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The situation in CHICAGO is pure soap opera. Can Bobby Orr, hockey's fabulous invalid, overcome six knee operations and play again? Can Center Stan Mikita, the NHL's oldest player, coax another productive season out of his 38-year-old body? Stay tuned as the Black Hawks see how far they can go with effective penalty killing, the goaltending prowess of Tony Esposito and defensive depth that would be greatly enhanced, of course, by Orr, whose left knee has held up so far. The Black Hawks need more goals from their wingers, none of whom scored more than 23 last season. Top draft pick Tim Higgins should score at least 23 himself. "We want to build with young players, the way Dallas has in football," G.M.- Coach Bob Pulford insists, thinking of Higgins and 21-year-old Defenseman Doug Wilson.
Not since P. T. Barnum brought over Jenny Lind have folks in NEW YORK been so excited over a Swedish import. Or, in this case, two of them. Plucked out of the WHA by the Rangers for $900,000 apiece over two years, Center Ulf Nilsson and Right Winger Anders Hedberg add new menace to an attack that also includes 40-goal scorer Pat Hickey and Center Phil Esposito, whose 634 career goals place him second only to Gordie Howe. And flashy Right Winger Don Murdoch, suspended from the NHL following a drug bust, may be reinstated at midseason. Nick Fotui, who was born in Staten Island and once won a Police Athletic League boxing championship, will play bodyguard for the Swedes. The defense and goaltending are leaky, as usual, but Toronto's Neilson predicts that under Shero, the new $250,000-a-year general manager and coach, the Rangers will be the NHL's most improved club.
Undeterred by the unfavorable precedent set by Kaiser-Fraser, MINNESOTA hopes that the pooling of resources by the North Stars and now-defunct Barons, two chronic losers, will produce one winner. Ex-Baron Gilles Meloche, an able goalie, and Dennis Maruk, a stylish center, will help the reconstituted North Stars, a club further strengthened by the arrival of free-agent Defenseman Gary Sargent from Los Angeles and Center Bobby Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the amateur draft. But new Coach Harry Howell may find a playoff berth elusive: the No Stars, as they have been called in recent years, were assigned to the tough Adams Division, meaning they must face Boston, Buffalo and Toronto eight times each.
Centers Marcel Dionne and Butch Goring are still around to put the puck in the nets, but LOS ANGELES otherwise looks as if it had been hit by a Charley Finley-style liquidation sale. Owner Jack Kent Cooke kept his wallet closed, so gone are free agents Vachon (to Detroit), Hutchinson ( Toronto) and Sargent ( Minnesota). Owing to the McCourt imbroglio, what new Coach Bob Berry has so far received in return—mainly Defensemen Brian Glennie and Rick Hampton and Forward Steve Jensen—is not nearly enough. Ron Grahame, acquired from Boston at the expense of the Kings' No. 1 draft pick next spring, will try to replace Vachon.
In trading its first-round draft choice to Philadelphia for veterans Kindrachuk, Bladon and Lonsberry, PITTSBURGH seemed to be going the George Allen route. In dispatching Defenseman Dave Burrows to Toronto, however, the Penguins took in exchange Center George Ferguson and Defenseman Randy Carlyle, both younger players. The team's new owners are anxious to stanch the club's flow of red ink, and obviously crave change and plenty of it. Although Coach John Wilson promises that Pittsburgh will make the playoffs for the first time in four years, it may take longer than he thinks for the parts to mesh, especially if Center Gregg Sheppard, acquired from Boston, sticks by his refusal to report.
Season-ticket sales have declined in VANCOUVER for the first time in the franchise's nine-year history, and it is hard to believe that the Canucks' lurid new orange-yellow-and-black uniforms, recommended as "more positive" by marketing psychologists, will bring back the stragglers. But the addition of Center Bill Derlago, the No. 4 pick overall in the amateur draft, and three imports from Sweden's national team—playmaker Thomas Gradin and mobile Defensemen Lars Zetterstrom and Lars Lindgren—just might do the trick. New Coach Harry Neale says that rookie Goalie Glen Hanlon "could be not just good but great."
Vancouver will battle COLORADO for the second playoff spot in the weak-sister Smythe Division, a struggle the Rockies won last year with a 19-40-21 record. With a full season under his belt, bruising young Defenseman Barry Beck figures to get better, if that's possible. Meanwhile, the Rockies hope for consistency from Right Winger Wilf Paiement, who slumped to 31 goals a year ago, and for the successful return of Center Paul Gardner, who had scored 30 goals when he fractured his back just after midseason. But the youthful Rockies continue to suffer bad luck. Top draft choice Mike Gillis, a winger, tore knee ligaments in an intrasquad game, and won't play for three months.
That noise you hear coming from the Checkerdome in ST. LOUIS is not somebody munching Rice Chex. It's Steve Durbano and Gord Gallant, a couple of tough guys just in from the WHA, knocking people around. This is meant to camouflage the fact that, aside from undependable Center Mike (Shaky) Walton, ironman Garry Unger and first-round draftee Wayne Babych, there are no Blues with anything resembling a scoring touch. St. Louis will vie for the distinction of the NHL's worst record with WASHINGTON, whose win total steadily increased during its first three seasons from 8 to 11 to 24. Then last season, despite the emergence of Defensemen Robert Picard and Rick Green, the Capitals slipped to 17 wins. That sound you hear coming from Landover, Md. is new Coach Danny Belisle scratching his head.