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Original Issue

The West Is Best

The Oilers and the Flames are the class of the league. Last season Edmonton hoisted the Cup. Now it's Calgary's turn

The 1990-91 NHL season will bear a vague resemblance to The Brothers Karamazov, plodding nicely along until all four teams employing the Brothers Sutter—the Blues, the Flyers, the Blackhawks and the Islanders—are eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. But unlike the book, the outcome of the season is not difficult to figure: The Cup will remain in the province of Alberta—this time in Calgary instead of in Edmonton.

Last year's regular-season standings suggested that the 1990 Cup was up for grabs. Five teams finished within 13 points of the Bruins, who led the league with 101 points. As things turned out, Edmonton, No. 5 overall and the runner-up in the Smythe Division, blew Boston away in five games in the Cup finals. "The Bruins deserved the best record on hard work and consistency," says John Muckler, the Oiler coach, "but didn't have players like we did who could raise their level of play another notch in the playoffs."

Edmonton had too much speed, too much scoring power and too many players who had won before. And there was another factor at work. The Oilers had played the Flames eight times during the regular season, winning three times, and felt that when Calgary lost to the Kings in Round 1, the most talented team in the league had been eliminated.

Against Los Angeles, the Flames got caught looking ahead to Round 2 and the Oilers. In 1988-89, while the Oilers wallowed in self-pity over Wayne Gretzky's being traded to L.A. the summer before, Calgary rolled to the Cup. Last season, "the sense of urgency to win, the total commitment to go to the well, just wasn't there," says Flame general manager Cliff Fletcher. Coach Terry Crisp's periodic tirades had little effect on his players, and he was fired despite a 144-63-33 record over three seasons. His replacement is Doug Risebrough, Fletcher's heir apparent, who was a forward on four straight Stanley Cup championship teams with the Canadiens in the late 1970s.

As a player, the scrappy, 180-pound Risebrough once tore to shreds the jersey of Edmonton tough guy Marty McSorley after pulling it off him in a fight. If Risebrough's current team is to tear up the Oilers, it needs improvement in purpose more than in personnel. The Flames are so deep at the forward positions that they unloaded Joe Mullen, a 51-goal scorer two seasons ago, to the Penguins for the yard-sale price of a second-round draft choice. Fletcher had to find ice time for promising scorers like Paul Ranheim (26 goals as a rookie in 1989-90) and 19-year-old Czech import Robert Reichel.

Calgary's biggest worries are the torn left knee ligament suffered by center Joe Nieuwendyk—the Flames' leading scorer—while he was playing for Canada last spring in the world championships, and the balky back of goalie Mike Vernon. But Nieuwendyk was hurt less severely than first imagined, and Vernon again appears sound. That would seem to leave Calgary with only one deficiency: a lack of belligerence, especially on a defense that has superior scoring punch in Al MacInnis (28 goals and 90 points) and Gary Suter (76 points) but no meanie to keep the slot clear. The bottom line: The Flames have more good players than any other team.

Edmonton certainly has one less good player than it had last season: Jari Kurri, having tired of the NHL rat race, signed a two-year contract to play with the Milan Devils of the Italian League. Oiler general manager Glen Sather traded Gretzky, Paul Coffey and Jimmy Carson but got good value for them. For Kurri, the NHL's alltime leading playoff goal scorer, Sather got nothing. And should he want to trade goalie Grant Fuhr, he might strike out again. Fuhr didn't exactly lose his job last year to Bill Ranford—injuries did him in—but his market value now has plummeted in the wake of his admission in late August that he had had a cocaine problem for seven years. The league last week suspended Fuhr for 12 months, although he could be reinstated as early as Feb. 18. He says he has been clean since attending a rehabilitation program in Florida last year.

