Who's afraid of Bob Woolf? Consult the mighty conglomerate of Bobby Orr-Phil Esposito, Ltd., also known as the Boston Bruins. Woolf is the Boston lawyer-agent who negotiated those astronomical WHA contracts for Goaltender Gerry Cheevers and Center Derek Sanderson, the free spirits whose locker-room antics kept the Stanley Cup champions loose. The Bruins also lost Johnny McKenzie and Teddy Green to the WHA. And they lost Eddie Westfall, who with Sanderson formed the best penalty-killing unit this side of Valeri Kharlamov and Vladimir Petrov, to the New York Islanders in the expansion draft. "They all hurt," winces Defenseman Don Awrey.
The defection of Cheevers, who had a 32-game unbeaten streak last year, hurts the most. Not dreaming that a horseplayer of Cheevers' seriousness would ever leave a city offering the convenience of four racetracks within an hour's drive, the Bruins permitted Atlanta to draft Danny Bouchard from their roster. Bouchard was the best young goalie outside the NHL last year, excluding, of course, Vladislav Tretiak. Now, barring an unlikely trade, Boston has only 36-year-old Eddie Johnston as a known quantity in the nets.
The condition of Orr's tender knees is another negative factor. Let's be frank—it has Bruin fans sick with fear. Orr had his fourth knee operation last June and his recovery has been unexpectedly slow. So slow, in fact, that he may not be able to play in the Orr fashion until Christmas. Although Dallas Smith, Carol Vadnais and Awrey are competent defensemen and Vadnais is a rushing threat, there is but one Orr.
When Phil Esposito slipped from 76 to 66 goals, people were muttering slump. You and I should have such a slump. He will have his regular musclemen, Ken Hodge and Wayne Cashman, back and digging in the corners. Elbows high, of course. "Unless Orr and Esposito change their styles," says Coach Tom Johnson, "we should be the same type of team as before." The same type, yes. But hardly the same team. Still, there should be just enough Bruin left to beat New York.
One Boston player says, "The Rangers will be so busy reading The Wall Street Journal they won't have time to practice." Ain't necessarily so. Manager-Coach Emile Francis returns with practically the same lineup that finished second and then lost a gallant cup final to Boston, and when Emile barks, the Rangers jump. No other team can match the combination of Ed Giacomin and Gilles Villemure in goal. Bumptious Brad Park and Rod Seiling anchor a stout defense. The line of Vic Hadfield, Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle—they were the top line in the NHL with 50, 43 and 46 goals respectively—has spurned the sweet rustle of WHA dollars for the greenbacks flashed by Francis. Each has signed a long-term $175,000-a-year contract.
Francis still must find a respectable left wing for Center Walt Tkaczuk, who signed for $125,000, and Right Wing Bill Fairbairn. Pete Stemkowski and Gene Carr, the apparent candidates, are natural centers who lack the discipline to restrict their activity to one side of the ice. But even if he doesn't find a left wing, the Rangers will never have a better chance to win the Stanley Cup that has eluded New York since 1940.
While Francis was learning the new economics of hockey, Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman was figuring how to beguile the Canadiens into a new muscularity. "My guys never got into shape last year," he said, "so instead of training in Montreal again, we decided to take them away." And away the Canadiens went to Nova Scotia for a week of Russian-style conditioning.
One week may not a Russian make. The Canadiens are essentially a mystery team. Gone are the superstars; no fewer than five rookies are expected to play regularly. Ever hear of Steve Shutt and Chuck Arnason? Well, they are Montreal wings. Dave Gardner and Larry Robinson? Starters both. Gardner and veteran Henri Richard are the only true centers on Bowman's roster. Last year Yvan Cournoyer somehow managed to score 47 goals with impostors centering for him, and center is still the problem. "Gardner will get the first shot," Bowman says. Defenseman Robinson, who is 6'1", 190 pounds and can play both sides, will try to replace All-Star J. C. Tremblay, who went to the WHA.
