Only one thing in Hockey may be shrinking faster than the number of NHL teams with a realistic chance of dethroning the Calgary Flames: the average tenure of an NHL coach. Since April, nine coaches have been replaced, bringing to 56 the number of coaching changes since the start of the 1984-85 season. In fact, it's far easier to separate a coach from his job than it is to break a team's grip on the Stanley Cup. Of the five champions that preceded the Flames, only the Montreal Canadiens, who won in '86, failed to repeat at least once. So, we'll venture two predictions for the '89-90 season: The Flames will roll, and so will heads.
Talk about job insecurity. Only two teams, the Washington Capitals and the Detroit Red Wings, are still coached by the same men who held the job at the beginning of the '86-87 season. Bryan Murray, who is beginning his ninth season in Washington, survives the annual inquisition that follows his team's April failures because general manager David Poile calmly, rationally and untypically concludes that no other available coach would do a better job. Jacques Demers is beginning his fourth year with the Red Wings because he isn't above massaging the egos of his key players. "You have to get along with the important people." says Demers.
Although 10 teams will open the season with coaches who have never played in the league, the trend appears to be swinging away from the technocrats. The guy with a B.S. in exercise physiology and an M.S. in psychology who realized early in life that he organized games better than he played them seems to be on his way out. Ted Sator, who was canned by the Buffalo Sabres after last season, is the latest casualty of this ilk. He joins Jacques Martin (late of the St. Louis Blues), Tom Watt (Vancouver Canucks), Herb Brooks (Minnesota North Stars) and Jean Perron (Quebec Nordiques)—all cerebral types awaiting another turn behind the bench.
The clubs that replaced them all decided to go with coaches more familiar with NHL corners than with college classrooms. While it's incorrect to suggest that coaching applicants should now list missing teeth instead of degrees on their rèsumès, the flow of innovation from outside the professional game is slowing.
What's good about all the turnover is that some guys who didn't get a fair chance the first time, the second time or, in the case of the New York Rangers' new coach, Roger Neilson, even the fourth time they were hired to coach an NHL team are getting another opportunity. The bad news is that they probably won't have long to prove themselves in their current jobs, either. When these coaches are fired, they shouldn't despair. Expansion to 24 teams is in the air—perhaps as early as the 1992-93 season—which means that when the music stops, there will be three more chairs to jump into. As always, former coaches will line up to fill these slots, even though they know they almost certainly won't have them for long. Says Sator, who's working as a Boston Bruin assistant as he awaits his third opportunity to run a team, "I'd rather have a short chance than no chance at all."
Those words could double as the battle cry for the 20 teams sizing up their hopes of overtaking Calgary. The Flames had the best team in the league last season, and they still have most of it. Champions repeat more frequently in the NHL than in other major leagues because it has no meaningful free agency to strip teams of their best players.
Also, scant spoils go to NHL winners. Not one of the Flames wrote a book in the off-season. (However, a judge may throw the book at defenseman Al MacInnis, last season's Conn Smythe Trophy winner, who was charged with assault after a fight in a bar last summer.) And though small fortunes—11 Flames were given new contracts—were gained in the off-season, not much fame was realized from the franchise's first championship.
MacInnis went to Disneyland. Lanny McDonald, after 16 years in the league and a fairy-tale goal in the clinching victory over Montreal in the Stanley Cup finals, went to pasture. Hakan Loob went back to play in his native Sweden. The rest of the Flames held their training camp in the Soviet Union, where it's all but impossible to get fat and satisfied.
One indication of Calgary's bottomless depth is that it won the Cup despite a cold finals (one goal) by Joe Nieuwendyk, who had 51 goals during the regular season. The Flames also won without Gary Suter, one of the league's best offensive defensemen, who was sidelined by a broken jaw early in the playoffs. In addition, Calgary will replace Loob with Sergei Makarov of the U.S.S.R. (page 44), who might be the world's best right wing. No question—the Flames should repeat.
Elsewhere in the Smythe Division, Wayne Gretzky settled his score with the Edmonton Oilers by leading the Los Angeles Kings past the Oilers in the first round of the playoffs. Hockey has arrived in L.A., but the Kings gave up a lot of young players and draft choices to obtain Gretzky from Edmonton. As a result, they not only have to win today but also have to do it with yesterday's players. A roster that included graybeards like Ron Duguay, John Tonelli, Dave Taylor and Steve Kasper ran low on gas against Calgary in the division finals, which the Flames won in four games. So what did the Kings do in the off-season? They signed Larry Robinson, 38, away from Montreal and coaxed Barry Beck, 32, who hasn't played since 1985-86, out of retirement. Los Angeles now has an All-Star lineup. Unfortunately, it's the '79 All-Star team.
