Stanley Cup champions were once built to last. Between 1976 and '83, the Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders each won four consecutive titles, and the Edmonton Oilers followed with four championships of their own in the next five seasons.
Now the NHL throne has become an ejection seat. Next June the Rangers will become the fourth team to win the Stanley Cup in four years. The cursed, choking, put-on-this-earth-to-fail Rangers? Sure, it's their turn. In an era of one-time champions, even a team that hasn't won in 51 years comes due.
Money is one reason why sustained excellence is only a memory. The Oilers reached their peak just as a few maverick owners began to loosen hockey's purse strings. When Edmonton's Peter Pocklington refused to pay his stars top dollar, the Oilers were forced to trade those players and the team was broken up. The Pittsburgh Penguins have already received a steep bill for winning the Stanley Cup last spring. They've had to match the Boston Bruins' five-year, $5.3 million offer for left wing Kevin Stevens, plus fork over $3.6 million for four seasons to keep right wing Mark Recchi. With Mario Lemieux making $2.3 million a season and defenseman Paul Coffey $1.1 million, somebody, probably Coffey, is going to have to go.
Alarmists see the sky falling on small-market teams and the NHL's newly found competitive balance being destroyed. But similar fears expressed for baseball in the 1970s proved unfounded. If Cincinnati and Minnesota can win World Series, maybe the Winnipeg Jets will someday own the Cup. All they have to do is build a club good enough to have one hot playoff run. There won't be a perennial powerhouse standing in the way.
The rule changes in '79 and '80 that lowered the draft age from 20 to 18 work against a great club's ever again being assembled. The NHL's latest expansion scheme, which begins this season with the addition of the San Jose Sharks, figures to further spread the talent. Now the NHL has good teams, not great ones. Two seasons ago only one club amassed 100 points; last season five did, but none had more than 106. The Penguins didn't even make the playoffs in 1989-90 and had only 88 points last season, yet they won the Stanley Cup. Now that's parity.
Pittsburgh jumped into the hunt when Lemieux returned to action last January after being out 11 months with a back ailment. Then the Penguins climbed to the top by doing the best job of filling their needs by the March 5 trading deadline. Blessed with plenty of offense, they dealt center John Cullen (who would wind up the season as the NHL's fifth-leading scorer) and promising offensive defenseman Zarley Zalapski to the Hartford Whalers for Ron Francis, a strong two-way center, and feisty defenseman Ulf Samuelsson. When it made that deal, Pittsburgh became the best team.
The lesson? The NHL doesn't really start until April, so it's difficult to figure out its puzzle in October. The only smart thing is to pick the team with the most pieces in place. That club is the Rangers—especially if one of their pieces is Mark Messier. During a slide late last season from the top of the Patrick Division and then a first-round playoff loss to the Washington Capitals, New York was exposed as a team that lacked character. Nevertheless, in a flawed field, the Rangers start this season with the best chance to win the Cup.
Messier, a proven winner who could take the Rangers over the top, has decided not to return to Edmonton. He wants to go to a contender who will pay him $2 million a year. Pocklington wants some cash, and Oiler general manager Glen Sather desires one solid veteran plus several strong prospects for Messier, a 30-year-old center who was the NHL's MVP two seasons ago. New York has a well-heeled corporate owner in Paramount Communications and a good crop of minor leaguers. Expect the Rangers to ship some kids and 30-year-old center Bernie Nicholls along with a large check to Edmonton in exchange for Messier. Then expect New York to win the Cup.
Whichever of the Ranger youngsters-right wings Steven Rice and Tony Amonte and center Doug Weight—whom general manager Neil Smith doesn't send to the Oilers will upgrade an already talented New York lineup. But even if the kids don't make an instant impact, the acquisition of veteran Tim Kerr from San Jose (which had claimed him from the Philadelphia Flyers in the expansion draft) will give the Rangers the clutch playoff scoring they didn't receive last season from wings Mike Gartner or John Ogrodnick. Despite the knee and shoulder ailments that have beset Kerr in recent seasons, the Flyers let him go prematurely. Kerr will add character to New York, as will Adam Graves, a gritty center signed as a free agent from Edmonton.
Once free-agent Mike Richter, who became the Rangers' No. 1 goalie last season, signs a new contract and rejoins the team, Smith will be able to fill another need by trading the capable John Vanbiesbrouck, whom Richter supplanted for the starting job. But the best reason of many to like the Rangers is Brian Leetch, the top young defenseman in the NHL, who is on the brink of a monster season. After Leetch, James Patrick and David Shaw, the New York defense has proved to be frail and brittle, but with considerable depth at other positions, the Rangers will be able to beef up the backline through trades.
Pittsburgh's chances of repeating as Cup champion were dealt a devastating blow by the sudden illness of coach Bob Johnson, who, in August, learned that he was suffering from brain cancer. Johnson is a smart strategist and a boundless optimist whose personality is perfect for a team with large talents and large egos. Whoever fills in for him (assistant coaches Barry Smith, Rick Kehoe and Rick Patterson ran the team in the preseason) will have a difficult act to follow.
