As the NHL unveils yet another 840-game preseason before the serious stuff begins in April, the Stanley Cup resides on Long Island, Don Cherry is perusing the "coach wanted" ads, and a new rule entitled "Fisticuffs" will attempt to stop the ice-boxing. Rule No. 54 states that when two players start duking it out, all other players must retreat to a designated neutral area away from the action. During exhibition games, though, no players bothered to look for those neutral zones. With that example in mind, we'll be anything but neutral in our analysis of the season ahead.
Three Coaches Who Could Be Fired by Christmas:
1) Roger Neilson, Buffalo. Captain Video's boring technical and defensive approach to the game put the people of Toronto to sleep when he coached the Maple Leafs; now he replaces Scotty Bowman behind the Sabres' bench, with Bowman restricting his role to that of general manager. During training camp Neilson offered the Sabres at least four videotaped "courses," such as Moving the Puck Out of Your Own End 101. If Forward Danny Gare and Defenseman Jim Schoenfeld aren't TV freaks, Neilson will be in trouble.
2) Keith Magnuson, Chicago. Last spring Black Hawks Coach Eddie Johnston dismissed Assistant Coach Magnuson after Magnuson had sided with General Manager Bob Pulford in a debate over the merits of Goaltender Tony Esposito, a Johnston favorite. Then the Black Hawks decided not to re-sign Johnston and hired Magnuson, a former Hawk defenseman who retired early last season, to replace him. If Magnuson can't keep Tony-O happy, forget it.
3) Fred Shero, New York Rangers. As the Rangers opened training camp, Shero told them, "Hello, my name is Fred Shero. Over the summer I took a course in communication. And I passed it." Freddy the Fog also publicly admitted he had a drinking problem last season. The Rangers have revamped their front-office staff, disposing of all of Shero's cronies. A bad start and Shero will be gone, too. Former Ranger star Rod Gilbert is in the wings at New Haven.
Statistics Aside, the Two Goaltenders You'd Give Anything to Have on Your Roster:
1) Mike Liut, St. Louis. Liut started 62 of the Blues' 80 games last season after joining them from the WHA; thanks largely to him, St. Louis was the NHL's most improved team, winning 34 games after only 18 victories the previous year. "Without Liut," says one NHL general manager, "St. Louis is nothing."
2) Tony Esposito, Chicago. Why the Black Hawks would ever dream of doubting this man's performance ranks as No. 1 on any list of stupid questions.
The Three Players You'd Want to Have the Puck on a Breakaway in Sudden-Death Overtime of the Seventh Game of the Stanley Cup Finals:
1) Guy Lafleur, Montreal. By a country mile. Cool-hand Guy—the best player in the game—makes more good moves than the seven Santini brothers put together.
2) Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton. He'll fake a forehand shot, fake a backhand shot, then neatly undress the goaltender and slide the puck into the open net.
3) Rick Middleton, Boston. As the puck enters the net, Middleton will be splattered against the goalpost.
The Two Most Overrated Players in the Game:
1) Gilbert Perreault, Buffalo. When the going gets tough, Perreault gets going—the other way. He's a center who can't make a good pass or orchestrate a play; his game is totally one-dimensional, consisting of weaving rink-long rushes that may be spectacular to watch but too often produce nothing except ooohs and aaahs.
2) Barry Beck, New York Rangers. Shero practically mortgaged the franchise last November to acquire Beck from Colorado. Supposedly a muscle-flexing, puck-carrying defenseman, Beck rarely hit anybody and made no rink-long rushes that reminded people of Bobby Orr. Harry Howell, maybe, but definitely not Orr. Beck also suffers from a lack of quickness and mobility. Now he has got headaches, too. But the biggest migraine in New York belongs to those Ranger diehards who have gone 40 years without seeing their team win the Stanley Cup. Too bad, but the best advice for this season is to keep the aspirin at the ready.
The Most Underrated Player in the Game:
Danny Gare, Buffalo. Although he was a second-team All Star last season after scoring 56 goals, Gare is always an afterthought in a city that has had a long love affair with hotshots Perreault and Richard Martin. But Gare is the spunk, the guts, of the Sabres. He is also fearless.
