Bowman takes over as general manager and coach of the BUFFALO Sabres, who tied Colorado for the distinction of being the NHL's least-improved team last year by scoring 17 fewer points than they did in 1977-78 and dropping from fourth to seventh place in the overall standings. Although the personnel remains essentially the same, Bowman has the makings of the sort of winner he molded in Montreal. Don Luce and Craig Ramsay are checking forwards in the manner of Bob Gainey and Doug Jarvis; Richard Martin is a sharpshooter a la Steve Shutt; and Gilbert Perreault, a masterly skater and scorer, could approach Lafleur in overall brilliance if he ever learns to use his teammates. At the very least, the Sabres will boast the most impressive hockey brain trust this side of Moscow. As assistants, Bowman has recruited Roger Neilson, the scholarly ex-Maple Leaf coach, and former Montreal handyman Jimmy Roberts.
There's a little reunion going on across the lake in TORONTO, where owner Harold Ballard, who fired Punch Imlach a decade ago, rehired him as general manager. Imlach promptly named Floyd Smith as the new coach, the same Floyd Smith he fired two years ago when both were with Buffalo. Aside from Darryl Sittler, Larry McDonald and No. 1 draft pick Laurie Boschmann, there are no Leafs who can score with any great proficiency. The defense, led by Borje Salming, Ian Turnbull and Mike Palmateer, who was probably the league's best goalie in the second half of last season, ranked fourth overall. But this team is on its way south, unlike the ticket prices in Maple Leaf Gardens, which Ballard has increased by another 20%.
The suspicion is that if Coach Al Arbour doesn't win it all this year, there will be many new faces on the NEW YORK Islanders by the start of the 1980-81 season. Face 1 would be that of a new coach. The Islanders have been upset before the Stanley Cup finals for two years in a row, and on both occasions Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies and Denis Potvin, all extraordinary during the regular season, performed erratically when it mattered most. Time will tell if this will become a rite of spring on Long Island. Otherwise, the team appears stronger than ever. Defensemen Gerry Hart and Pat Price and Forward Eddie Westfall (now a team broadcaster) are gone, with Hart and Price being replaced by 6'2", 215-pound Dave (Bam-Bam) Langevin, claimed from Edmonton, and rookie Mike Hordy. Another newcomer is 27-year-old Forward Anders Kallur, voted the best player in Sweden last season. Now, wherefore art thou, heart?
The magical playoff performance of the NEW YORK Rangers gave the game a much-needed breath of fresh air last spring, but General Manager-Coach Fred Shero will be hard pressed to match his first season in the Big Apple. Phil Esposito is not likely to log enough ice time to score another 42 goals, and beyond Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, there are no other distinguished forwards, just a raft of rather good ones, including rookie Doug Sulliman. The Rangers are hoping that Goalie John Davidson, who underwent an operation on his sciatic nerve in August, will perform his Stanley Cup heroics all season long. The nagging question: Who will throw the warmup pucks into the balconies now that Nick Fotiu has moved to Hartford?
The tough question in PHILADELPHIA is: How do you replace a retired Bernie Parent? Answer: Let Bernie worry about it. Operating under the theory that it takes two to make a clone, the Flyers have hired both Jacques Plante and Parent to work with their goalies, most notably Phil Myre, whom they acquired from St. Louis. Bobby Clarke has given up his captaincy to become a playing assistant coach, further evidence that, at 30, he is nearing the end of his career. Scoring punch, sorely missing a year ago, figures to be provided by top draft choice Brian Propp, a 5'9", 185-pound left wing who had an eye-popping 94 goals and 100 assists last year as an amateur.
In return for Myre, ST. LOUIS received Center Blake Dunlop and Defenseman Rick Lapointe. The Blues also acquired 24-year-old Bryan Maxwell, a 6'3", 215-pound defenseman who played briefly for Minnesota. The line of Brian Sutter, Wayne Babych and Bernie Federko scored a total of 99 goals last year, and No. 1 draft pick Perry Turn-bull should play regularly at left wing. But the Blues had the league's worst defensive record in 1978-79, and they may well duplicate that dubious achievement this season.
Minnesota was the most improved team in hockey last year, bettering its 1977-78 record by 23 points, thanks largely to its absorption of players from the defunct Cleveland Barons. The North Stars will improve again in '79-'80, this time because of an easier schedule and some first-rate draft choices. Defenseman Craig Hartsburg, yet another of Birmingham's "Baby Bulls," was the sixth player picked; he is a good rushing defenseman and should fit in well with Gary Sargent and Brad Maxwell. If General Manager Lou Nanne lures former Canadien Bill Nyrop out of retirement, Minnesota will have a very solid defense, and Gilles Meloche is an excellent goalie. On offense, Center Bobby Smith, Rookie of the Year in 1978-79, will be helped by another first-round draft choice, Left Wing Tom McCarthy, who scored 69 goals in junior competition.
Washington improved its goal production by 78 last season, the biggest jump in the league. With young players such as forwards Dennis Maruk and Ryan Walter and Defenseman Robert Picard, the Caps have a promising nucleus. The offense will be bolstered by 20-year-old Mike Gartner, who played last season with the Cincinnati Stingers—R.I.P.—and scored 27 goals. Pierre Bouchard, another former Canadien, will help the defense, but the goaltending is likely to be a shortcoming, with Flyer castoff Wayne Stephenson sharing the load with Gary Inness.
The LOS ANGELES Kings and DETROIT Red Wings amicably ended their legal battle over the rights to Center Dale McCourt. In an out-of-court settlement, Detroit kept McCourt but gave up Center Andre St. Laurent and its first-round draft picks in each of the next two years. Pretty steep. The Kings used this year's first-round pick—only the third one they had in their 12-year history—to select Defenseman Jay Wells. Mario Lessard turned in a 3.10 goals-against average, making the fans forget the departed Rogie Vachon, who went to Detroit in the original McCourt deal. And Marcel Dionne is coming off a 130-point season.