"Taking over the Canadiens," says 30-year-old Claude Ruel, Montreal's new coach and the youngest in the NHL, "is not like going to a fifth-place team, where you can finish fourth or third or second. With the Canadiens, there is only one place to move and that is down."
M. Ruel omits mention of standing fast at the summit, which is the more likely outcome. From former Coach Toe Blake he inherits a team that won nine regular-season championships and eight Stanley Cups in 13 years—a set team with no discernible weakness. The goaltending is superb, the defense in front of it is big, quick and tough, and the offense—well, nobody attacks like those Frenchmen.
Jean Beliveau, beginning his 18th season, leads the way once more. Last year Beliveau finished with 31 goals and 37 assists, although he played in only 59 games. The Canadiens rewarded him with a salary they are certain ranks among the two or three highest in hockey. Behind Beliveau are three more outstanding centers—Ralph Backstrom, Jacques Lemaire (who some believe should have been Rookie of the Year for 1967-68) and Henri Richard, who had an extraordinary training camp. Wings Bobby Rousseau, Yvan Cournoyer and Gilles Tremblay all scored more than 50 points last season.
"People ask me, 'Claude, how you going to do?' " says Ruel. "I say, these players will answer for me. The other night against Houston they put 30 shots on their net in the first period and only let Houston across its own blue line twice. What can I say after that?"
Unfinished work on the Forum will keep the Canadiens on the road until November 2. When they open at home they will get a big reception—if they win. The Forum fans can't abide a loser.
NEW YORK RANGERS
In one of hockey's more remarkable coaching performances, Emile Francis required only two years to lift the Rangers from a succession of fifth-and sixth-place finishes to two straight berths in the Stanley Cup playoffs. For the most part he did it with the same players who had been finishing fifth—with one notable exception, of course. The spirit and determination of Bernie Geoffrion. Francis insisted, gave an invaluable lift to the new Rangers. So when Francis decided after last season to devote all his time to his job as general manager, it came as no surprise that he chose Geoffrion as his successor.
The dark, square-jawed ex-Canadien opens with the finest Ranger team in 25 years. Last year Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle combined for a 1-2 scoring punch second only to that of Chicago's Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull. Ratelle blossomed in particular, with 32 goals and 46 assists, to finish fourth in NHL scoring. Gilbert's 29 goals and 48 assists added up to the best year of his life. Behind those two, the Rangers also got big seasons from Phil Goyette, Bob Nevin and Donnie Marshall.
Defensively, Ed Giacomin had an excellent 2.44 goals-against average for 66 games and led the league with eight shutouts. This year promises more bad news for opposing forwards, since Giacomin and the same group of defensemen return: Jim Neilson, Arnie Brown, Harry Howell and Rod Seiling. They may be joined by a hot rookie, Brad Park.