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The North Stars Are Going South
Jack Falla
March 04, 1985
Minnesota made some noise in the Stanley Cup finals in 1981, but has slipped since then. Here's what happened along the way
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March 04, 1985

The North Stars Are Going South

Minnesota made some noise in the Stanley Cup finals in 1981, but has slipped since then. Here's what happened along the way

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Nanne doesn't need to be reminded. Ashton was a fourth-line defensive forward who had only four goals for Minnesota but came up with a hot stick (19 goals in 31 games) after he was traded to Quebec in the McKegney deal. Young played only five games in two seasons with Minnesota and was released in 1983, but he has since become a Rookie of the Year candidate on the strength of his brilliant current season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. And those are not the only transactions that have left Nanne open to second-guessing.

After the North Stars were eliminated in the first round of the 1981-82 playoffs by the Chicago Black Hawks, Nanne overreacted. His team had coasted to the division title, only to be shoved around by the Hawks in a bruising series, so he moved to alter its style. Nanne sent U.S. Olympic hero Mark Johnson, whom he had acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh just seven months earlier, to Hartford with forward Kent-Erik Andersson in exchange for forward Jordy Douglas and a fifth-round draft choice, who turned out to be Jiri Poner, a Czech. Johnson's 19 goals and 27 assists made him Hartford's second-leading scorer this season until he was traded to St. Louis Feb. 22. Meanwhile Douglas, who scored only 16 goals in 82 games for Minnesota, has since been dealt to Winnipeg for Tim Trimper. Trimper has spent most of this season with Minnesota's American Hockey League farm club in Springfield, Mass. Poner has not cracked the North Stars' lineup.

Nanne defends the trading of Johnson on the grounds that Minnesota already had too many small centers (Johnson is 5'9") and that he could not have protected him in the waiver draft. Yet, in October 1983, Nanne traded his biggest center—and perhaps his best player—6'4" Bobby Smith, the No. 1 choice overall in the 1978 draft and a key man in Minnesota's rise, to Montreal for center Keith Acton (who, at 5'8", is so physically imposing he is nicknamed after his lookalike—Woody Allen), right wing Mark Napier (5'10") and a third-round draft choice. Smith, who had asked to be traded, is one of the main reasons why Montreal has spent most of this season leading the tough Adams Division. Napier, after scoring 13 goals in 58 games for the Stars last season, was traded in January to Edmonton for defensive forwards Gord Sherven and Terry Martin, the latter a minor-leaguer who's now injured.

And last November, Nanne did something he had never done before, trading away a No. 1 draft pick to the Islanders for goalie Rollie Melanson. "I did it because I saw a chance to get a quality goalie," says Nanne. But Melanson has played unspectacularly for the Stars (he has a 4.17 average and a 3-7-3 record) and, given Minnesota's projected low finish, the traded draft choice should fall in the top six.

The North Stars of 1980-81 and '81-82 had an identity. They appeared to be on the same road that has since led the high-scoring Oilers to a Stanley Cup. But lately, Nanne's trades and drafts have become twin pities in the Twin Cities.

In effect, Minnesota has had the first overall draft choice in three of the last seven years. Yet only one of the players picked, 1982 choice Bellows (actually claimed second but a de facto first pick because Nanne had swung a deal with the Bruins, who were drafting first, that guaranteed Bellows for Minnesota), has won a permanent place on the Stars. Smith was traded and Brian Lawton, the top pick in the 1983 draft, had a mediocre (10 goals, 31 points) injury-plagued rookie year. He has been sent down to the minors three separate times this season. "You don't keep a guy up just so you don't look bad," says Nanne, who doesn't look good after choosing Lawton over such stars-to-be as Tom Barrasso of Buffalo, Sylvain Turgeon of Hartford and Steve Yzerman of Detroit. "If I had it to do over again, I'd take Barrasso. I'm not an idiot," says Nanne, who rarely second-guesses himself.

After the questionable pick came questionable handling. Nanne and Bill Mahoney, the coach at the time, stood by silently while young Lawton chose to wear jersey No. 98 (Wayne Gretzky, of course, wears 99) thus putting unnecessary pressure on himself with the implicit comparison. Lawton was able to make the switch to No. 8 this season.

The North Stars may also have retarded Lawton's development by not pushing him to play in the 1984 Olympics—a valuable crash course in topflight hockey. Stars draftees Scott Bjugstad, Tom Hirsch and David H. Jensen were encouraged to do so, and they did. Lawton says the decision to turn pro in the summer of '83 was his, but Lawton's attorney, Neil Abbott of Boston, says that in the negotiations "Louie made it obvious he wanted Brian." Some observers believe Nanne wanted his top pick on the ice as the season began because he had little else to show that he had improved the team.

Yet Lawton had less impact on the Stars than they had on Lawton. Though he is back with Minnesota now, Lawton seemed confused after a recent practice with Springfield, a team the North Stars stock jointly with the Islanders. "The Islander players know if they do well they'll move up," says Lawton. "But Dirk [Graham], Tim [Trimper] and I were called up for one game [Jan. 23]. We played well, and I had a goal, but the next day we were sent back down. The Islander players laugh at us."

There is also a feeling on the part of some NHL insiders that Nanne, while assembling scoring talent, has overlooked the need for a blend. "Minnesota has the scorers, but what it doesn't have are guys able and content to accept positions as role players," says the general manager of one of the league's best teams. Two former Stars agree. "We had the right blend of players in '81," says ex-Stars defenseman Brad Maxwell, who was traded to Quebec three months ago. "We had scorers but we also had grinders like Jack Carlson. Look at the Oilers. They have two lines that score, and two that work like hell." Says defenseman Greg Smith, who was traded to Detroit after the '81 season, "We had more character players in '81, not more talented players."

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