The Worst Cheap-Shot Artist:
Ken (Rat) Linseman, Philadelphia. Don't ever turn your back on No. 14. His best move is the crosscheck, followed closely by the trip from behind. He's also a loudmouth, but he rarely, if ever, backs up his verbiage by dropping his gloves. He will be idle probably until Christmas because of a cracked tibia.
The Two Most Important Acquisitions by Trade:
1) Mike Palmateer, Washington. If he keeps his head and reduces his popcorn intake, Palmateer could provide the Caps with their first taste of major-league goaltending. They need it. Washington is starting the seventh year of its Five-Year Plan, and the natives are restless.
2) Rogatien Vachon, Boston. A goaltending star in Montreal and L.A. but a dud the last two years in Detroit, Vachon, 35, will see less rubber in Boston. But there are questions about his vision and his reflexes.
Two Rookies Who Could Be Phenoms:
1) David Babych, Winnipeg. General Manager John Ferguson wisely is taking the Islanders' road to success. He rejected offers of big bucks and big-name players for the right to draft Babych, believing the defenseman will develop into at least a Denis Potvin.
2) Doug Wickenheiser, Montreal. Les Canadiens desperately need sizable centers, and Wickenheiser, the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft, goes 6' and 200 pounds. With lucky Pierre Mondou ailing, Wickenheiser will have fast company in his debut; Coach Claude Ruel plans to have him center a line for Lafleur and Steve Shutt.
The Biggest Busts of 1979-80:
1) Rob Ramage, Colorado. Touted as the greatest teen-aged defenseman since Orr, No. 1 draft pick Ramage flopped with the Rockies as a rookie. Management says that deposed Coach Don Cherry destroyed Ramage's morale. Let's wait and see what happens to him under new Coach Billy MacMillan.
2) Tie: Barry Beck, Rangers, and Behn Wilson, Philadelphia. These two young defensemen missed the team bus too many nights.
Six Kids to Build a Franchise Around:
1) Goaltender—Liut, 24. He's dependable and good.
2) Defense—Babych, 19. Minnesota offered Winnipeg four regulars for him; Montreal bid three players who own Stanley Cup rings.
3) Defense—Ray Bourque, 19. Rookie of the Year and a first-team All Star last season, he's already Boston's main man.
4) Center—Gretzky, 19. Edmonton's one-man team; last season he was the league's MVP and also the winner of the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play.
5) Wing—Mike Foligno, 21. He scored 36 goals as a Detroit rookie in 1979-80. No telling how good he might be if the Wings had other good players to skate with him.
6) Wing—Ryan Walter, 22. Like all the Washington Caps, he has taken his lumps, but those days are over.
The Team with the Worst Fans:
New York Rangers. One can get higher than a kite just by breathing the air in Madison Square Garden. For $5 any usher will permit you to sit in an aisle and obstruct the view of a season-ticket holder who's paying $15 for his seat. But worst of all, the Garden regular invariably arrives eight minutes into the period, watches for four minutes and then returns to one of the building's watering spots until the eight-minute point of the next period.
The City with the Most Unique Fans:
Boston. Not only do Bruin fans know more about the game than any other spectators in the U.S., they lend a humorous touch to the proceedings with their broad-A criticisms. Such as this comment: "Hey, Claahk, we named a town heah aftah you—Mahbulhead."
The Best Referees:
1) Andy van Hellemond. He is direct and decisive, but best of all, he refuses to let players delay games by peppering him with verbal gibberish between face-offs.
2) John McCauley. He seems detached, but he controls the action; the action does not control him.
The Worst Referees:
1) Tie among all the rest.
The Five Teams That Will Not Make the Playoffs:
1) Quebec. The league's worst-run organization, and the NHL's answer to the Ice Follies.
2) Winnipeg. Ferguson and Babych will have their day, but it won't come this season.
3) Vancouver. The Canucks are so short of quality players that General Manager Jake Milford recently offered another NHL team more than $1 million for four of its excess skaters.
4) Detroit. If the new coach, Terrible Ted Lindsay, would skate up and also lure Gordie Howe back into a Red Wings uniform, they could play on a line with Foligno.
5) St. Louis. Don't blame Liut.
