Now Blair has a new act: that is, probably the best hockey team in the Western Division. The North Stars finished fourth last year, beat Los Angeles in the first round of the playoffs and then lost a seven-game series to the St. Louis Blues. After that defeat, Blair moved directly to the negotiating table. He signed several Canadian Olympic players, including Danny O'Shea, who has a chance to play regularly this year. He traded future draft rights to Montreal for Forwards Claude Larose and Danny Grant, competent players who simply could not break into the Canadiens' regular lineup. Then, in the draft, he purchased veteran Defensemen Wayne and Larry Hill-man. Added to the nucleus Blair developed last year, these players will help make the North Stars the most improved team in the NHL.
That established nucleus consists of five players—Forwards Wayne Connelly, Ray Cullen and Andre Boudrias, Defenseman Mike McMahon and Goaltender Cesare Maniago. Connelly led the West with 35 goals. Cullen scored 28, while Boudrias, a pesty little do-it-all, centered a regular line, killed penalties and worked the power play. "They all may have had great years last season," Blair says, "but now we've got to watch out for the sophomore jinx."
Maybe so. The rest of the West, and for that matter the rest of the NHL, will have to watch out for the North Stars.
Around the league last year the Penguins jokingly were called the Donut Team because they had nocenters—none of NHL caliber, anyway—and when they finished in fifth place it really did not surprise many people. Coach Red Sullivan tried to fill the hole during the off season, and he did acquire three veterans, Charlie Burns and Wally Boyer, who played for last-place Oakland a year ago, and Lou Angotti, who captained the Philadelphia Flyers last season. Another veteran, Earl Ingarfield, returns to the Penguins.
Whether or not the weakness at center has been cured, the Penguins have a number of other problems that probably will keep them out of the playoffs again. One problem is age. Another is muscle. The Penguins were the least penalized team in the NHL last season, rarely hitting hard enough to impress anyone. The one forward who did throw his weight around, Ab McDonald, was traded to St. Louis. Leo Boivin, a defenseman who is built like a fire hydrant, still is one of the best body checkers, but last season he was the only Pittsburgh defenseman who would knock down an opponent in front of Goalie Binkley. In anti-meekness moves, the Penguins bought a tough defenseman, John Arbour, 23, and a wing with a wallop, Jean Pronovost, 22, from the Bruins.
The one position at which the Penguins are well set is in goal, where Binkley, who once was a minor league trainer, posted six shutouts and a fine 2.88 goals-against average in 54 games last year. "He shut us out 1-0 one night when we took 56 shots at him. It was the best goaltending job I've ever seen," said the Bruins' Bobby Orr. It's dollars to donuts, however, that the playoffs are out of reach.
During the NHL June meetings in Montreal the new owners of the Seals invited all the players and their new coach. Freddy Glover, down to Ruby Foo's Chinese restaurant on Decarie Boulevard, where a concerted effort was made to erase the memory of the year's miseries in food and drink.
No roof had been big enough to cover the Seals and their first coach, Bert Olmstead, once a redoubtable forward but at Oakland a poor handler of men. Glover, for the past six years player-coach for Cleveland in the AHL, has the reputation of being a player's coach.