As the 1978-79 season begins, the NHL finds itself with six new coaches and minus one team. Gone are the financially strapped Cleveland Barons, whose merger with the Minnesota North Stars reduces the league's franchises to a nice, unround 17. In a rules change intended to "maintain the continuous flow of play," the NHL has begun imposing penalties on goaltenders who freeze the puck in areas other than the crease. Meanwhile, after some fast and furious trading and drafting, the yawning gap between the NHL's haves and have-nots seems to be narrowing. With the retirement of Montreal General Manager—and guiding genius—Sam Pollock, who steered Les Canadiens to nine Stanley Cup championships in 14 years, rivals even have reason to hope that the Canadiens might someday be beaten. However, unless Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson and Ken Dryden suddenly decide to join Pollock in retirement, it will not happen this season. As for happenings, the highlight of the season will be February's Super Showdown, a best-of-three series between the NHL All-Star team and the Soviet Union's National team at Madison Square Garden. "Our league's prestige will be on the line in those games against the Soviets," says one NHL official. "If we lose that series, we might as well call off the rest of our season and present them with the Stanley Cup
As though the departure of Sam Pollock wasn't enough, MONTREAL was also hit by the unexpected retirement—at age 26—of sturdy fourth Defenseman Bill Nyrop, who departed with his new bride and his memories after pronouncing himself "satisfied" with having accumulated three NHL championship rings in as many seasons. No sooner was Nyrop gone than Brian Engblom, the fifth defenseman, suffered a fractured jaw in an exhibition game, courtesy of an elbow thrown by Philadelphia's Paul Holmgren. Oh well, until Engblom returns next month, the Canadiens will just have to call on their talented sixth, seventh or eighth defensemen to help All-Stars Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe protect goalies Ken Dryden and Bunny Larocque, who shared the Vezina trophy for lowest goals-against average the past two seasons.
Winning the Vezina is of highest priority to Coach Scotty Bowman, who keeps telling his troops that if the defense is sound, "the scoring will take care of itself." And so it does, thanks to three-time NHL scoring leader—and last year's MVP—Guy Lafleur, and sharpshooters Steve Shutt, Yvan Cournoyer, Pierre Mondou and Jacques Lemaire. Add Bob Gainey, the Frank Selke Trophy winner, as the game's best defensive forward; face-off whiz Doug Jarvis; and Mark Napier, a WHA defector who scored 33 goals last season, and you have a juggernaut unlikely to be derailed by anything less than a series of injuries or some serious post-Pollock, front-office infighting. Unlike Nyrop, the remaining Canadiens are not satisfied with three straight Stanley Cups. "With what we have, if we all do our jobs, we can only improve," says Robinson. Which is quite a statement for a team that has lost just 29 of its last 240 regular-season games.
Boston awarded Terry O'Reilly a fat new contract that enables him to dine at Loch Ober's any time he wants to. Not on O'Reilly's life. The hardworking right wing prefers the company of the other members of the Bruins' Lunch-pail A.C., hard-nosed operatives like Don Marcotte and Stan Jonathan. And now the Bruins also have rookie Al Secord, a checking specialist left wing whose taste for the corners makes him, as Coach Don Cherry puts it, "a Boston-style player." Seeking another offensive-minded defenseman to help Brad Park, the Bruins traded for veteran Dick Redmond, and with Park now out until December following knee surgery last week, Redmond will have to quarterback Boston's power play. The Bruins hope for much-needed speed from young Dwight Foster, a center who played only 14 games last year as a rookie before undergoing his knee surgery. If Foster gets into gear, if aging Center Jean Ratelle has another good season, if 6'5" Center Peter McNab can match his 41-goal season and if Park and Goalie Gerry Cheevers come back strong from their knee operations, Boston can dream of meeting Montreal in the Stanley Cup finals for a third straight year.
"There's no reason to panic yet—maturity takes time," says NEW YORK ISLANDERS Coach Al Arbour, whose team won the Patrick Division in its sixth season, only to be upset by Toronto in the 1978 Stanley Cup quarterfinals. Powered by Denis Potvin, the Norris Trophy winner as the best defenseman, All-Star Center Bryan Trottier and 50-goal scorer Mike Bossy—Rookies of the Year in '74, '76 and '78, respectively—the Islanders nevertheless lacked leadership and were loath to match muscle with the Maple Leafs. The arrival of wing John Tonelli from the WHA will help in the muscle department, but Arbour still is searching for a leader. In time he may not have to look past Stefan Persson, the Swedish defenseman who had a spectacular (50 assists), if unheralded, rookie season. On the whole, standing pretty much pat may have been the only prudent course to take: with the debt-ridden Islanders changing ownership to stay afloat, General Manager Bill Torrey was up to his ubiquitous bow tie in off-season financial scrambling.