The Oilers get a dominating performance almost every game from center Mark Messier, the 1989-90 MVP. Core players such as defenseman Kevin Lowe and forwards Esa Tikkanen and Craig Simpson have a history of rising to the occasion. There is, however, some age on the defense, and it remains to be seen how well the Edmonton kids who excelled last spring—wingers Martin Gelinas and Joe Murphy and center Adam Graves—will handle their sudden success.

Winnipeg coach Bob Murdoch did a remarkable job of persuading his players that rural Manitoba really is a desirable place to play. This was largely because everybody on the Jets had a role: With four lines and six defensemen contributing almost equally, Winnipeg improved by 21 points last season and came within one game of eliminating Edmonton in the first round. Under the time-sharing system, though, center Dale Hawerchuk, once considered to be the franchise, got the ice time of an average player and quickly became one, so he was traded to the Sabres for defenseman Phil Housley and forwards Scott Arniel and Jeff Parker. Since Housley gives the Jets still another quick, slick defenseman, another trade—for a scorer—is likely.

Coach Tom Webster once again is asking his Kings for aggressive defense—the kind that held Calgary's vaunted power play to two goals in 34 chances in their six-game playoff series. But Los Angeles is a slow, aging team with a short attention span and can deliver success only in spurts. If Gretzky—who showed his first signs of mortality last season when he suffered from a bad back and experienced a lengthy slump—stays healthy, his two linemates, Tomas Sandstrom and Tony Granato, will score big. If he doesn't, the Kings will collapse. L.A. owes Edmonton its No. 1 draft pick next year, so if it finishes with the league's worst record—not that farfetched a possibility, given the toughness of this division—it could even help the Oilers get Eric Lindros, the most coveted junior since Mario Lemieux.

After flirting with respectability in 1988-89, the Canucks returned to the cellar last season and probably will stay there. The defense gave up last season and now is crippled by the retirement of Paul Reinhart. Vancouver used the second pick in the June draft to select a potential superstar in 18-year-old center Petr Nedved of Czechoslovakia. But at 178 pounds, will he make the Canucks any stronger up the middle?

The medieval Norris Division, long resistant to such innovations as speed and skill, sprang to life last season with two-yes, two—teams with winning records. The most successful was the Blackhawks, who for a change are making the kind of daring deals that might help them win more than just a division title. Chicago traded drawing-card center Denis Savard (page 88) to the Canadiens for defense-man Chris Chelios. Chelios, who followed up a Norris Trophy-winning 1988-89 season with a mediocre one, upgrades a defense that proved incapable of handling Edmonton's speed in the playoffs. The departure of Savard clears ice time for 20-year-old Jeremy Roenick, who is capable of emerging as the Blackhawks' offensive star. But Roenick alone will not compensate for the loss of Savard's 80 points, nor can Roenick tend goal, where Chicago has a cast of veteran nobodies and promising youngsters.

The Blues, who spent big money to keep 72-goal scorer Brett Hull and lure free-agent defenseman Scott Stevens away from the Capitals (page 58), believe themselves to be a contender. Put a few more years of maturity on center Rod Brind' Amour, goalie Curtis Joseph and defenseman Jeff Brown, and they may be right. Besides Stevens, the Blues also added some needed scoring on the left side when they got Geoff Courtnall (35 goals) from the Caps for Peter Zezel and Mike Lalor.

Bob Probert, the Red Wings' talented, tough and troubled winger who last season spent 90 days in prison for possession of cocaine, is passing urine tests and saying all the right things of late. He won't be allowed to play in Canada at least until the appeal of his deportation order is heard (no date has been set), but even so, Detroit has a chance to make an immediate turnaround. They have a new general manager and coach in defense-minded Bryan Murray, and Carson, whose season was all but ruined by a knee injury after he was acquired from Edmonton last November, will reduce the scoring burden on All-Star center Steve Yzerman. Rookie forwards Keith Primeau, the No. 3 pick in June, and Sergei Fedorov, from the Soviet Union, are raw but talented. And the addition of veterans Brad McCrimmon and Rick Green will steady the defense.

