The NHL's four divisional races are strangely meaningless in a league in which 12 of the 18 teams qualify—720 games and six months later—for that annual springtime madness known as the Stanley Cup playoffs. So this prognosis ignores the races in the Adams, Smythe, Norris and Patrick divisions and, instead, separates the teams into more meaningful categories based on their prospects of winning the cup. It also highlights the rookies who could make the difference. Before you ask: Philadelphia, Montreal, Buffalo and Vancouver all will repeat as divisional champions—and Washington's hapless Capitals again will finish with hockey's worst regular-season record.
SUPER TEAM: Freddie (The Fog) Shero, Philadelphia's man from Moscow, added Wrinkle No. 2485 to his mind-boggling coaching methodology by organizing hockey's first official Xs-and-Os playbook for the Stanley Cup champion Flyers. Why, Fog? There is nothing very secret or intricate about what the Flyers do on the ice: they simply play hockey better than any team this side of Russia's Wings of the Soviet. "The playbook makes it easier for the players to visualize situations as I discuss them," Shero says. "Under my system each player must be in a certain place at a certain time—and it's all right there in the book. Oh, yes. If anybody wants one of these books, just write me at the Spectrum in Philadelphia."
If they were smart, the 17 other clubs in the NHL would send self-addressed stamped envelopes to Shero this instant. However, Shero will not airmail Bernie Parent, the best goal-tender in the game, or Bobby Clarke, the most tenacious leader and the most persistent player in the sport, or any of the other Flyers who have brought two straight Stanley Cups to the city of brotherly mug. Parent had a bad back and started the regular season in traction, which is where the rest of the league would like to keep him for about eight months. Competent Wayne Stephenson mans the goal until Parent returns. For protection, both Parent and Stephenson rely on The Underrateds—five guys named Jim, Joe, Tom, Ed and Moose who 1) block more shots each game than most goalies and 2) never let rival forwards hang around the goal crease for more than a fraction of a second. Their last names are Watson, Watson (brothers), Bladon, Van Impe and Dupont. Crusty old Van Impe answers to the name Zorro, as in: "Out of the night, when the full moon is bright, comes the defenseman known as Zorro/This bold renegade carves a Z with his blade...." In other words, don't mess with Mr. Van Impe.
Clarke is Clarke—or Pete Rose plus. "We're still desperate to win," he said. "We're a better club now than we were last season. We used to get publicity for gooning around, but it won't be that way anymore. Believe me, we are one solid team." Besides Clarke (27 goals and 89 assists last season), Philadelphia boasts Reggie Leach (45 goals), Rick MacLeish (38), diving specialist Bill Barber (34) and two-way Wings Ross Lonsberry (24) and Gary Dornhoefer (17). "We've also got a slew of guys like Don Saleski, Dave Schultz, Bob Kelly and Orest Kindrachuk who didn't even get 12 goals last year but were big guys on our club," Clarke said. "The way we play, there's more to hockey than scoring goals."
For added effect Philadelphia has acquired last season's top junior player, Center Mel Bridgman, who checks like Clarke and makes Philadelphia-style Kamikaze charges into the corners. "The management would like me to send Bridgman to the minors for some experience," Shero says. "No way. No one ever sent kids like that to me when I was coaching in the minors." If necessary, the Flyers can always revert to the terror tactics that have made them infamous for the past few years. They led the world with 1,969 penalty minutes a year ago—that's almost 12 hours more than any other NHL club. Philadelphia also has three coaches—Shero and assistants Mike Nykoluk (offense) and Barry Ash-bee (defense)—prompting Clarke to ask: "Why is it that the best team in the world has three coaches and most of the others in the NHL have only one?" Maybe Shero will send the answer with his playbook.
CONTENDERS: With apologies to such legends as Richard and Beliveau, the real home of the Flying Frenchmen now happens to be Buffalo, N.Y., U.S.A. Or maybe Serge Savard, Yvan Cournoyer and all those guys named Guy up in Montreal have not yet caught the names on Buffalo's new power play: Gilbert Perreault, Jacques Richard and Ren� Robert up front, Richard Martin and Jocelyn Guevremont at the point. Buffalo embarrassed Montreal all last season, taking nine of a possible 10 points during the regular schedule and then blasting Les Canadiens from the Stanley Cup playoffs in six games. All the Buffalo- Montreal matches were what Canadien Goaltender Ken Dry-den properly called "basketball games," featuring scores like 8-7 and 8-6 and a complete absence of defense. Strangely, while Montreal generally plays Philadelphia closely, the Flyers always blitz the Sabres. Why? "No one on my team comes from Philadelphia," explains Buffalo General Manager Punch Imlach. "We have a lot of guys from Montreal and Quebec, and when we play the Canadiens they want to show the home folks how well they can play."
