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About the nicest thing that can be said of the forthcoming NHL season is that the merger with the havoc-wreaking WHA is a fait accompli. Four survivors of the WHA—Winnipeg, Edmonton, Quebec and Hartford—are now members, though sheared ones, of the NHL's bloated 21-team fold. Each of the new clubs was allowed to protect only two skaters and two goalies from its WHA roster, and most of the WHA's stars were swept up by the established clubs that owned their NHL rights. The result: the rich got richer; the poor got reamed, steamed and dry-cleaned; and league parity was set back another five years. In the clubby, myopic world of the NHL, plus �a change, plus c'est la m�me chose.
Oddly, last season was a banner one for parity in the NHL. Of the top six teams of 1977-78, only the New York Islanders improved their record. In the meantime, five of the bottom seven teams did better. While the difference between the best ( Islanders) and worst ( Colorado Rockies) records was still a gargantuan 74 points, the gap was 10 points smaller than it had been in 1977-78. Things appeared to be heading in the right direction.
Unfortunately, that disparity should widen considerably this season. The unbalanced schedule that tended to pit the weak against the weak more often than against the strong, and was largely responsible for the closer competition last season, has been abandoned. Now each team will play every other NHL club four times, twice at home, twice on the road. The Islanders, Philadelphia, the Rangers and Atlanta—Patrick Division rivals who had the first-, fourth-, fifth-and sixth-best records in the NHL in 1978-79—will play each other only four times instead of eight. That alone should ensure that they will pull farther away from the pack.
In most sports, one talks about who will make the playoffs. In hockey, one talks about who will miss them. It isn't easy. The five teams with the worst records will end their seasons on April 6—regardless of their standings in division or conference, which are meaningless under the present format. In all, NHL teams will play a total of 840 regular-season games to eliminate five of 21 teams. Doesn't it just set your blood racing with anticipation? Which five will miss out? How about St. Louis, Vancouver, Hartford, Edmonton and Winnipeg? Which of the surviving 16 will make it through the Spring Classic, the Second Season, the playoffs, to win the Stanley Cup? Well, wriggle into your snuggies, aficionados, it's going to be a long, long winter—and spring. This thing might not be decided until the Fourth of July.
Nowhere is the inbreeding of the NHL more apparent than in the area of coaching changes. Seven of the 17 old clubs have new coaches, but only one, CHICAGO, has a man who has never coached in the NHL before. He is Eddie Johnston, a much-traveled former goaltender, who promises to have the Black Hawks play a more wide-open brand of hockey than they did the past two seasons under Bob Pulford, now the full-time general manager. Johnston takes over a team that has lost a record 16 consecutive playoff games. How much more offensive can you get? The Hawks traded away their most productive scorer, Ivan Boldirev, near the end of last season and received Atlanta captain Tom Lysiak in return. The Windy City gave Lysiak a severe case of the chills, and he played 14 games for the Hawks without scoring a goal. Two players Chicago reclaimed from the Winnipeg Jets, Terry Ruskowski and Rich Preston, should add some life to the offense, and if all else fails, there's always the Golden Jet, Bobby Hull, whom the Hawks have been trying to reacquire from Winnipeg. Hull, 39, would provide some nice nostalgia, especially if he skates on the same line with 39-year-old Stan Mikita. But unfortunately Hull and Mikita would still be the Hawks' best players—save for 36-year-old Tony Esposito, who has signed on for another year in goal.
Atlanta's playoff record is nearly as bad as Chicago's. The Flames have won nary a Stanley Cup series, losing 12 of 13 games. Last year's playoff loss to Toronto cost Coach Fred Creighton his job, and Al MacNeil was lured away from Montreal's front office to replace him. The offense, which already included 100-plus point scorers Bob MacMillan and Guy Chouinard and 35-goal scorer Boldirev, has been bolstered by the addition of Center Kent Nilsson, a Swede (no relation to the Rangers' Ulf) who scored 107 points in each of the past two seasons with Winnipeg. On defense, Phil Russell, who came in the Boldirev-Lysiak trade, will work alongside Brad Marsh, Atlanta's top draft choice in 1978, and MacNeil will attempt to teach the Flames the Montreal-style team defense. Twenty-year-old Pat Riggin, who played last year for Birmingham of the WHA, will give overworked and often inconsistent Dan Bouchard relief in the nets.
Creighton has moved on to BOSTON. "I've got a pretty tough act to follow," he moans and for good reason. He may have some trouble keeping Don (Grapes) Cherry's free-spirited lunch-pail Bruins working together. John Wensink scored 28 goals for Cherry last year, a total he is not likely to accumulate in the rest of his career, and Rick Middleton developed into a 38-goal scorer. On defense, Brad Park has bad knees, Mike Milbury is coming off an undistinguished year, and Gary Doak, Rick Smith and Dick Redmond perform well only within the narrow confines of the Boston Garden rink, which is only 83'x191'—compared to the NHL norm of 85'x200'—and is probably the Bruins' greatest asset. First-round draft picks Raymond Bourque, 18, the top junior defenseman in Quebec last season, and Brad McCrimmon could break in as instant regulars. Championships, however, are not won with rookie defensemen.
Colorado made all the right moves in the off-season, but with 15 wins in 80 games last year, the Rockies had to. They hired Cherry away from the Bruins and hung on to the league's No. 1 pick in the draft by refusing an offer of three Montreal regulars. With that pick, the Rockies selected Rob (Rammer) Ramage, another of Birmingham's "Baby Bulls." Ramage is the best defenseman to come into the NHL since Barry (Bubba) Beck, with whom he will now be paired. These two could save the franchise. True, the offense scored only 210 goals last year, fewest in the league, but if Cherry can get 28 goals out of Wensink, just imagine what he might do with temperamental Wilf Paiement. Though their goaltending is abysmal, the Rockies could be the most improved team in the league.
When Cherry reads about the problems besetting the MONTREAL Canadiens, he sounds a little like Sour Grapes. "Why couldn't all this have happened when I was coaching the Bruins?" he says. In rapid succession during the off-season, MacNeil left. Coach Scotty Bowman defected to Buffalo, Goalie Ken Dryden retired, and Center Jacques Lemaire went off to play and coach in Switzerland. But the Canadiens, who will be going for a record-tying fifth straight Stanley Cup, have a way of landing on their feet. In an outrageously one-sided deal, Montreal sent Pat Hughes, a reserve forward, and minor league Goaltender Bob Holland to Pittsburgh for Denis Herron and a draft choice. Herron, 27, is one of the top five goalies in hockey, and he and Bunny Larocque will give Les Canadiens depth and experience. Although Lemaire will be sorely missed, most especially by linemate Guy Lafleur, Montreal still has the best bunch of centers in the league—Pierre Mondou, Mark Napier, Doug Risebrough, Doug Jarvis and Pierre Larouche. And all those game-controlling defensemen—Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe—are still in town. The biggest imponderable in Montreal is not what is on the bench, but who is behind it. Bernie Geoffrion has left Atlanta's broadcast booth to coach his former team, a selection that has received approval from the fans and, presumably, the Boomer's son, Danny, a WHA refugee who will be trying to make the Canadiens. But this may be the year Montrealers finally realize how good a coach Bowman was. Ze Boom-Boom, he eez a nice fellow, mais....