One of these years the Nordiques, who have been stockpiling considerable raw talent because of their lowly finishes and superior draft position, will begin to move up. General manager Pierre Page and coach Dave Chambers—both new on the job—know Quebec has plenty of room to improve over last season's ghastly .194 winning percentage and still gain the draft rights to Lindros. It's a long road back for a franchise devoid of players in their prime who have any recollection of how to win.
Rising from the black lagoon of the Patrick Division last season came one of the most long-cursed creatures in pro sports, the Rangers. They actually looked like Stanley Cup contenders as they pulled away to their first regular-season title since 1942. Then they looked like the same old New Yorkers when they were upset by the Capitals in the division finals.
Actually, the Rangers' hopes died in March, when Brian Leetch, their young defensive star, was lost for the season with a fractured left ankle. New York is questionable on the wings, but assuming a complete recovery by Leetch, it will be strong in the most critical areas—at center, on defense and in goal, where John Vanbiesbrouck and Mike Richter stand. When the Rangers fall short of winning the Stanley Cup for the 51st consecutive season, there will be some consolation: This time they will lose in the Cup finals.
The Devils have considerable talent, but their first-round elimination by the Caps last spring showed that New Jersey was too smooth for its own good. Irascible right wing Claude Lemieux, acquired from the Canadiens for the underachieving right wing Sylvain Turgeon, and center Laurie Boschman, who was obtained from the Jets, will add a badly needed abrasive quality to the Devils. Alexei Kasatonov was by far the most impressive Soviet in the NHL last season. The key for the Devils is whether goalie Sean Burke can fulfill the great expectations for him that persist despite two mediocre seasons.
The Flyers face the difficult prospect of competing in the NHL without Clarke, the soul of the franchise. He tried to get another serviceable year out of his aging, brittle team, but he lost goalie Ron Hextall for all but eight games and defense-man Mark Howe and right wing Tim Kerr for 40 games each. Then Clarke lost his job, too, when Philly missed the playoffs for the first time since 1971-72. He was replaced by Russ Farwell, 34, a boy wonder as general manager of the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western (Junior) Hockey League. Farwell kept Paul Holmgren as coach and will keep his fingers crossed on Howe, an excellent defenseman who has a bad back, and Kerr, a scoring machine who has endured seven shoulder operations.
If Mario Lemieux misses only two or three months with the back infection that was diagnosed last week—doctors say it is unrelated to disk surgery he underwent in July—Pittsburgh will have time to make the playoffs. If he's out much longer, though, the Penguins might as well board up the Civic Arena—they went 5-12-4 at the end of last season after Lemieux left the lineup. New coach Bob Johnson, a master innovator, was a coach for the Flames, the University of Wisconsin and the U.S. National Team before becoming executive director of USA Hockey, in 1987. At Wisconsin, Johnson designed a power play that now is used throughout the NHL, but any way he diagrams it, it won't pass muster in Pittsburgh if le Magnifique isn't playing center. Besides a healthy Lemieux, the Penguins also need some superior defense-minded defense-men to complement the high-scoring Coffey (103 points).
The Islanders were manic in the middle of the season (23-6-3) and depressive at both the beginning (5-18-3) and the end (3-14-5). They need more talent, however, not a shrink. Center Pat Lafontaine shot or assisted on an out-of-proportion 105 of New York's 281 goals. The Islanders made the playoffs primarily because Pittsburgh and Philadelphia defaulted. If the Islanders are to make 1991 postseason play on their own merits, promising wingers David Volek and Dave Chyzowski must become big scorers.
Washington, which had been luckless in the playoffs with good teams, finally triumphed in the division playoffs with a mediocre one. Now that the cosmic scales have been balanced, expect hard times for a franchise that is reaping the harvest of indifferent drafting. Defenseman Kevin Hatcher emerged as a dominating player last season, but it will be harder for the Caps to make up in discipline and effort what they lack in talent. They will miss Stevens—and the playoffs, too.