Nevertheless, in the next five years the true difference between East and West should diminish, just as the American Football League has begun to approach the level of the NFL. "I look at our players now and I see them skating better all the time," says St. Louis Coach Scotty Bowman. "They've gotten better just by being exposed to the old clubs. What we have to do now is take care of our established talent, because there's not much of it around in our league. A veteran like Doug Harvey can help you so many ways—on the ice or off of it. When he says something those young kids listen."
Yet in their haste to land the established player—or the good minor league prospect—several new clubs, most notably Minnesota have begun trading away their choices in the universal draft. Launched last year, the draft closely parallels the pro draft of college football players in the U.S.—and since the Canadiens have more good young players than anybody else, they are collecting an alarming number of choices from the new teams in exchange for players from their powerful farm system. Already Montreal has acquired 10 draft picks from the new teams, including Minnesota's first choices from 1969 through 1973 and Oakland's in 1972. Green Bay has its NFL opponents in a similar fix. "Maybe they'll have to make a rule against the new teams trading their draft choices," says Bowman. "If things continue as they are, Montreal will wind up with all the players."
There are those who say the Canadiens already have all the players they need to dominate the NHL for years to come. Claude Ruel, one of the season's four new coaches (along with Bernie Geoffrion in New York, Bill Gadsby in Detroit and Fred Glover in Oakland), admits the Canadiens have "no weakness."
However, a major renovation of the Montreal Forum, begun moments after the playoffs ended on May 11 but not due for completion until November 2, could keep the Canadiens from breaking open the race in the first month. Montreal must play eight of its first nine games on the road.
"Taking over a first-place club, that is a challenge," said Ruel, the Canadiens' former chief scout. "But playing so many games on the road at the start, that is the biggest challenge of all. Some coaches, you tell them they can have the job but they must play eight of the first nine games on the road, and those coaches, they will say you can keep your job."
They do not say that in Montreal, which has been voted the East championship and the Stanley Cup in every opinion poll from Chicoutimi to Cucamonga. New York and Boston should make a bitter fight for second place, and a highly interesting contest is likely over the remaining playoff spot. That struggle may not be settled until the final week, when all the probable contenders—Toronto, Chicago and Detroit—play a flurry of games with one another.
No team in the West can be counted entirely out of the race for that division's playoffs, but only three look like sure pennant contenders. Defending champion Philadelphia once again will give up few goals, but since the Flyers score so few themselves they may have difficulty holding off Minnesota and St. Louis. The North Stars are the most improved club in the league. They have added strength at center and on defense, and Wayne Connelly, one of the new division's potential superstars ( St. Louis' Red Berenson is another), is a 35-goal man. The Blues have increased their scoring strength with the addition of Camille Henry and Ab McDonald. Los Angeles and Oakland split 10 games last year. Their intrastate rivalry could grow even more heated should the two wind up fighting for the last playoff spot.
"We are convinced we'll win," says Oakland General Manager Frank Selke Jr., an optimist in a league teeming with them, "but we're willing to dig in." For detailed scouting reports on his and all the other NHL teams, turn the page.