champions that preceded the Flames, only the Montreal Canadiens, who won in '86, failed to repeat at least once. So, we'll venture two predictions for the '89-90 season: The Flames will roll, and so will heads.
Talk about job insecurity. Only two teams, the Washington Capitals and the Detroit Red Wings, are still coached by the same men who held the job at the beginning of the '86-87 season. Bryan Murray, who is beginning his ninth season in Washington, survives the annual inquisition that follows his team's April failures because general manager David Poile calmly, rationally and untypically concludes that no other available coach would do a better job. Jacques Demers is beginning his fourth year with the Red Wings because he isn't above massaging the egos of his key players. "You have to get along with the important people." says Demers.
Although 10 teams will open the season with coaches who have never played in the league, the trend appears to be swinging away from the technocrats. The guy with a B.S. in exercise physiology and an M.S. in psychology who realized early in life that he organized games better than he played them seems to be on his way out. Ted Sator, who was canned by the Buffalo Sabres after last season, is the latest casualty of this ilk. He joins Jacques Martin (late of the St. Louis Blues), Tom Watt (Vancouver Canucks), Herb Brooks (Minnesota North Stars) and Jean Perron (Quebec Nordiques)—all cerebral types awaiting another turn behind the bench.
The clubs that replaced them all decided to go with coaches more familiar with NHL corners than with college classrooms. While it's incorrect to suggest that coaching applicants should now list missing teeth instead of degrees on their résumés, the flow of innovation from outside the professional game is slowing.
What's good about all the turnover is that some guys who didn't get a fair chance the first time, the second time or, in the case of the New York Rangers' new coach, Roger Neilson, even the fourth time they were hired to coach an NHL team are getting another opportunity. The bad news is that they probably won't have long to prove themselves in their current jobs, either. When these coaches are fired, they shouldn't despair. Expansion to 24 teams is in the air—perhaps as early as the 1992-93 season—which means that when the music stops, there will be three more chairs to jump into. As always, former coaches will line up to fill these slots, even though they know they almost certainly won't have them for long. Says Sator, who's working as a Boston Bruin assistant as he awaits his third opportunity to run a team, "I'd rather have a short chance than no chance at all."
Those words could double as the battle cry for the 20 teams sizing up their hopes of overtaking Calgary. The Flames had the best team in the league last season, and they still have most of it. Champions repeat more frequently in the NHL than in other major leagues because it has no meaningful free agency to strip teams of their best players.
Also, scant spoils go to NHL winners. Not one of the Flames wrote a book in the off-season. (However, a judge may throw the book at defenseman Al MacInnis, last season's Conn Smythe Trophy winner, who was charged with assault after a fight in a bar last summer.) And though small fortunes—11 Flames were given new contracts—were gained in the off-season, not much fame was realized from the franchise's first championship.
MacInnis went to Disneyland. Lanny McDonald, after 16 years in the league and a fairy-tale goal in the clinching victory over Montreal in the Stanley Cup finals, went to pasture. Hakan Loob went back to play in his native Sweden. The rest of the Flames held their training camp in the Soviet Union, where it's all but impossible to get fat and satisfied.
One indication of Calgary's bottomless depth is that it won the Cup despite a cold finals (one goal) by Joe Nieuwendyk, who had 51 goals during the regular season. The Flames also won without Gary Suter, one of the league's best offensive defensemen, who was sidelined by a broken jaw early in the playoffs. In addition, Calgary will replace Loob with Sergei Makarov of the U.S.S.R. (page 44), who might be the world's best right wing. No question—the Flames should repeat.
Elsewhere in the Smythe Division, Wayne Gretzky settled his score with the Edmonton Oilers by leading the Los Angeles Kings past the Oilers in the first round of the playoffs. Hockey has arrived in L.A., but the Kings gave up a lot of young players and draft choices to obtain Gretzky from Edmonton. As a result, they not only have to win today but also have to do it with yesterday's players. A roster that included graybeards like Ron Duguay, John Tonelli, Dave Taylor and Steve Kasper ran low on gas against Calgary in the division finals, which the Flames won in four games. So what did the Kings do in the off-season? They signed Larry Robinson, 38, away from Montreal and coaxed Barry Beck, 32, who hasn't played since 1985-86, out of retirement. Los Angeles now has an All-Star lineup. Unfortunately, it's the '79 All-Star team.