Who's afraid of Bob Woolf? Consult the mighty conglomerate of Bobby Orr-Phil Esposito, Ltd., also known as the Boston Bruins. Woolf is the Boston lawyer-agent who negotiated those astronomical WHA contracts for Goaltender Gerry Cheevers and Center Derek Sanderson, the free spirits whose locker-room antics kept the Stanley Cup champions loose. The Bruins also lost Johnny McKenzie and Teddy Green to the WHA. And they lost Eddie Westfall, who with Sanderson formed the best penalty-killing unit this side of Valeri Kharlamov and Vladimir Petrov, to the New York Islanders in the expansion draft. "They all hurt," winces Defenseman Don Awrey.
The defection of Cheevers, who had a 32-game unbeaten streak last year, hurts the most. Not dreaming that a horseplayer of Cheevers' seriousness would ever leave a city offering the convenience of four racetracks within an hour's drive, the Bruins permitted Atlanta to draft Danny Bouchard from their roster. Bouchard was the best young goalie outside the NHL last year, excluding, of course, Vladislav Tretiak. Now, barring an unlikely trade, Boston has only 36-year-old Eddie Johnston as a known quantity in the nets.
The condition of Orr's tender knees is another negative factor. Let's be frank—it has Bruin fans sick with fear. Orr had his fourth knee operation last June and his recovery has been unexpectedly slow. So slow, in fact, that he may not be able to play in the Orr fashion until Christmas. Although Dallas Smith, Carol Vadnais and Awrey are competent defensemen and Vadnais is a rushing threat, there is but one Orr.
When Phil Esposito slipped from 76 to 66 goals, people were muttering slump. You and I should have such a slump. He will have his regular musclemen, Ken Hodge and Wayne Cashman, back and digging in the corners. Elbows high, of course. "Unless Orr and Esposito change their styles," says Coach Tom Johnson, "we should be the same type of team as before." The same type, yes. But hardly the same team. Still, there should be just enough Bruin left to beat New York.
One Boston player says, "The Rangers will be so busy reading The Wall Street Journal they won't have time to practice." Ain't necessarily so. Manager- Coach Emile Francis returns with practically the same lineup that finished second and then lost a gallant cup final to Boston, and when Emile barks, the Rangers jump. No other team can match the combination of Ed Giacomin and Gilles Villemure in goal. Bumptious Brad Park and Rod Seiling anchor a stout defense. The line of Vic Hadfield, Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle—they were the top line in the NHL with 50, 43 and 46 goals respectively—has spurned the sweet rustle of WHA dollars for the greenbacks flashed by Francis. Each has signed a long-term $175,000-a-year contract.
Francis still must find a respectable left wing for Center Walt Tkaczuk, who signed for $125,000, and Right Wing Bill Fairbairn. Pete Stemkowski and Gene Carr, the apparent candidates, are natural centers who lack the discipline to restrict their activity to one side of the ice. But even if he doesn't find a left wing, the Rangers will never have a better chance to win the Stanley Cup that has eluded New York since 1940.
While Francis was learning the new economics of hockey, Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman was figuring how to beguile the Canadiens into a new muscularity. "My guys never got into shape last year," he said, "so instead of training in Montreal again, we decided to take them away." And away the Canadiens went to Nova Scotia for a week of Russian-style conditioning.
One week may not a Russian make. The Canadiens are essentially a mystery team. Gone are the superstars; no fewer than five rookies are expected to play regularly. Ever hear of Steve Shutt and Chuck Arnason? Well, they are Montreal wings. Dave Gardner and Larry Robinson? Starters both. Gardner and veteran Henri Richard are the only true centers on Bowman's roster. Last year Yvan Cournoyer somehow managed to score 47 goals with impostors centering for him, and center is still the problem. "Gardner will get the first shot," Bowman says. Defenseman Robinson, who is 6'1", 190 pounds and can play both sides, will try to replace All-Star J. C. Tremblay, who went to the WHA.
Bowman intends to reduce Goaltender Ken Dryden's work from last year's league-high of 64 games to about 50. "I thought Dryden was very tired at the end of the schedule and in the playoffs," the coach says. On defense, Serge Savard—hockey's unluckiest player—seems completely recovered from all his broken legs and cracked ankles. If so, he could become the leader the Canadiens lost when Jean Beliveau retired. Cournoyer and the Mahovlich brothers, Frank (43 goals) and Peter (35), are certain of jobs, but everything else, says Bowman, is a "mixed puzzle."
The liveliest battle in the East may be the struggle for fourth place—and the final playoff berth—between Detroit and Toronto. They share a dilemma: their No. 1 goaltenders last year ( Detroit's Al Smith and Toronto's Bernie Parent) have been bought off by the WHA. Detroit should be able to replace Smith adequately with Andy Brown or Gerry Gray, but Toronto will not be able to find another Parent. "I know that at my age I cannot play more than, oh, 30 games," says 43-year-old Jacques Plante, who was Parent's backup goalie in Toronto.