In truth, Philadelphia handles Buffalo easily because Bobby Clarke does what the Montreal centers never have been able to do: he neutralizes the explosive Buffalo attack by not letting Perreault off the end of his stick. By studying game films, Clarke discovered that Perreault has not yet learned how to work give-and-go pass plays from his own end to the opposition blue line. Perreault either carries the puck up ice himself, taking lots of flashy detours, or the puck simply remains in the Buffalo zone. What Clarke does, then, is harass Perreault constantly, banging him with his stick and body, all the while forcing Perreault to the boards and out of the play. "My guys know they should do this, too," says Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman, "but they never do it." However, Imlach disputes this entire How-to-Stop-Perreault theory. "We don't play Philadelphia often enough for our players to figure out how to beat the Flyers," he says. "If we did, we'd learn how to overcome Philadelphia's hooking, checking and taking out the man. The other clubs in the league just don't play like that."
Having seen the Cup finals, they may start to. Until then, Buffalo is content to go with only one minor alteration in its regular lineup, prompted by the acquisition of Left Wing Jacques Richard from Atlanta. In an attempt to spread out the Sabres' scoring power and get some checking, Buffalo Coach Floyd Smith severed the French Connection—Perreault (39 goals last year), Martin (52) and Robert (40)—in training camp, but he will reunite them for at least the first few weeks of the regular schedule. However, if the Connection continues to ignore defense, Smith is ready to break up the line again. Martin had bone-fusion surgery on his right thumb during the summer, and it is now slightly shorter than his left. Will he now score only 40 goals a year? "No," Martin says, "I'm shooting much more accurately than I used to." Buffalo's most complete but unsung line features penalty-killers deluxe Don Luce and Craig Ramsay along with Right Wing Danny Gare; they managed to score 90 goals last year while playing against the oppositions' highest-scoring lines. The temperamental Richard adds still more scoring power, but the Sabres will miss the muscle and 31 goals of WHA defector Rick Dudley.
On defense, Captain Jim Schoenfeld works with tough Jerry (King-Kong) Korab, while Guevremont teams with lanky Bill Hajt—the most unspectacular Sabre defenseman but perhaps the most effective. However Buffalo must replace the traded Larry Carriere. The normally talkative Schoenfeld has adopted a new close-mouthed posture. "I think I talked too much about the team last year," he says. "I used to wonder if I said the right thing, and maybe it affected my play." The Buffalo goaltending situation remains questionable. Gerry Desjardins, Roger Crozier and Gary Bromley are back, and rookie Robert Sauve has been impressive, but the Sabres still lack the Parent or Dryden who could take them to the Cup.
Up in Montreal, Bowman seems perplexed about the prospects for his Canadiens, who tied Buffalo and Philadelphia with 113 regular-season points to top the NHL last year. "I'd really like to have two different clubs," he says. "A big, tough fighting team to play Philadelphia, and a fast, checking defensive squad to play Buffalo." With this in mind, Bowman intends to keep only one forward unit intact all year—Center Doug Risebrough and Wings Mario Tremblay and Yvon Lambert—and rotate his other skaters as the situation demands. For instance, Guy La-fleur, who finally arrived last season with 53 goals, will play right wing for Center Peter Mahovlich (35 goals and 82 assists) against some rivals but move to center against others. In training camp the elusive Lafleur seemed to be working overtime on the old "dive" trick whenever an opponent came within checking range. "Lafleur may even beat out Philadelphia's Bill Barber for a place on the Canadian Olympic diving team," says one Boston player. Yvon Cournoyer slumped miserably a year ago, scoring only 29 goals and rarely breaking away, but he seems to have regained his legs. "He's a goal scorer," Bowman says, "not a fancy playmaker." For added scoring, the Canadiens, who led the NHL with 374 goals in 1974-75, have Steve Shutt (30 goals), Yvon Lambert (32), Murray Wilson (24), Jacques Lemaire (36) and Tremblay (21). "Offensively, we have the best personnel in the game," says Bowman.