The Eight Teams That Will Be Eliminated in Round 1:
1) Toronto. Those extraordinary players Darryl Sittler and Borje Salming deserve a better fate. If the Maple Leafs avoid the rebellion and chaos that have marked their recent seasons, give the Nobel Peace Prize to new Coach Joe Crozier. If not, impeach owner Harold Ballard.
2) Chicago. Nobody will know what happens to the Black Hawks in postseason action because no one will be able to afford the outrageous prices that Chicago traditionally charges for playoff tickets.
3) Washington. The young Caps will be so happy to make the playoffs for the first time that they will do a total El Foldo in three quick games.
4) Hartford. If the Whalers fail to sign 56-goal-scorer Blaine Stoughton, whose contract they botched up this summer, Mike Rogers—44 goals, 61 assists—will have to do it alone.
5) Edmonton. The Oilers' playoff opponent will assign all five skaters to shadow The Great Gretzky.
6) Pittsburgh. The Steelers never lose in the first round, but the Penguins usually do.
7) Los Angeles. Scoring champion Marcel Dionne has a new $3.6 million contract, and Owner Jerry Buss is spending $5.2 million to buy the mansion Pickfair, but talent—not money—wins the Stanley Cup.
8) Colorado. As the Rockies head home trailing their playoff rival two games to zip in the best-of-five series, they will be faced with rumors that the owners want to move the franchise to the New Jersey Meadowlands for the 1981-82 season. Give me Aspen or give me Vail, the Rockies will scream, but don't give me Hackensack.
Four Teams That Will Lose in the Quarterfinals:
1)Montreal. Paging Ken Dryden. Paging Jacques Lemaire. Lafleur is the NHL's best forward, and Larry Robinson its best defenseman, but after that Les Canadiens are just ordinary. Paging Scotty Bowman.
2) Buffalo. Once again the Sabres' Don Edwards and Robert Sauvè will win the Vezina Trophy for yielding the fewest goals, and once again Perreault will dazzle the less knowledgeable fans. But once again the Sabres' highlights film will not be titled: Road to the Stanley Cup.
3) New York Rangers. And so it will be 41 years without the Stanley Cup. Oh, well, the Ooo-La-La boys will still be able to get their tables up front at Elaine's.
4) Calgary. The Flames won only two of 17 playoff games in their eight seasons in Atlanta, but playing in the Canadian hinterlands means that Goalie Danny Bouchard and friends cannot hide after a poor effort.
The Two Teams That Will Not Make the Cup Finals:
1) Minnesota. Center Bobby Smith, Defenseman Craig Hartsburg and all the other members of General Manager Lou (Lou from the Soo) Nanne's Kiddie Korps must be patient. They are still a Drydenesque goaltender away.
2) Boston. On the eve of the Kentucky Derby, that noted horseman Coach Gerry Cheevers will resist all temptations to unretire and play goal in the semifinals. If Brad Park's ailing knees hold up, the Bruins could be the surprise team of the league. At long last they have a supply of youthful talent ready to replace ancient warriors such as Wayne Cashman and Jean Ratelle.
The Team That Will Lose in the Stanley Cup Finals:
Philadelphia. It's Game 7, sudden-death overtime, and Linseman is in the penalty box for cross-checking Bryan Trottier. The Philly penalty killers are weary; the Flyers have had 23 penalties called against them in this seventh game, which now is in its sixth hour. Bobby Clarke of Philadelphia shoots the puck the length of the ice and...
The Team That Will Win the Stanley Cup:
...the Islanders' Denis Potvin picks it up behind his own net. Potvin weaves out to his left and passes cross-ice to Mike Bossy, who fires the puck around the boards and into the corner, where Clark Gillies muscles Jimmy Watson out of the way and snaps it into the slot to Trottier. Before Clarke can say "Rats," Trottier rifles a forehand drive past Goaltender Pelle Lindbergh. The red light flashes on, champagne corks pop, and pandemonium reigns on Long Island for the second straight spring.
The First Words Out of the Mouths of the Losing Players in the Stanley Cup Final:
"If the referees hadn't called all those lousy penalties on us, we'd have beaten the Islanders in four straight."
STANLEY CUP CHAMPION