There is such a thing in hockey as a one-goal-and-a-cloud-of-elbows strategy, and TORONTO employs it to perfection. Let the wondrous Darryl Sittler or the sharpshooting Lanny McDonald, the Maple Leafs' only authentic scoring threats, light up the red bulb, and checking specialists like Jimmy Jones and Jerry Butler and defensemen like Borje Salming and Ian Turnbull immediately go into a shell to protect the lead. If rivals show signs of impatience, they are straightened out in a hurry by combative wingers Tiger Williams and Dan Maloney and Defenseman Dave Hutchinson, who was signed as a free agent to help direct traffic in front of Goaltender Mike Palmateer. It sometimes makes for dull hockey, but the knowledgeable fans in Maple Leaf Gardens rightly credit Coach Roger Neilson with molding his generally unspectacular personnel into a contender.
Nobody can accuse PHILADELPHIA of complacency. Wielding the broom after the Flyers were rudely eliminated from the Stanley Cup semifinals in five games—one more than they lasted the previous year—GM Keith Allen traded veterans Orest Kindrachuk, Tom Bladon and Ross Lonsberry for Pittsburgh's first-round draft choice, which he used to grab 6'3", 210-pound Behn Wilson, a lippy and rugged defenseman. With a first-round pick extracted from the New York Rangers as compensation for the loss of Coach Fred Shero, Allen drafted 20-year-old Center Ken Linseman, a speedster who had scored 38 goals for Birmingham in the WHA. In exhibition play, however, Linseman distinguished himself mainly by pulling up the jersey of Ranger Ulf Nilsson during a disgraceful donnybrook at Madison Square Garden and then laughing at the Swede for not fighting back. With its own first-round selection—shades of Sam Pollock, that makes three first-round picks—the Flyers added Danny Lucas, a right winger of promise. To get more scoring punch on the wings, Rick MacLeish, a 31-goal scorer last season, has been switched from center to left wing on a line with Captain Bobby Clarke and the pugnacious Holmgren. For all that, unless Goalie Bernie Parent can return to form and stay there, new Coach Bob McCammon is unlikely to take the Flyers any further in the playoffs than Shero did last season.
It is not true that DETROIT Center Dale McCourt, the slick playmaker who led the Red Wings in goals (33) and points (72) as a rookie last season, has changed his name to Dale Supreme Court. But by winning an injunction to block an arbitrator from awarding him to Los Angeles, McCourt has set the stage for a lot of far-reaching litigation. In the meantime, Detroit enjoys the services of both McCourt and Goaltender Rogie Vachon, whose signing with the Red Wings as a free agent had prompted the arbitrator to send McCourt to the L.A. Kings as compensation. Vachon gives the Red Wings the sort of All-Star-caliber goaltending that last season's Cinderella team conspicuously lacked. Nevertheless the Red Wings doubled their win total. Vachon and Detroit's second-year stars, McCourt, Defenseman Reed Larson and scrappy Winger Paul Woods, are joined by another of last season's surprises, Center Andre St. Laurent, who scored 32 goals after being acquired from the Islanders last October, and by first-round draft choice Willie Huber, a 6'5" German-born defenseman who should shore up Detroit's shaky defense.
Buffalo failed to make changes although G.M. Punch Imlach had solemnly promised a wholesale—and much-needed—shakeup following the Sabres' usual el foldo in the Stanley Cup playoffs. And so the Sabres will once again try to prove that dashing Gilbert Perreault can locate the net when it counts, and that wingers other than feisty Captain Danny Gare will venture into the corners. Paging Richard Martin. Buffalo must also find somebody—Bob Sauve?—to provide relief for talented but overworked Goalie Don Edwards. Rookies Larry Playfair, a body-thumping defenseman, and Tony McKegney, a big, fast winger, both merit ice time, but this raises the basic and nagging question: Does Coach Marcel Pronovost dare allow some of his tired but high-priced stars to languish on the bench?
Already the league's biggest club, ATLANTA adds some much-needed quickness and scoring ability with the arrival from Pittsburgh of speedy Gene Carr and 40-goal scorer Jean Pronovost. These two join the likes of Tom Lysiak, Eric Vail and Willi Plett to give the Flames what Coach Fred Creighton calls "as good a set of forwards as any team in the league—except for Montreal." It only remains for Atlanta's defensemen to stop making costly mistakes, and because they are mostly young fellows like Dick Mulhern, Dave Shand and first-round draft choice Brad Marsh—none of them is older than 23—they just might. Then the Flames will be one of hockey's best teams, which they briefly gave promise of becoming before Detroit stunned them in the opening round of last spring's playoffs.