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The West Is Best
Jay Greenberg
October 08, 1990
The Oilers and the Flames are the class of the league. Last season Edmonton hoisted the Cup. Now it's Calgary's turn
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October 08, 1990

The West Is Best

The Oilers and the Flames are the class of the league. Last season Edmonton hoisted the Cup. Now it's Calgary's turn

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The 1990-91 NHL season will bear a vague resemblance to The Brothers Karamazov, plodding nicely along until all four teams employing the Brothers Sutter—the Blues, the Flyers, the Blackhawks and the Islanders—are eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. But unlike the book, the outcome of the season is not difficult to figure: The Cup will remain in the province of Alberta—this time in Calgary instead of in Edmonton.

Last year's regular-season standings suggested that the 1990 Cup was up for grabs. Five teams finished within 13 points of the Bruins, who led the league with 101 points. As things turned out, Edmonton, No. 5 overall and the runner-up in the Smythe Division, blew Boston away in five games in the Cup finals. "The Bruins deserved the best record on hard work and consistency," says John Muckler, the Oiler coach, "but didn't have players like we did who could raise their level of play another notch in the playoffs."

Edmonton had too much speed, too much scoring power and too many players who had won before. And there was another factor at work. The Oilers had played the Flames eight times during the regular season, winning three times, and felt that when Calgary lost to the Kings in Round 1, the most talented team in the league had been eliminated.

Against Los Angeles, the Flames got caught looking ahead to Round 2 and the Oilers. In 1988-89, while the Oilers wallowed in self-pity over Wayne Gretzky's being traded to L.A. the summer before, Calgary rolled to the Cup. Last season, "the sense of urgency to win, the total commitment to go to the well, just wasn't there," says Flame general manager Cliff Fletcher. Coach Terry Crisp's periodic tirades had little effect on his players, and he was fired despite a 144-63-33 record over three seasons. His replacement is Doug Risebrough, Fletcher's heir apparent, who was a forward on four straight Stanley Cup championship teams with the Canadiens in the late 1970s.

As a player, the scrappy, 180-pound Risebrough once tore to shreds the jersey of Edmonton tough guy Marty McSorley after pulling it off him in a fight. If Risebrough's current team is to tear up the Oilers, it needs improvement in purpose more than in personnel. The Flames are so deep at the forward positions that they unloaded Joe Mullen, a 51-goal scorer two seasons ago, to the Penguins for the yard-sale price of a second-round draft choice. Fletcher had to find ice time for promising scorers like Paul Ranheim (26 goals as a rookie in 1989-90) and 19-year-old Czech import Robert Reichel.

Calgary's biggest worries are the torn left knee ligament suffered by center Joe Nieuwendyk—the Flames' leading scorer—while he was playing for Canada last spring in the world championships, and the balky back of goalie Mike Vernon. But Nieuwendyk was hurt less severely than first imagined, and Vernon again appears sound. That would seem to leave Calgary with only one deficiency: a lack of belligerence, especially on a defense that has superior scoring punch in Al MacInnis (28 goals and 90 points) and Gary Suter (76 points) but no meanie to keep the slot clear. The bottom line: The Flames have more good players than any other team.

Edmonton certainly has one less good player than it had last season: Jari Kurri, having tired of the NHL rat race, signed a two-year contract to play with the Milan Devils of the Italian League. Oiler general manager Glen Sather traded Gretzky, Paul Coffey and Jimmy Carson but got good value for them. For Kurri, the NHL's alltime leading playoff goal scorer, Sather got nothing. And should he want to trade goalie Grant Fuhr, he might strike out again. Fuhr didn't exactly lose his job last year to Bill Ranford—injuries did him in—but his market value now has plummeted in the wake of his admission in late August that he had had a cocaine problem for seven years. The league last week suspended Fuhr for 12 months, although he could be reinstated as early as Feb. 18. He says he has been clean since attending a rehabilitation program in Florida last year.

The Oilers get a dominating performance almost every game from center Mark Messier, the 1989-90 MVP. Core players such as defenseman Kevin Lowe and forwards Esa Tikkanen and Craig Simpson have a history of rising to the occasion. There is, however, some age on the defense, and it remains to be seen how well the Edmonton kids who excelled last spring—wingers Martin Gelinas and Joe Murphy and center Adam Graves—will handle their sudden success.

Winnipeg coach Bob Murdoch did a remarkable job of persuading his players that rural Manitoba really is a desirable place to play. This was largely because everybody on the Jets had a role: With four lines and six defensemen contributing almost equally, Winnipeg improved by 21 points last season and came within one game of eliminating Edmonton in the first round. Under the time-sharing system, though, center Dale Hawerchuk, once considered to be the franchise, got the ice time of an average player and quickly became one, so he was traded to the Sabres for defenseman Phil Housley and forwards Scott Arniel and Jeff Parker. Since Housley gives the Jets still another quick, slick defenseman, another trade—for a scorer—is likely.

Coach Tom Webster once again is asking his Kings for aggressive defense—the kind that held Calgary's vaunted power play to two goals in 34 chances in their six-game playoff series. But Los Angeles is a slow, aging team with a short attention span and can deliver success only in spurts. If Gretzky—who showed his first signs of mortality last season when he suffered from a bad back and experienced a lengthy slump—stays healthy, his two linemates, Tomas Sandstrom and Tony Granato, will score big. If he doesn't, the Kings will collapse. L.A. owes Edmonton its No. 1 draft pick next year, so if it finishes with the league's worst record—not that farfetched a possibility, given the toughness of this division—it could even help the Oilers get Eric Lindros, the most coveted junior since Mario Lemieux.

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