Ten years of tedium in Toronto ended last season with the Maple Leafs' first nonlosing season since 1978-79. Toronto had the third highest goal total in the NHL, and in forwards Gary Leeman (51 goals), Vincent Damphousse (33), Daniel Marois (39) and Ed Olczyk (32) and defenseman Al Iafrate (21), it possesses some of the NHL's best young offensive talent. However, the Leafs also have one of the league's worst attitudes toward defense, which is surprising because coach Doug Carpenter was defense oriented when he coached New Jersey a few years back. If the losing days of this franchise are to be gone for good with the passing last April of Harold Ballard, the Leafs' crotchety owner, then general manager Floyd Smith will have to get more selfless players, not to mention a better season from goalie Allan Bester.

Unlike Toronto, Minnesota is short on talent, and the North Stars will get even shorter, because former owners George and Gordon Gund sold them for $31.5 million on condition that the Gunds would receive a 1991-92 expansion franchise on the West Coast. That deal allows the new team—which will be in San Jose and for which the Gunds will pay $50 million—to choose 30 players with minimal or no NHL experience from within the Minnesota organization. When the Gunds also took part of the front office with them, the new owner, Norman Green, hired former Flyer Bobby Clarke as general manager, and Clarke named ex-Canadien Bob Gainey as coach. Good luck, guys. Only if '88 No. 1 draft choice Mike Modano reaches superstardom will 1990-91 not become another lost season.

After coming within three points of the Bruins in the Adams Division, the Sabres were, as usual, a disappointment in the playoffs. The Canadiens shut down star center Pierre Turgeon in even-strength situations and ousted Buffalo, which hasn't won a postseason series since 1983. Rather than blame the failure on bad luck or tight throats, general manager Gerry Meehan concluded that the Sabres didn't have enough ways to win. So he swapped Housley, one of the best offensive defensemen in the game, for Hawerchuk, who will give Buffalo a second strong scoring line. Defenseman Doug Bodger, who carried the puck often in his junior days before falling into complementary roles behind Coffey in Pittsburgh and Housley, now will start the Sabres' attack from within their own end.

If Boston, whose needle was on empty in the finals, is going to make another long playoff run, the Bruins must have kids like Wes Walz and John Byce supplement the scoring of center Craig Janney (62 points in 55 games), right wing Cam Neely (55 goals) and Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Ray Bourque (84 points). Again this season, there won't be any tougher points in the NHL than those gained against Boston. Bourque, who anchors this unit for 30 minutes a game, is widely—and rightly-acclaimed, but superb goalie Andy Moog is nearly as important to the Bruins.

The Whalers extended the Bruins to seven games in the Adams Division semifinals, thereby issuing promise of better things to come. "We won't finish fourth again," vows general manager Eddie Johnston. But Hartford, which has won only one playoff series since entering the league in 1979-80, will become an elite team only if young Kay Whitmore turns out to be a premier goaltender and rookie center Robert Holik of Czechoslovakia does what most Europeans can't do: make an immediate impact on the NHL.

Montreal made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1988 with a brawny, well-disciplined but aging team. The offseason trades of Chelios to the Black-hawks and Craig Ludwig to the Islanders leave diminutive Petr Svoboda as the only remaining regular defenseman from that club. Savard, 29, had better be prepared to take some hits, because general manager Serge Savard has sacrificed muscle for a smaller, more offense-oriented team that he hopes will make these Canadiens resemble the Flying Frenchmen of old.

One of these years the Nordiques, who have been stockpiling considerable raw talent because of their lowly finishes and superior draft position, will begin to move up. General manager Pierre Page and coach Dave Chambers—both new on the job—know Quebec has plenty of room to improve over last season's ghastly .194 winning percentage and still gain the draft rights to Lindros. It's a long road back for a franchise devoid of players in their prime who have any recollection of how to win.