To write off the Penguins, though, would be wrong, especially in light of this preseason comment from Lemieux: "I want to be the best player in the world again." His dominating performance in the finals—with his back far less than 100%—demonstrated he can be anything he wants.
Pittsburgh won without much help from Coffey, who suffered eye and jaw injuries early in the playoffs and only saw spot duty in the finals. This has convinced the Penguins of Coffey's expendability—a dangerous assumption if other Pittsburgh defensemen don't play over their heads again, as they did during the Cup run.
The Rangers and Penguins are on the top floors of the Patrick. There's a long staircase down to the next level. Defenseman Scott Stevens, who was awarded to the New Jersey Devils as compensation for the St. Louis Blues' signing of free-agent winger Brendan Shanahan during the off-season, makes the Devils stronger, but the backline was the least of their problems. Stevens, a three-time All-Star, will make New Jersey more aggressive, but speed is in short supply, as is faith in penurious owner John McMullen. Unable to satisfy the salary demands of forward Kirk Muller, their best all-around player, the Devils dealt him to Montreal for the more dynamic but less consistent Stephane Richer. Richer is in his option year. Is New Jersey buying or just renting?
That Washington's leading scorer last season was defenseman Kevin Hatcher indicates that too many of the Capitals' goals came on long shots for them to remain anything but a long shot. Defenseman Al Iafrate, acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs last January, can upgrade Washington's skill level if he can boost his confidence to the level of his ability. But this industrious, tedious team still needs a playmaking center and a winger who can consistently put the puck by a goalie.
The Caps made the playoffs last year only because Philadelphia, another team that has difficulty scoring, fell apart down the stretch. If goalie Ron Hextall, whose fifth groin muscle injury in the last two years precipitated a 2-10-3 late-season plunge, can't stay healthy, the once-proud Flyers will spend April at home for the third straight year. Hextall is doing ballet exercises to prevent a recurrence of his injury, and the lumbering Flyers are rejoicing at the acquisition of a player—offensive defenseman Steve Duchesne—who could do Swan Lake. Right wing Rick Tocchet and center Mike Ricci are old-mold Flyer triers, but Philly is still too short on talent to effect a big turnaround.
Star center Pat LaFontaine, who feels he was insulted by Islander owner John Pickett during contract renegotiations, has vowed not to return until the team, which is for sale, changes hands. Without LaFontaine, the Isles, who were 12-60-6 in their first NHL season, 1972-73, may revert to infancy. Al Arbour, who has decided to return for another year as coach, is an excellent teacher. But he is not an alchemist.
Elite goalie Patrick Roy and Petr Svoboda, the most experienced Montreal defenseman, both suffered injury-filled, subpar 1990-91 seasons. The Canadiens nevertheless had the league's second-best goals-against average and took Boston to a seventh game in the Adams Division finals. This is a tip-off that the last two seasons, which the Canadiens have spent slow-cooking a younger, more mobile defense, have been well spent. Montreal looks ready to move to the front burner again.
If 22-year-old Mathieu Schneider, the star-to-be of the Canadiens' backline, matures quickly and if center Denis Savard can again play at a point-per-game pace, the Canadiens will jump over the Bruins. Muller will be far more reliable than the moody Richer, who turned down a Canada Cup invitation to play softball. Montreal retains a home run threat in forward Russ Courtnall, while wingers Shayne Corson and Mike McPhee and centers Guy Carbonneau and Brian Skrudland provide plenty of character.
How long Boston, a team noted for its stoutness, will continue to tolerate wimpy playoff performances from center Craig Janney remains to be seen. Last May, Janney, a 92-point regular-season scorer, disappeared when two of the Bruins' heart-and-soul players, right wing Cam Neely and center Dave Poulin, were injured. Poulin is healthy again, but Neely, whose damaged thigh muscle has only slightly improved, might not be back in the lineup until November or even later. With little scoring depth, Boston has to hope that Ken Hodge, a Minnesota North Star castoff who came out of nowhere to score 30 goals last season, is for real. But as long as Ray Bourque—at age 30 still the league's best defenseman—remains a dominating player, the Bruins' string of consecutive winning seasons, now at 24, will keep growing.
The Buffalo Sabres, who haven't advanced past the first round since 1983, face some hard decisions. Two players the Sabres have been building around, center Pierre Turgeon and left wing Alexander Mogilny, were flops in the last two playoffs. And general manager Gerry Meehan and coach Rick Dudley haven't been on the same wavelength, so John Muckler, the former Edmonton coach, has been brought in as director of hockey operations to give another opinion. It shouldn't take a committee to decide that the Sabres need more speed, a quarterback on defense and improved play from goalie Daren Puppa.
Be assured that the Whalers, who have finished fourth and been eliminated in the first round four straight seasons, can't remain inert forever. By next season, they may finish fifth. They begin this year with a mundane defense, uninspired goaltending and their two best players, Cullen and left wing Pat Verbeek, holding out for million-dollar contracts that owner Richard Gordon says he can't afford.
