"Taking over the Canadiens," says 30-year-old Claude Ruel, Montreal's new coach and the youngest in the NHL, "is not like going to a fifth-place team, where you can finish fourth or third or second. With the Canadiens, there is only one place to move and that is down."
M. Ruel omits mention of standing fast at the summit, which is the more likely outcome. From former Coach Toe Blake he inherits a team that won nine regular-season championships and eight Stanley Cups in 13 years—a set team with no discernible weakness. The goaltending is superb, the defense in front of it is big, quick and tough, and the offense—well, nobody attacks like those Frenchmen.
Jean Beliveau, beginning his 18th season, leads the way once more. Last year Beliveau finished with 31 goals and 37 assists, although he played in only 59 games. The Canadiens rewarded him with a salary they are certain ranks among the two or three highest in hockey. Behind Beliveau are three more outstanding centers—Ralph Backstrom, Jacques Lemaire (who some believe should have been Rookie of the Year for 1967-68) and Henri Richard, who had an extraordinary training camp. Wings Bobby Rousseau, Yvan Cournoyer and Gilles Tremblay all scored more than 50 points last season.
"People ask me, 'Claude, how you going to do?' " says Ruel. "I say, these players will answer for me. The other night against Houston they put 30 shots on their net in the first period and only let Houston across its own blue line twice. What can I say after that?"
Unfinished work on the Forum will keep the Canadiens on the road until November 2. When they open at home they will get a big reception—if they win. The Forum fans can't abide a loser.
NEW YORK RANGERS
In one of hockey's more remarkable coaching performances, Emile Francis required only two years to lift the Rangers from a succession of fifth-and sixth-place finishes to two straight berths in the Stanley Cup playoffs. For the most part he did it with the same players who had been finishing fifth—with one notable exception, of course. The spirit and determination of Bernie Geoffrion. Francis insisted, gave an invaluable lift to the new Rangers. So when Francis decided after last season to devote all his time to his job as general manager, it came as no surprise that he chose Geoffrion as his successor.
The dark, square-jawed ex-Canadien opens with the finest Ranger team in 25 years. Last year Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle combined for a 1-2 scoring punch second only to that of Chicago's Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull. Ratelle blossomed in particular, with 32 goals and 46 assists, to finish fourth in NHL scoring. Gilbert's 29 goals and 48 assists added up to the best year of his life. Behind those two, the Rangers also got big seasons from Phil Goyette, Bob Nevin and Donnie Marshall.
Defensively, Ed Giacomin had an excellent 2.44 goals-against average for 66 games and led the league with eight shutouts. This year promises more bad news for opposing forwards, since Giacomin and the same group of defensemen return: Jim Neilson, Arnie Brown, Harry Howell and Rod Seiling. They may be joined by a hot rookie, Brad Park.
Geoffrion has only defiance for the Canadiens. "We've got the players to finish first," he argues. "Look at last year—we finished only four points behind them then. Considering how much this team has improved in the last two years, I don't see any reason why we can't beat out Montreal."
In Boston there seems to be a remarkable relationship between violence and productivity. As the NHL's most penalized team, the Bruins finished third last season and made the playoffs for the first time in nine years. There is no doubt the Bruins again will score more than their share of goals. They are strong and deep at center, with clever Phil Esposito (35 goals), smooth Fred Stanfield (20) and brash Derek Sanderson (24), who was last year's best rookie. Although veteran Johnny Bucyk's bad back may cause him to miss many games, the Bruins also are loaded with good wings. But the team has three important "ifs." They are Bobby Orr's injured knees, Teddy Green's injured knees and injured pride, and one of the weakest goaltending combinations in the league.
The 20-year-old Orr, who missed 28 games with injuries (knees, shoulder separation, broken nose) last year but still was voted the league's best defenseman, has had three operations on his knees during the last two years. "Now they will be as good as new," Orr says optimistically. Green—Terrible Teddy to both his fans and rivals—seemed to recover from his knee miseries during the second half of last season, when he was one of the NHL's best defensemen. He played so well, in fact, that he wanted the Bruins to renegotiate the contract he had signed for this year. The club refused, and Green—his pride wounded—threatened to quit. If Orr is fit physically, and Green is both on hand and happy, the Bruins' defense will be strong, particularly since Don Awrey and Dallas Smith developed into solid NHL players a year ago.
Goaltending is the major problem. Neither Gerry Cheevers nor Ed Johnston is good enough to carry the team. Still, Boston might well finish third again.
CHICAGO BLACK HAWKS
Things were different in the Black Hawks' training camp this fall, and it wasn't just the banging of hammers and whining of buzzsaws as workers refurbished Chicago Stadium. "Everybody's here," said Defenseman Doug Jarrett, "and everybody's working."