Rising from the black lagoon of the Patrick Division last season came one of the most long-cursed creatures in pro sports, the Rangers. They actually looked like Stanley Cup contenders as they pulled away to their first regular-season title since 1942. Then they looked like the same old New Yorkers when they were upset by the Capitals in the division finals.

Actually, the Rangers' hopes died in March, when Brian Leetch, their young defensive star, was lost for the season with a fractured left ankle. New York is questionable on the wings, but assuming a complete recovery by Leetch, it will be strong in the most critical areas—at center, on defense and in goal, where John Vanbiesbrouck and Mike Richter stand. When the Rangers fall short of winning the Stanley Cup for the 51st consecutive season, there will be some consolation: This time they will lose in the Cup finals.

The Devils have considerable talent, but their first-round elimination by the Caps last spring showed that New Jersey was too smooth for its own good. Irascible right wing Claude Lemieux, acquired from the Canadiens for the underachieving right wing Sylvain Turgeon, and center Laurie Boschman, who was obtained from the Jets, will add a badly needed abrasive quality to the Devils. Alexei Kasatonov was by far the most impressive Soviet in the NHL last season. The key for the Devils is whether goalie Sean Burke can fulfill the great expectations for him that persist despite two mediocre seasons.

The Flyers face the difficult prospect of competing in the NHL without Clarke, the soul of the franchise. He tried to get another serviceable year out of his aging, brittle team, but he lost goalie Ron Hextall for all but eight games and defense-man Mark Howe and right wing Tim Kerr for 40 games each. Then Clarke lost his job, too, when Philly missed the playoffs for the first time since 1971-72. He was replaced by Russ Farwell, 34, a boy wonder as general manager of the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western (Junior) Hockey League. Farwell kept Paul Holmgren as coach and will keep his fingers crossed on Howe, an excellent defenseman who has a bad back, and Kerr, a scoring machine who has endured seven shoulder operations.

If Mario Lemieux misses only two or three months with the back infection that was diagnosed last week—doctors say it is unrelated to disk surgery he underwent in July—Pittsburgh will have time to make the playoffs. If he's out much longer, though, the Penguins might as well board up the Civic Arena—they went 5-12-4 at the end of last season after Lemieux left the lineup. New coach Bob Johnson, a master innovator, was a coach for the Flames, the University of Wisconsin and the U.S. National Team before becoming executive director of USA Hockey, in 1987. At Wisconsin, Johnson designed a power play that now is used throughout the NHL, but any way he diagrams it, it won't pass muster in Pittsburgh if le Magnifique isn't playing center. Besides a healthy Lemieux, the Penguins also need some superior defense-minded defense-men to complement the high-scoring Coffey (103 points).

The Islanders were manic in the middle of the season (23-6-3) and depressive at both the beginning (5-18-3) and the end (3-14-5). They need more talent, however, not a shrink. Center Pat Lafontaine shot or assisted on an out-of-proportion 105 of New York's 281 goals. The Islanders made the playoffs primarily because Pittsburgh and Philadelphia defaulted. If the Islanders are to make 1991 postseason play on their own merits, promising wingers David Volek and Dave Chyzowski must become big scorers.

Washington, which had been luckless in the playoffs with good teams, finally triumphed in the division playoffs with a mediocre one. Now that the cosmic scales have been balanced, expect hard times for a franchise that is reaping the harvest of indifferent drafting. Defenseman Kevin Hatcher emerged as a dominating player last season, but it will be harder for the Caps to make up in discipline and effort what they lack in talent. They will miss Stevens—and the playoffs, too.



Messier (left) and goalie Ranford, champs in '90, could go down in Flames next spring.



It's good news for Calgary that Nieuwendyk's knee injury was less severe than imagined.



Hawerchuk gives Buffalo a first-rate second line.



Janney (left), Boston's playmaker, has become a center of attention.



Hextall has regained his mobility, but that alone won't rejuvenate Philly.