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But it is unlikely that either can duplicate last year's extraordinary performances. It behooves the Bruins to tighten their defenses. If they do not, they conceivably could drop as low as fourth. (It was only two years ago that the Canadiens plunged from first to fifth.) Both New York and Toronto emphasize defense over offense, and both have fine goaltending.
The truth about NEW YORK should emerge quickly, for the Rangers face a testing early schedule. They play Montreal twice, Boston twice, Toronto and Chicago in the first six games, and if they win four or more New York's scalpers probably will be selling Stanley Cup tickets in October.
This is a critical season for the building program of Emile Francis, the coach and general manager of the Rangers. Last year New York had its best record ever, but still finished behind Boston. Since then Francis has traded away his captain, Bob Nevin, who had invited his coach's wrath by missing a practice skate before a cup game, for the veteran right wing and power-play specialist Bobby Rousseau. And he has called up Pierre Jarry, a young wing who led the Central Hockey League in scoring.
The Rangers seem solid throughout. Eddie Giacomin, who turned in a good cup performance for a change, and Gilles Villemure are fresh from winning the Vezina Trophy. Rod Seiling has emerged as the team's No. 1 defenseman, and if Brad Park recovers from a poor season, the New York defense could rival Montreal's. Up front all the Rangers' scorers are of about the same caliber—good but not great. If one, say new captain Vic Hadfield, could crash through with 40 goals, he just might take his team to the top.
For almost two months last year TORONTO was hockey's worst team, worse even than the expansion clubs. "I blamed only myself," said Coach John McLellan, who admits that he did not expect to survive Christmas. "The players were using my system, and it just wasn't working. When the system doesn't work, you get rid of the coach—not the players." Jim Gregory, the Leafs' shrewd general manager, did neither. Instead, he acquired two players—crusty old Defenseman Bob Baun, whom the Leafs had lost in the 1967 expansion draft, and a sharp young goaltender, Bernie Parent.
Baun steadied Toronto's kiddie-korps defensemen, while Parent, who had patterned his style after Jacques Plante, combined with Plante to provide consistently strong work in goal. The result was impressive: the Leafs stopped falling.
Four Leafs—Dave Keon, Ron Ellis, Paul Henderson and Norm Ullman—scored more than half the team's goals. If they are hot again, if Baun's legs hold up and if Parent and Plante stay sharp, even Punch Imlach might wish he was back in Toronto.
With strong teams to fight for the playoff positions, what can the rest do? Well, Detroit, Vancouver and Buffalo might have a rousing battle for fifth, or if all prefer a shot at the No. 1 draft choice, for seventh. There is no real advantage to finishing sixth; one of the also-rans has beaten you; the other gets a better draft number.
General Manager Ned Harkness cleared house in DETROIT faster than you can say Gordie Howe, who has become one of the Wings' vice-presidents. There are only three players left from the roster Harkness inherited a year ago, one good one being Alex Delvecchio, who will be playing his 21st—and final—season.
The Wings have three new goalies, a so-called French line centered by little Marcel Dionne, whom they drafted after Montreal selected Lafleur, a Blue line composed of Red Berenson, Ab McDonald and Tim Ecclestone, all former St. Louis Blues, and hopefully some of the rah-rah spirit that stamped Harkness when he was coach at Cornell.