The Minnesota North Stars have a more normal home-ice edge—bigger crowds than anyone else. They also have an energetic manager-coach, Wren Blair, who is always looking for trades to strengthen his club. Unfortunately, Blair gave up a chance to get Claude Larose in the draft in order to deal with Montreal for more quantity, and thus hurt his offense. He has also traded the skilled Jean-Guy Talbot away for Bob McCord, a mediocre defenseman with a bad back. Most puzzling of all, he selected Cesare Maniago first in the draft, leaving himself with the weakest goaltending in the league.
There are six ex- Montreal players on the North Stars, including good ones like Dave Balon, Andre Boudrias and Mike McMahon. The team is fast and makes plays like a well-drilled unit, but Blair may have to make more trades.
The St. Louis Blues have the best goalie in all hockey, Glenn Hall. But Hall, 36, only played 32 games last year for Chicago. The Blues will be in trouble if he is injured or becomes exhausted, and since he is being asked to carry the club, Glenn could get pretty tired. His backup man is Seth Martin, the world's oldest rookie at 34.
Veterans Ron Stewart, Jim Roberts and Don McKenney are competent forwards, and newcomers Ron Schock and Larry Keenan arc promising. But the St. Louis forwards have shown a tendency to get in one another's way. Venerable minor leaguer Al Arbour heads a modest defense that features brawling Bob Plager. Bob punches like Sonny Liston but sometimes skates like him, too. A great year from Hall could make the team a contender; anything else will be disastrous. Lynn Patrick, the manager-coach, presided over a long run of solid losers in Boston. He may be starting a new one in St. Louis.
The older teams begin the season with much the same personnel that finished out the last season. The difference is in the depth. The teams with the best remaining reserves—and the fewest injuries—will be the most improved. Montreal should win. Toe Blake has largely the same club that finished second and went to the Stanley Cup finals last spring, and it would be hard to imagine the Canadiens suffering a series of injuries comparable to last season's.
Yvan Cournoyer, used mostly in attacking situations last season, now takes a full shift and is an early scoring sensation with nearly a goal-a-game average—and looks ready to become a superstar. Talented but moody Defenseman Jacques Laperriere is hitting harder. Jean Beliveau, plagued by injuries last year, will not be held to 12 goals this time around. And as usual, the team is sound down through the third line. "It's a funny thing," said Blake. "For years everybody has been saying that there aren't enough players to go around for 12 teams. Yet here we are—and we had better players in training camp than we ever had before."
Emile Francis of New York is in a similar position. Not only did he keep almost everyone out of the expansion draft—he actually gained by it, acquiring Larry Jeffrey in a post-draft deal with Pittsburgh. The Rangers also profit by the return of a healthy Jean Ratelle, the center who teams so well with high-scoring Wing Rod Gilbert. And with Ratelle back at his best, big Orland Kurtenbach moves down to give power and stability to the third line. The strong farm system that Francis has built virtually from scratch in the last three years also helps give the Rangers depth they have never enjoyed—and a chance for second place.
The Black Hawks have already spotted the leaders a lot of points. If all their stars return at once they can wipe out that margin in one dramatic winning streak. But any injury to Hull, Mikita, Kenny Wharram or Pierre Pilote would put them in trouble again. The Hawks leaned heavily on their nucleus of superstars for years—and never finished first. Last season they had balance and won easily; now they are back on the star system and may settle for third place.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, as usual, appear to have problems. With Sawchuk gone to Los Angeles they must depend on Johnny Bower, who will not play a full schedule at his age (which has been estimated as high as 48), and Bruce Gamble, who is inconsistent. The regular defense consists of three old men and a rookie named Duane Rupp. The forwards are young and talented, but once again the Leafs are rated the team most likely to drop out of the playoffs.
And once again Imlach will somehow get them there—probably by finishing fourth. Then Bower will suddenly be 21 again, and the old defensemen will come to life and the kids will show that they have finally come into their own. Old Punch will throw in his usual dash of profanity and psychology and come very close to stealing one more Stanley Cup.