Pittsburgh has no stars, as usual, but again is blessed with a superior coach. Indeed, the unflappable Red Kelly seems to accomplish more with his very ordinary players than most coaches who have a topliner or two. Kelly-coached teams have missed the playoffs only once in five years, but this season Red will find it difficult to repeat. Goaltender Jim Rutherford, who had a strong playoff series against the Black Hawks, needs a backup man, and the defense will miss Tim Horton's leadership, although second-year regular Dave Burrows could develop into an All-Star. The Penguin offense is Syl Apps (15 goals, 44 assists) centering for Jean Pronovost and Greg Polis, both of whom scored 30 goals last year. What Pittsburgh needs is, well, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.
In the real West, Los Angeles may have the most improved team in the NHL, but the Californians probably will get lost on a BART car somewhere between San Francisco and Oakland. Jack Kent Cooke and Charlie Finley both changed coaches again, Cooke for the sixth time in six L.A. years, Finley for the third time in three seasons up north. Bob Pulford, Cooke's latest coach, intends to introduce the Kings to defensive hockey—not a bad idea for a team that gave up 305 goals, the most in the league. Two former Canadiens, Goaltender Rogatien Vachon and Defenseman Terry Harper, will help considerably. Flashy Juha Widing (27 goals) and the aging but accomplished Ralph Backstrom (23) will provide some offensive punch.
Finley could not find anyone patient or sensible enough to tackle California's problems, so he gave the coaching job to his general manager, Garry Young. "The WHA has ripped the guts from our club," Young says. "We've lost six players, and we didn't have six players to lose." Or even one. Among the missing: top scorers Gerry Pinder, Bobby Sheehan and Tom Webster and backup Goaltender Gary Kurt.
"Things were so bad in training camp," Young says, "that one day a player skated into me, knocked me down, cracked one of my ribs and shattered my watch." Although it is unlikely that the Seals will wreak similar destruction on any enemy, they do have three solid players left in Goalie Gilles Meloche, Defenseman Rick Smith and Center Ivan Boldirev, and a rookie center, Stan Weir of Medicine Hat, Alberta, is expected to play regularly.
There probably will be too many mornings in Atlanta this year when the headlines read BRUINS DOUSE FLAMES or FLAMES FLAME OUT, but the division's newest expansion team might just do a little scorching here and there. Indeed, it could make the playoffs. In 23-year-old Phil Myre and 21-year-old Danny Bouchard Atlanta has a good young goaltending tandem. In General Manager Cliff Fletcher it has an ally of Montreal's Sammy Pollock, and Pollock always takes care of his friends when he disposes of the Canadiens' excess talent. Right, Minnesota? Finally, the Flames have Boom-Boom Geoffrion as their coach. Geoffrion, who claims he no longer suffers from the ulcer attacks that aborted his coaching career in New York, will extract top performance from his younger players, particularly the No. 1 amateur choice, Wing Jacques Richard, and two other French Canadians, Norm Gratton and Lucien Grenier. And Geoffrion's charm will be an asset when the losses begin to pile up. He already has the people on Peachtree Street talking French, and they have taught him their language. Geoffrion says to Northern friends, "Y'all come down and see me, heah?" Yes, my old one, any day now.