Edmonton still has some of the game's best players, including goalie Grant Fuhr, who retired briefly during the summer before he found out that it was the league, not the Oilers, that was refusing to allow him to advertise a soft drink on his pads. An appendectomy will sideline Fuhr for the first month of the season, but more serious surgery is needed on Edmonton's shaky defense. Also, center Jimmy Carson, the prime acquisition in the Gretzky deal, wants to play in the States. That is one of several reasons that the time is right for Glen Sather to give up coaching and become a full-time general manager. He has a lot of work to do.
In June 1988 the Vancouver Canucks finally drafted a skilled, good-character player around whom they can build. Center Trevor Linden, 19, more than fulfilled expectations by scoring 30 goals. In the first round of the playoffs, only an outstanding seventh-game overtime save by Calgary goalie Mike Vernon kept the Canucks from eliminating the Flames. Defenseman Paul Reinhart, an old, broken-down nag rescued from the Calgary glue factory, helped Vancouver amass the third-best goals-against average in the league. It's not clear how the Canucks did this, even with Reinhart, so there's no telling if they can do it again. Nonetheless, the addition of two players from the Soviet Red Army team, center Igor Larionov and left wing Vladimir Krutov, and the welcome toning down of Vancouver's infamous Halloween uniforms may finally give this long-cursed franchise a ghost of a chance.
The mandate of Bob Murdoch, the new coach of the hapless Winnipeg Jets, is to help find offensive support for Dale Hawerchuk, a superb scorer whose attitude and production have suffered as a result of his being a one-man show. Murdoch also needs a real goalie to replace the ice sculptures the Jets have been using.
While Calgary had to do major construction to break Edmonton's reign atop the Smythe from 1981-87, Norris Division teams have always believed that a hammer, a few nails and some cheap paint are enough to make them the best on the block. This thinking, which is about as deep as a Norris team's roster, may finally be changing.
Iron Mike Keenan, who had been accused of cracking the whip too often when he coached the Philadelphia Flyers, was brought in by the Chicago Blackhawks last season to provide some discipline. When he said "Jump" during an early-season practice, Denis Savard, the Hawks' star scorer, almost leaped over the boards and walked out. Teammates persuaded Savard to remain on the ice, but one couldn't be sure the Chicago players were buying Keenan's program until general manager Bob Pulford acquired goalie Alain Chevrier from Winnipeg last January. The Blackhawks then marched fairly easily through two rounds of postseason play.
"Last season was an educational process, not only for Denis but for the entire team," Keenan said early in this year's training camp. "We threw a lot of challenges at him and he responded. In the end they all realized what we were trying to accomplish." Still, this training camp opened with Savard wondering about Keenan's methods. "He tries to embarrass you in front of the team,"' Savard said. "He tries to get you going that way. I'm not saying it's the wrong way or the right way.... I can't control what Mike does but I'm going to score 35 to 40 goals and 120 points and have fun." Keenan believes the Hawks have a potential star in rookie Jeremy Roenick (nine goals and nine assists in 20 games last season) and might want to build around him instead of the sensitive Savard.
Detroit, which appeared to be on the rise two years ago, needed a monstrous season by Steve Yzerman (155 points) just to reach .500. The Red Wings were hurt by alcohol and drug abuse: Right wing Bob Probert was banned from the NHL for life after he was arrested for transporting cocaine across the Canadian border, and left wing Petr Klima was charged with drunk driving for the third time; he has been convicted once and has served a 28-day jail term for violation of probation. Then, while the other teams in the division finally appear to be thinking long-term by holding on to draft choices and building with youth, the Wings went out and made themselves older through off-season trades.
The St. Louis Blues sent their alltime leading scorer, Bernie Federko, 33, to Detroit for center Adam Oates, 27. But if the Blues improve, it will be because their rookie center, Rod Brind' Amour, turns out to be the real thing.
The Minnesota No Stars must have realized just how badly they had overrated their talent when Dave Gagner, a retread who started 1988-89 in the minors, became their leading scorer by a wide margin. Pierre Page, who took over as coach last season, did give Minnesota some understanding of the terms "self-sacrifice" and "playing defense," so some respectability, if not excitement, has been regained. The North Stars need a big rookie year from center Mike Modano, the first pick in the '88 draft, to move up another notch.
For eight consecutive years the Toronto Maple Leafs have had no worse than the seventh pick in the draft, and they still haven't become respectable. The prospects for improvement will remain nonexistent until Harold Ballard, the Leafs' tragicomic 86-year-old owner, stops embarrassing himself and his coaches with his meddlesome antics.
Five of the six teams in the not-quite-what-it-used-to-be Patrick Division are either one good rookie or a smart trade away from finishing first. Those same teams are also one costly injury away from missing the playoffs.
After reaching the semifinals of the playoffs in 1987-88, the New Jersey Devils failed to qualify for postseason play last season. Now the Devils, who have one of the league's best goalies in Sean Burke, have added world-class defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov of the Soviet Union to an already sound defense. They have also added scoring punch up front with the acquisitions of Walt Poddubny from the Quebec Nordiques and Sylvain Turgeon from the Hartford Whalers. Don't be surprised if New Jersey wins its first division title.
