If Bob Kudelski, a 36-point scorer as a wing last season, can't become a decent second-line center, the Kings will be in a jam, because they don't have much depth to trade for a No. 2 pivot. They haven't gotten past the second round in the playoffs since Gretzky's arrival in 1988, but the decline of Calgary and Edmonton has opened a window of opportunity. And L.A. should seize that opportunity quickly. Gretzky is 30, Kurri is 31, and the Kings still rely on wing Dave Taylor, 35, and defenseman Larry Robinson, 40.
If the left knee of No. 1 center Joe Nieuwendyk, which required minor surgery following an injury in Canada Cup training camp, isn't right, a lot figures to go wrong in Calgary. The Flames' depth, the best in the NHL the last few seasons, has largely disappeared. Their two fire-breathing forwards—Gary Roberts and the remarkable 5'6" Theoren Fleury, a 51-goal scorer last season—aren't big enough to play policeman, and the defense lacks a bouncer. The best set of point cannons in the league, Al MacInnis and Gary Suter, still makes Calgary dangerous, but two straight first-round postseason failures suggest the Flames need a personality transplant to get back over the playoff hump.
The Oilers' clearance sale is nearing completion. After Messier is traded, defenseman Kevin Lowe will be the only remaining player from all five of Edmonton's Cup-winning teams. "We'll still be in the hunt," claims Sather. If Sather can bolster a thin corps of centers in the Messier deal, the Oilers, now coached by Ted Green, will be more than an idle threat. Damphousse, Petr Klima, Craig Simpson, Joe Murphy and Esa Tikkanen will still provide ample firepower, and the defense is big and bruising. Fuhr's departure leaves no question in goal: Bill Ranford carried the Oilers to the 1990 Cup.
A March trade that brought center Cliff Ronning and wingers Geoff Court-nail and Sergio Momesso from St. Louis keyed the Vancouver Canucks' late rush to a playoff spot. As a result, delusions of grandeur—this is the year for third place!—have overtaken the Canucks, who have not had a winning season since 1975-76. But Ronning, at 5'8", isn't exactly a prototypical No. 1 center, and Courtnall is with his fifth team in five years. What does that tell you? Vancouver won't turn the corner for good until two brilliant young talents, Soviet winger Pavel Bure and Czech center Petr Nedved, grow into dominating players.
The Winnipeg Jets can move the puck, but it never seems to wind up in the net. Last season the Jets had only two forwards—Pat Elynuik and Ed Olczyk—who scored more than 20 goals. This team has to get bigger and stronger to get better.
There wasn't much talent in the expansion draft, so San Jose went for muscle. Assuming the Sharks flex it and catch some clubs coming off Napa Valley wine tours, they'll win 15 games. San Jose's top entry-draft pick, 19-year-old forward Pat Falloon, will play whether he's ready or not. The goaltending (Brian Hayward, Jeff Hackett, Latvian rookie Artur Irbe) may be decent. It had better be.