Bowman intends to reduce Goaltender Ken Dryden's work from last year's league-high of 64 games to about 50. "I thought Dryden was very tired at the end of the schedule and in the playoffs," the coach says. On defense, Serge Savard—hockey's unluckiest player—seems completely recovered from all his broken legs and cracked ankles. If so, he could become the leader the Canadiens lost when Jean Beliveau retired. Cournoyer and the Mahovlich brothers, Frank (43 goals) and Peter (35), are certain of jobs, but everything else, says Bowman, is a "mixed puzzle."
The liveliest battle in the East may be the struggle for fourth place—and the final playoff berth—between Detroit and Toronto. They share a dilemma: their No. 1 goaltenders last year (Detroit's Al Smith and Toronto's Bernie Parent) have been bought off by the WHA. Detroit should be able to replace Smith adequately with Andy Brown or Gerry Gray, but Toronto will not be able to find another Parent. "I know that at my age I cannot play more than, oh, 30 games," says 43-year-old Jacques Plante, who was Parent's backup goalie in Toronto.
The Red Wings became a cohesive team last year when Ned Harkness moved his headquarters out of the dressing room and let a new coach, Johnny Wilson, handle the players. "Harkness just never understood us," one player says. Nevertheless, Harkness has been a shrewd general manager, getting Mickey Redmond (42 goals), Red Berenson (28) and Defenseman Ron Stackhouse in excellent trades and selecting Marcel Dionne No. 1 in the amateur draft against the advice of most old pros. The "too-small" Dionne scored 28 goals and led all rookies with 77 points. "We have a playoff club now," Harkness declares.
Besides Parent, Toronto lost Defensemen Brad Selwood and Ricky Ley and Center Jim Harrison, its only menacing forward, to the WHA. "I'm afraid we won't know how bad we are until we see the final death toll," says Brian Glennie, a defenseman who would rather fight than switch. The Leafs will be bad enough. Stopgap goaltenders are easy to find, but starting goalies of Parent's caliber are jewels. Because of the defective defense, creaky Bob Baun will have to take a regular turn again. All the Toronto forwards are relatively small and they tend to avoid the corners.
It will be a short season for the Vancouver Canucks, the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Islanders, since all three teams can expect to be out of the playoff race by about Nov. 1. Each has a new coach. Vic Stasiuk takes over at Vancouver, Joe Crozier steps in for Punch Imlach, now the general manager only, at Buffalo, and Phil Goyette teaches the rejects on Long Island.
Like Detroit and Toronto, Vancouver desperately needs a goaltender. The Canucks' two best defensemen, Jocelyn Guevremont and Dale Tallon, prefer to rush the puck rather than stop it, and most of the forwards prefer to stop it rather than rush it. "We've got to get things straightened out," Stasiuk says.
In Buffalo Punch Imlach seems to uncover a sensational rookie prospect every year. Gilbert Perreault was first, then came Richard Martin, who scored 44 goals as a rookie last season. Imlach now has found a strong young defenseman—20-year-old Jim Schoenfeld, who played across the bridge at Niagara Falls a year ago. To help Schoenfeld get acquainted with the NHL, Imlach is paying 43-year-old Tim Horton more than $100,000 as tutor-in-residence. Horton will help Goaltender Roger Crozier (no kin to Joe) keep what hair he has left by clearing away the loose pucks that Crozier's own men used to shoot past him. "Horton is the only major league defenseman Buffalo has ever had," Imlach says.
There is no press box in the Nassau Coliseum, where the Islanders will play their home games, and that figures: they will be so bad no one may want to read about them, anyway. Eight of the players selected by the Islanders in the expansion draft took one look and jumped to the WHA.
Eddie Westfall will be the one scoring threat. Top draft choice Billy Harris scored 70 goals in amateur hockey last year. Wait till this year. The defense is such that Goaltenders Gerry Desjardins and Denis DeJordy can forget about all those peaceful nights they spent on the bench in Chicago and Montreal last year. And Westfall can forget about drinking champagne from the Stanley Cup again. Unless the Islanders trade him back to—well—Boston.
The cutting edge of the Sabre attack is Gil Perreault.
Orr's slow recovery from knee surgery has set off alarms in Boston, where he is revered.
Emile Francis dreams of but one thing: now perhaps it could be his.