- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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After flirting with respectability in 1988-89, the Canucks returned to the cellar last season and probably will stay there. The defense gave up last season and now is crippled by the retirement of Paul Reinhart. Vancouver used the second pick in the June draft to select a potential superstar in 18-year-old center Petr Nedved of Czechoslovakia. But at 178 pounds, will he make the Canucks any stronger up the middle?
The medieval Norris Division, long resistant to such innovations as speed and skill, sprang to life last season with two-yes, two—teams with winning records. The most successful was the Blackhawks, who for a change are making the kind of daring deals that might help them win more than just a division title. Chicago traded drawing-card center Denis Savard (page 88) to the Canadiens for defense-man Chris Chelios. Chelios, who followed up a Norris Trophy-winning 1988-89 season with a mediocre one, upgrades a defense that proved incapable of handling Edmonton's speed in the playoffs. The departure of Savard clears ice time for 20-year-old Jeremy Roenick, who is capable of emerging as the Blackhawks' offensive star. But Roenick alone will not compensate for the loss of Savard's 80 points, nor can Roenick tend goal, where Chicago has a cast of veteran nobodies and promising youngsters.
The Blues, who spent big money to keep 72-goal scorer Brett Hull and lure free-agent defenseman Scott Stevens away from the Capitals (page 58), believe themselves to be a contender. Put a few more years of maturity on center Rod Brind' Amour, goalie Curtis Joseph and defenseman Jeff Brown, and they may be right. Besides Stevens, the Blues also added some needed scoring on the left side when they got Geoff Courtnall (35 goals) from the Caps for Peter Zezel and Mike Lalor.
Bob Probert, the Red Wings' talented, tough and troubled winger who last season spent 90 days in prison for possession of cocaine, is passing urine tests and saying all the right things of late. He won't be allowed to play in Canada at least until the appeal of his deportation order is heard (no date has been set), but even so, Detroit has a chance to make an immediate turnaround. They have a new general manager and coach in defense-minded Bryan Murray, and Carson, whose season was all but ruined by a knee injury after he was acquired from Edmonton last November, will reduce the scoring burden on All-Star center Steve Yzerman. Rookie forwards Keith Primeau, the No. 3 pick in June, and Sergei Fedorov, from the Soviet Union, are raw but talented. And the addition of veterans Brad McCrimmon and Rick Green will steady the defense.
Ten years of tedium in Toronto ended last season with the Maple Leafs' first nonlosing season since 1978-79. Toronto had the third highest goal total in the NHL, and in forwards Gary Leeman (51 goals), Vincent Damphousse (33), Daniel Marois (39) and Ed Olczyk (32) and defenseman Al Iafrate (21), it possesses some of the NHL's best young offensive talent. However, the Leafs also have one of the league's worst attitudes toward defense, which is surprising because coach Doug Carpenter was defense oriented when he coached New Jersey a few years back. If the losing days of this franchise are to be gone for good with the passing last April of Harold Ballard, the Leafs' crotchety owner, then general manager Floyd Smith will have to get more selfless players, not to mention a better season from goalie Allan Bester.
Unlike Toronto, Minnesota is short on talent, and the North Stars will get even shorter, because former owners George and Gordon Gund sold them for $31.5 million on condition that the Gunds would receive a 1991-92 expansion franchise on the West Coast. That deal allows the new team—which will be in San Jose and for which the Gunds will pay $50 million—to choose 30 players with minimal or no NHL experience from within the Minnesota organization. When the Gunds also took part of the front office with them, the new owner, Norman Green, hired former Flyer Bobby Clarke as general manager, and Clarke named ex-Canadien Bob Gainey as coach. Good luck, guys. Only if '88 No. 1 draft choice Mike Modano reaches superstardom will 1990-91 not become another lost season.
After coming within three points of the Bruins in the Adams Division, the Sabres were, as usual, a disappointment in the playoffs. The Canadiens shut down star center Pierre Turgeon in even-strength situations and ousted Buffalo, which hasn't won a postseason series since 1983. Rather than blame the failure on bad luck or tight throats, general manager Gerry Meehan concluded that the Sabres didn't have enough ways to win. So he swapped Housley, one of the best offensive defensemen in the game, for Hawerchuk, who will give Buffalo a second strong scoring line. Defenseman Doug Bodger, who carried the puck often in his junior days before falling into complementary roles behind Coffey in Pittsburgh and Housley, now will start the Sabres' attack from within their own end.
If Boston, whose needle was on empty in the finals, is going to make another long playoff run, the Bruins must have kids like Wes Walz and John Byce supplement the scoring of center Craig Janney (62 points in 55 games), right wing Cam Neely (55 goals) and Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Ray Bourque (84 points). Again this season, there won't be any tougher points in the NHL than those gained against Boston. Bourque, who anchors this unit for 30 minutes a game, is widely—and rightly-acclaimed, but superb goalie Andy Moog is nearly as important to the Bruins.
The Whalers extended the Bruins to seven games in the Adams Division semifinals, thereby issuing promise of better things to come. "We won't finish fourth again," vows general manager Eddie Johnston. But Hartford, which has won only one playoff series since entering the league in 1979-80, will become an elite team only if young Kay Whitmore turns out to be a premier goaltender and rookie center Robert Holik of Czechoslovakia does what most Europeans can't do: make an immediate impact on the NHL.
Montreal made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1988 with a brawny, well-disciplined but aging team. The offseason trades of Chelios to the Black-hawks and Craig Ludwig to the Islanders leave diminutive Petr Svoboda as the only remaining regular defenseman from that club. Savard, 29, had better be prepared to take some hits, because general manager Serge Savard has sacrificed muscle for a smaller, more offense-oriented team that he hopes will make these Canadiens resemble the Flying Frenchmen of old.