That was the difference. Last year Bobby Hull worked his cattle ranch in Ontario for a few extra days and Goalie Denis DeJordy held out for a few extra dollars, while those who were in camp seemed to be coasting on the memory of the previous season's championship. As a result, the Hawks got off to a horrible start and never fully recovered.
Even though Stan Mikita won the scoring championship with 87 points and Hull scored 44 goals (following his 54-and 52-goal years), Chicago slipped into the playoffs only because Toronto could not beat the expansion teams. Except for Kenny Wharram and Doug Mohns up front, there was little else to cheer.
"We need help at center ice," says Coach Billy Reay. "There's no secret about that."
Reay has been searching but not finding, which makes the 222 goals the Hawks gave up last year (exceeded in the East only by Detroit's 257) seem all the more ominous, and the Chicago defensemen have been so atrocious that Reay prohibited them from dressing with the rest of the team during camp.
With Pierre Pilote drafted by Toronto, the Hawks probably will pair Doug Jarrett with Matt Ravlich and Pat Stapleton with Gilles Marotte, last year's biggest disappointment. DeJordy, no Glenn Hall, will be in goal and Dave Dryden will back him up.
It is difficult to imagine a team with Mikita and Hull missing the playoffs, but unless the Hawks improve on defense and at center they may manage to.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Punch Imlach, the Grand Guru of the Maple Leafs, is growling again on Carlton Street in Toronto. Last year Punch seemed to mellow, and the Leafs, who had won four Stanley Cups in six years, missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons. "I thought the old guys deserved one more chance after winning all those cups," Imlach said, "so I took it easy with them." That approach failed miserably, and now after a summer's brooding, Punch is back in familiar living color—beet red. "I'm not running any hippie joint," he told the Leafs in camp. "You, Gamble, and you, Walton, and you, Carleton—trim those sideburns or you won't get any skates."
Next Punch borrowed the Russian national hockey team's rigorous PT exercise program, which certainly will make the Leafs physically tougher. Imlach also has made some smart trades. Last February, realizing the playoffs were a mirage, he acquired the line of Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith from Detroit, and during the off season he drafted Defenseman Pierre Pilote from Chicago. Along with Goalies Johnny Bower and Bruce Gamble, Defensemen Tim Horton and Marcel Pronovost, Centers Dave Keon and Mike Walton and Wings George Armstrong, Ron Ellis and Bobby Pulford, they provide Toronto with a solid but not youthful team. Bower, for instance, is 43, while Horton, Pronovost, Pilote and Armstrong all are closer to 40 than 35. The Leafs play a tight, close-checking defensive-type game, however, and this style does not tire old bodies too much. Now Imlach hopes to find a few kids with muscle.
The Leafs played timidly last year. If they turn belligerent again and if Imlach can keep the whip cracking all season, there probably will be hockey on Carlton Street next April.
DETROIT RED WINGS
It is no coincidence that the new coach of the Red Wings, Bill Gadsby, used to be an All-Star defenseman. Last year the Wings scored more goals (245) than ever before, yet finished a distant last in the East. The trouble was in a defense that gave up a goal for each one Detroit scored. Now that Sid Abel has become general manager full time and Gadsby has taken over behind the bench, Detroit fans are hoping for better times.
During the off season the Wings traded for some help, getting Bobby Baun, a clever 32-year-old ex-Maple Leaf, from Oakland. Baun will team with either Gary Bergman or Kent Douglas. Bergman is one of the league's better defensemen, and Douglas, simply because he has shed 15 pounds, might have a big year. But Detroit still must fill the No. 4 and 5 spots, and none of the six players trying out for them has been particularly impressive. Roger Crozier, who quit and then unquit last year, returns in goal. Apparently Crozier has reached the conclusion he can't beat hockey for the hours or the money even though it means stopping a 100-mph slap shot now and then. He will be spelled by Roy Edwards.
As before, Detroit will have little difficulty putting the puck in the net; Red Wing forwards traditionally attack in waves. Unfortunately they are rather poor at helping out on defense. Gordie Howe, 40, and Alex Delvecchio, nearing 37, come off splendid seasons, Howe having scored 39 goals. Frank Mahovlich is happier the farther he gets from Toronto Coach Punch Imlach and could score 30 goals, maybe more. He will play opposite Howe on a line centered by a 20-year-old rookie, Garry Unger.
Detroit has missed the playoffs two years in a row. If Crozier and a couple of the questionable defensemen play well, the Wings will make it. If not, forget it.