When not burdened by injuries, Philadelphia may still have the best team in the division. But the Flyers are getting older and their bodies are failing them. Moreover, goalie Ron Hextall, who has been suspended for the season's first 12 games because of a slashing assault on Montreal's Chris Chelios in the playoffs refuses to play until he gets a new contract. In his absence, Philly should get capable goaltending from Ken Wregget, but too many of the Flyers' best players will be thirtysomething by season's end.
After a protracted and clumsily conducted search, the Rangers gave the general manager's job to Neil Smith, 35, who had been Detroit's director of scouting. He replaces Phil Esposito, who fired coach Michel Bergeron four days before the start of the playoffs. Espo took over as coach and watched the Rangers go 0 for 4 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.
Smith promises stability, which is something new in New York. There will also be a fresh emphasis on defense with the hiring of Neilson, old Captain Video, who pioneered the study of videotape in the NHL when he coached Toronto in 1977-78. Trouble is, the Rangers also have a marshmallow middle—they have only two proven centers, Carey Wilson and Kelly Kisio—not suited for the Patrick Division grind.
Washington failed to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs for the seventh straight year because it was again outgoaltended. Then the Capitals allowed their No. 1 netminder, Pete Peeters, to slip away as a free agent. So far they have no replacement other than the recycled Don Beaupre and Bob Mason. They will get someone else; the question is, How soon and how good? Last season's deadline trades, which brought Dino Ciccarelli and Bob Rouse (from Minnesota) and Calle Johansson (from Buffalo), sparked a hot March run that resulted in Washington's first division title. Now, however, center Bengt Gustafsson, the Capitals' best all-around player in 1988-89, has gone home to play in Sweden, where the season is even shorter than the one in Washington.
When the Mario Lemieux-led Pittsburgh Penguins made the playoffs for the first time in seven springs, many observers thought that Pittsburgh would become the league's next power. But in the second round the stronger and deeper Flyers systematically ground down the Penguins. Thin, porous Pittsburgh may be in for more of the same this season. The Penguins will win when they get exceptional goaltending from Tom Barrasso, but they won't go far in the playoffs without more muscle.
One team that won't win the division is the New York Islanders. Old Radar, Al Arbour, acceded to general manager Bill Torrey's plea and returned to coaching at midseason. By that time you needed sonar to find the Islanders in the standings. Still, Arbour has made champions out of kids before, and the Islanders have a few youngsters worthy of attention—goalie Mark Fitzpatrick and right wing David Volek in particular—as they start the long road back.
Montreal, last season's Adams Division champion, was the only NHL team in Calgary's class. The highly disciplined Canadiens reached the Cup finals without so much as a 35-goal scorer. Now Robinson is in L.A., former team captain Bob Gainey is a player-coach in France, and veteran defenseman Rick Green has retired. With these leaders gone, so is the large gap between the Canadiens and the rest of the Wales Conference. In fact, when an election was held to find a captain to replace Gainey, cocaptains had to be declared; Chelios, the best defenseman in the league last year, and Guy Carbonneau, the NHL's best defensive forward, were named on the same number of ballots.
Buffalo's Pierre Turgeon, the first player taken in the 1987 draft, broke the point-a-game plateau last season and showed signs of becoming the NHL's next star. If he takes off, so may the Sabres. They're older and wiser since blowing their chance to put Boston away in the first round of last season's playoffs. They also will be happier with the uncommunicative Sator gone in favor of Rick Dudley.
As long as the Bruins have their brilliant defenseman, Ray Bourque, and their crashing forward, Cam Neely, Buffalo will have a hard time finishing ahead of Boston. However, for the Bruins to unseat the Canadiens as division champs, center Craig Janney must continue developing into a top-quality playmaker, and one more scorer must be found.
Even in Hartford, you can't take out insurance on losing your best defenseman. The Whalers will have to endure until Christmas without Ulf Samuelsson, who tore up his left knee while training in the off-season. Their right side, with former Devil Pat Verbeek on one line and 45-goal scorer Kevin Dineen on another, is a bright side. But new general manager Eddie Johnston has some fast shuffling to do at left wing and on the back line.
If Quebec's kiddie corps gels, the Nordiques, who have been patiently accepting beatings while stockpiling draft choices and talented young players like center Joe Sakic, could make a serious run at the playoffs. But Quebec, which had the worst record in the league last season, has to find a stabilizing defenseman and a big league goaltender.
The trend in the NHL is to can coaches with college degrees and bring in grads from the school of hard knocks.
The Flames, who are even stronger than last season, figure to be head and shoulders above their competition.
The Caps have never gone beyond the second round in the playoffs because their goalies disappear.
Neilson will once again assume the role of Captain Video, in hopes of turning his Rangers into heroic defenders.