Remember the battle between Buffalo and Detroit for the fourth playoff spot last year? It was not until the last day of the season that the Sabres finally won. Now they will battle again, only this time it will be for fifth place, because. Toronto's Maple Leafs are the NHL's most improved team and should finish ahead of both Buffalo and Detroit. Spicing his remarks with several "what the hangs" and a few "gosh darns," their new coach, Red Kelly, says, "I think we really have a contender here."
The Leafs have spent heavily, signing nine new players (including two imports from Sweden) and renegotiating several existing contracts in an attempt to change their losing ways. For starters they returned last year's goalies to the minors and acquired three NHL regulars: Doug Favell of Philadelphia ($150,000 a year), Eddie Johnston of Boston ($100,000) and Dune Wilson of Vancouver (only $70,000). Then, to bolster what had been a weak defense, they went to Sweden and returned with Borge Salming, who was considered the best defender in Europe, and also picked off Bob Neely and Ian Turnbull in the amateur draft. Neely spent 304 minutes in the penalty box last year as a junior, while Turnbull, no shrinking violet himself, also displayed some offense: 25 goals and 39 assists.
Toronto was already well supplied up front, where Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler (reportedly receiving $800,000 under a new five-year contract), Norm Ullman, Rick Kehoe, Ron Ellis and Paul Henderson lire away, but two newcomers have cracked the regular lineup. They are Lanny McDonald, who scored 77 goals last year in Medicine Hat, and a swift Swede named Inge Hammarstrom.
While Toronto has improved immensely, neither Buffalo nor Detroit seems as strong. Sabre Coach Joe Crozier insists. "I'm going to be all right," but Goaltender Roger Crozier (no kin) is overweight and at 43 Defenseman Tim Horton is no kid. Still, he will again be valuable in steadying the young defensemen. His star pupils are Jim Schoenfeld and Larry Carriere.
Shifty Gilbert Perreault (28 goals, 60 assists) and his French Connection line-mates, Rick Martin (37 goals) and Rene Robert (40), represent Buffalo's offense. They will be checked more closely this season.
After signing on as Detroit's new coach, rotund Ted Garvin attended a symposium on conditioning and learned that athletes lose potassium—not salt—during games and workouts. And what is the best way to put potassium back into one's system? "Eat bananas," Garvin says. In time the Red Wings may drive Garvin bananas. Marcel Dionne, Mickey Redmond and 41-year-old Alex Delvecchio carry the offense as well as they can.
Beating Vancouver used to be simple: all you had to do was knock down their little forwards and then skate around their weak defensemen. Try that now and watch out for the elbows and fists. Bob Dailey, a 6'5", 220-pound rookie, and rugged Jerry Korab and Dave Dunn have moved into the Vancouver defense, and now no one takes liberties with Forward Andre Boudrias and friends. Gary Smith, traded from Chicago, plugs up the leaky goal.
For finishing worst the Islanders won the No. 1 draft pick and wisely chose Denis Potvin, best defenseman out of junior hockey since Orr. Potvin became an instant hero by scoring two goals against the Rangers in an exhibition game. The Islanders' other hero is Right Wing Billy Harris, who somehow got 28 goals as a rookie despite playing with half a dozen different centers. He should have been Rookie of the Year. Potvin probably will be.