The Buffalo Sabres, who haven't advanced past the first round since 1983, face some hard decisions. Two players the Sabres have been building around, center Pierre Turgeon and left wing Alexander Mogilny, were flops in the last two playoffs. And general manager Gerry Meehan and coach Rick Dudley haven't been on the same wavelength, so John Muckler, the former Edmonton coach, has been brought in as director of hockey operations to give another opinion. It shouldn't take a committee to decide that the Sabres need more speed, a quarterback on defense and improved play from goalie Daren Puppa.
Be assured that the Whalers, who have finished fourth and been eliminated in the first round four straight seasons, can't remain inert forever. By next season, they may finish fifth. They begin this year with a mundane defense, uninspired goaltending and their two best players, Cullen and left wing Pat Verbeek, holding out for million-dollar contracts that owner Richard Gordon says he can't afford.
Even though the Quebec Nordiques will never sign top draft pick Eric Lindros, they are on the way up. Center Joe Sakic scored 109 points last season, and second-year right wing Mats Sundin is a blossoming star. When Soviet forward Valeri Kamensky, one of the premier talents in the world, recovers from a broken left leg suffered during Canada Cup training camp and adjusts to life in North America, Quebec will become an offensive carnival. It still lacks the grinders and experience to make a quantum leap this season. A year from now, though, when the Nordiques accept the fact that Lindros won't play in Quebec, he'll bring a grand trade package that will stake the Nordiques to the 1996-97 Stanley Cup championship.
The Chicago Blackhawks, who pushed themselves to the last day of the season to edge St. Louis for the Norris Division title, played a cranky, nervous first-round series against the Minnesota North Stars and exited in humiliation. A popular explanation was burnout, caused by both the Blackhawks' stressful regular-season finish and their loathing for coach-general manager Mike Keenan. A better reason for Chicago's demise was that too much of its offense had to come from the line of center Jeremy Roenick (see page 78), right wing Steve Larmer and left wing Michel Goulet.
Minnesota checked Roenick, goaded Chris Chelios, the Blackhawks' defensive quarterback, into taking bad penalties and scored killer goals on the power play. Chicago must find poise, someone who can center a productive second line and a defenseman who can replace Doug Wilson, a 14-year mainstay who decided to sign with San Jose and take vacation pay rather than endure Keenan. Chelios, Roenick, Larmer and holdout goalie Ed Belfour, who played in 74 games last year, thrive on heavy workloads. But they have to get more help if the Blackhawks are to go further in the playoffs.
St. Louis erred terribly by not including an established player in its free-agent compensation offer for Shanahan, a blunder that resulted in the arbitrator's awarding Scott Stevens to the Devils. Stevens, signed as a free agent from Washington before last season, was a key to the Blues' 22-point jump in the standings. They'll still have a respectable committee on defense, but without Stevens they'll have no chairman. Shanahan is a hard-driving forward with decent hands who may make 86-goal right wing Brett Hull and 115-point center Adam Oates even scarier. But St. Louis has a problem similar to that of archrival Chicago: If it doesn't come up with another line of offense, it won't become a serious Stanley Cup threat.
After 24 years, Minnesota has dropped the North from its name. Now we're waiting to see if last year's surprise Cup finalist goes south. The Stars rolled through three rounds of playoffs because they had greater scoring depth than the top-heavy teams they beat. To do it again, though, Minnesota has to hope all those hurrahs created by Bobby Smith, 33, Brian Propp, 32, and Neal Broten, 31, were not last ones. If infirmity sets in, speedy right wing Mike Modano, the first player taken in the 1988 draft, will have to carry Minnesota for 80 games, not just whenever the mood strikes him.
With so many clubs desperate for even one good center, the Detroit Red Wings are sitting smugly with both Steve Yzerman, who has averaged 123 points the last four seasons, and Sergei Fedorov, from the Soviet Union, who with 31 goals last season had a rare impact for a first-year European import. Encouraged by Fedorov's fast adjustment, the Wings are now counting on two European defensemen, Niklas Lidstrom from Sweden and Vladimir Konstantinov from the Soviet Union, to bolster their backline. The return from the injury list of Gerard Gallant, who had a bad back, gives Yzerman a finisher, but the Wings still need an upgrade in goal from incumbent Tim Cheveldae.
Understanding the importance of goaltending, Toronto has settled for nothing but the best: Grant Fuhr. Cliff Fletcher, the Maple Leafs' new president and general manager, gave up four young players, including flashy left wing Vincent Damphousse, to acquire the 29-year-old Fuhr and 31-year-old right wing Glenn Anderson, a 413-goal career scorer, from Edmonton. Still, it's going to be a long way back from more than a decade of mismanagement, but Fletcher, who built the Calgary Flames into champions, is the right man for the job.
The back injury that Wayne Gretzky suffered during the Canada Cup isn't expected to be debilitating, which is excellent news both for the Smythe Division favorite Los Angeles Kings and the sport. In the tournament, the Kid was playing like a kid again, perhaps in anticipation of going to the candy store once more with Jari Kurri. Kurri, who averaged 49 goals a year when he played with Gretzky in Edmonton, is back in the NHL after playing a season in Italy. The Kings traded for Kurd's rights in a three-way deal with Edmonton and Philadelphia that cost them Duchesne, their best offensive defense-man. Los Angeles hopes that the maturation of Rob Blake, their impressive second-year defenseman, the acquisition of another veteran ex-Oiler, Charlie Huddy, and the arrival of rookie Darryl Sydor will fill the void.