How Buffalo fares may well depend on the health of two players, Goaltender Gerry Desjardins and Right Wing Danny Gare. Desjardins was hit in the right eye by a puck last February, sat out the rest of the season and now will try to play with a thick contact lens. The 5'7", 175-pound Gare is the Sabres' real team leader. He scored 50 goals two years ago but missed 45 games last season because of a back injury. If he's healthy, Gare will lead his teammates into all the corners of the rink that they carefully avoided during his absence.
Toronto appears to be the best of the Vast and Silent Majority, although no one has ever accused Maple Leafs Owner Harold Ballard of being very silent. The 13 VSM teams couldn't care less about Montreal's Elite flight; they're only concerned with the NHL's new wild-card alignment for the playoffs. In the past the top three finishers in each of the four divisions qualified for the playoffs. Now only the top two finishers qualify, with the final four playoff positions going to the teams with the best records. Some people call this program the Ranger Plan, in honor of the New York Rangers, who finished fourth in the Patrick Division and missed the playoffs last season, even though they had more points than the second place team in the Sweathog—er, Smythe—Division.
Former schoolteacher Roger Neilson replaces Red Kelly as Toronto's coach. He inherits a team with three All-Stars—Center Darryl Sittler (38 goals), Right Wing Lanny McDonald (46) and Defenseman Borje Salming (66 assists)—and also gets Right Wing Ron Ellis, a former All-Star, who is coming off his two-year retirement. If Mike Palmateer can provide 60 games of steady goaltending, the Leafs could replace Buffalo in the Ronnie Runner-up league.
Chicago also has a new coach, former Los Angeles boss Bob Pulford, but unlike Neilson, Pulford inherits a roster of has-beens and never-wases, all of whom, Pulford discovered, have high-salary, no-cut contracts. Pulford has obtained Wings Battleship Kelly from Pittsburgh and Pierre Plante from St. Louis, and along with Grant Mulvey and Jim Harrison they will do at least some of the boardwork and checking that Pulford demands. Top draft choice Doug Wilson can only bolster a defense that gave Goaltender Tony Esposito fits, not to mention a sunburn from the red light flashing behind him all last season.
Minnesota seems to be engaged upon a solid rebuilding program, one that Chicago ought to emulate. Two years ago the North Stars produced Tim Young, and last season they added Glen Sharpley and Swede Roland Eriksson. Now people aren't calling them the No Stars anymore. Young (95 points), Eriksson (69) and Sharpley (57) led the North Stars into the playoffs a year ago, and if No. 1 draft pick Brad Maxwell can steady a shaky defense, they could finish in first place in the Smythe. VANCOUVER may forever rue the day last season when it traded Defenseman Bob Dailey to Philadelphia. The Canucks are loaded with good young forwards, particularly Dennis Ververgaert, Don Lever, Rick Blight and top draft choice Jere Gillis, but new General Manager Jake Milford will have to trade at least one of them in order to correct glaring weaknesses on defense and in goal.
Ralston Purina has bought the hometown ST. LOUIS Blues and renamed the St. Louis Arena The Checkerdome. Unfortunately, the Blues won't do much checking in the Checkerdome—or anywhere else for that matter, certainly not enough to satisfy new Coach Leo Boivin, one of hockey's best checkers during his 18-year playing career.
As always, ATLANTA is waiting for Tom Lysiak (31 goals, 51 assists last season) to provide needed leadership, and now that he has been appointed captain, Lysiak may finally decide to accept such responsibility. Rookie of the Year Willie Plett (33 goals) had a severe case of bigheadedness during the training schedule, so he may be Lysiak's first patient.
Too many ancient and plump players from the old era remain on the roster of the NEW YORK Rangers, and they still have severe goaltending and defense shortcomings. New Coach Jean-Guy Talbot only hopes that rookies Ron Duguay and Lucien DeBlois can approach the success that Don Murdoch enjoyed as a rookie last season—at least on the ice. Murdoch scored 32 goals in 59 games, but two months ago he was charged with possession of cocaine by Canadian customs authorities and faces a postseason trial.
Once again Marcel Dionne (53 goals and 122 points) and Goaltender Rogatien Vachon (2.72 goals-against average) are the aces of the LOS ANGELES Kings. Gary Sargent developed into an outstanding defenseman a year ago, but the Kings now will pay the price for trading away most of their high draft picks the past few years. Johnny Wilson takes his coach's whistle from Colorado to PITTSBURGH, and his main job will be to keep flashy Center Pierre Larouche in good humor. Between suspensions Larouche slipped from 111 points to 63 last year. WASHINGTON Coach Tommy McVie has had little talent to work with in the past, so he may not know how to handle Robert Picard, the third player selected in the entire amateur draft and already the Capitals' best defenseman. Whatever, McVie's team once again will be the best conditioned and the most gung-ho club in the league.
With Goaltender Gilles Meloche and Defensemen Bob Stewart, Greg Smith and Rick Hampton, CLEVELAND still is a team of promise. One hopes the Barons will not have any financial crises in midseason. COLORADO had two strong young forwards last season in temperamental Wilf Paiement (41 goals) and rookie Center Paul Gardner (30), and now the Rockies have added monster Defenseman Barry Beck, an aggressive puck handler whom they picked over Washington's Picard in the amateur draft. DETROIT General Manager Ted Lindsay invited 83 players to training camp, gave them AGGRESSIVE HOCKEY IS BACK IN TOWN T shirts, and said, "You've heard of Star Wars, well, this is going to be 'Ice Wars.' " Among the training camp survivors are some of hockey's best hatchet men. Bobby Kromm, Detroit's 11th coach in the last eight years, pleaded for nonviolence when he was at Winnipeg, but now he says, "Courses for horses."