Even though the Quebec Nordiques will never sign top draft pick Eric Lindros, they are on the way up. Center Joe Sakic scored 109 points last season, and second-year right wing Mats Sundin is a blossoming star. When Soviet forward Valeri Kamensky, one of the premier talents in the world, recovers from a broken left leg suffered during Canada Cup training camp and adjusts to life in North America, Quebec will become an offensive carnival. It still lacks the grinders and experience to make a quantum leap this season. A year from now, though, when the Nordiques accept the fact that Lindros won't play in Quebec, he'll bring a grand trade package that will stake the Nordiques to the 1996-97 Stanley Cup championship.
The Chicago Blackhawks, who pushed themselves to the last day of the season to edge St. Louis for the Norris Division title, played a cranky, nervous first-round series against the Minnesota North Stars and exited in humiliation. A popular explanation was burnout, caused by both the Blackhawks' stressful regular-season finish and their loathing for coach-general manager Mike Keenan. A better reason for Chicago's demise was that too much of its offense had to come from the line of center Jeremy Roenick (see page 78), right wing Steve Larmer and left wing Michel Goulet.
Minnesota checked Roenick, goaded Chris Chelios, the Blackhawks' defensive quarterback, into taking bad penalties and scored killer goals on the power play. Chicago must find poise, someone who can center a productive second line and a defenseman who can replace Doug Wilson, a 14-year mainstay who decided to sign with San Jose and take vacation pay rather than endure Keenan. Chelios, Roenick, Larmer and holdout goalie Ed Belfour, who played in 74 games last year, thrive on heavy workloads. But they have to get more help if the Blackhawks are to go further in the playoffs.
St. Louis erred terribly by not including an established player in its free-agent compensation offer for Shanahan, a blunder that resulted in the arbitrator's awarding Scott Stevens to the Devils. Stevens, signed as a free agent from Washington before last season, was a key to the Blues' 22-point jump in the standings. They'll still have a respectable committee on defense, but without Stevens they'll have no chairman. Shanahan is a hard-driving forward with decent hands who may make 86-goal right wing Brett Hull and 115-point center Adam Oates even scarier. But St. Louis has a problem similar to that of archrival Chicago: If it doesn't come up with another line of offense, it won't become a serious Stanley Cup threat.
After 24 years, Minnesota has dropped the North from its name. Now we're waiting to see if last year's surprise Cup finalist goes south. The Stars rolled through three rounds of playoffs because they had greater scoring depth than the top-heavy teams they beat. To do it again, though, Minnesota has to hope all those hurrahs created by Bobby Smith, 33, Brian Propp, 32, and Neal Broten, 31, were not last ones. If infirmity sets in, speedy right wing Mike Modano, the first player taken in the 1988 draft, will have to carry Minnesota for 80 games, not just whenever the mood strikes him.
With so many clubs desperate for even one good center, the Detroit Red Wings are sitting smugly with both Steve Yzerman, who has averaged 123 points the last four seasons, and Sergei Fedorov, from the Soviet Union, who with 31 goals last season had a rare impact for a first-year European import. Encouraged by Fedorov's fast adjustment, the Wings are now counting on two European defensemen, Niklas Lidstrom from Sweden and Vladimir Konstantinov from the Soviet Union, to bolster their backline. The return from the injury list of Gerard Gallant, who had a bad back, gives Yzerman a finisher, but the Wings still need an upgrade in goal from incumbent Tim Cheveldae.
Understanding the importance of goaltending, Toronto has settled for nothing but the best: Grant Fuhr. Cliff Fletcher, the Maple Leafs' new president and general manager, gave up four young players, including flashy left wing Vincent Damphousse, to acquire the 29-year-old Fuhr and 31-year-old right wing Glenn Anderson, a 413-goal career scorer, from Edmonton. Still, it's going to be a long way back from more than a decade of mismanagement, but Fletcher, who built the Calgary Flames into champions, is the right man for the job.
The back injury that Wayne Gretzky suffered during the Canada Cup isn't expected to be debilitating, which is excellent news both for the Smythe Division favorite Los Angeles Kings and the sport. In the tournament, the Kid was playing like a kid again, perhaps in anticipation of going to the candy store once more with Jari Kurri. Kurri, who averaged 49 goals a year when he played with Gretzky in Edmonton, is back in the NHL after playing a season in Italy. The Kings traded for Kurd's rights in a three-way deal with Edmonton and Philadelphia that cost them Duchesne, their best offensive defense-man. Los Angeles hopes that the maturation of Rob Blake, their impressive second-year defenseman, the acquisition of another veteran ex-Oiler, Charlie Huddy, and the arrival of rookie Darryl Sydor will fill the void.
If Bob Kudelski, a 36-point scorer as a wing last season, can't become a decent second-line center, the Kings will be in a jam, because they don't have much depth to trade for a No. 2 pivot. They haven't gotten past the second round in the playoffs since Gretzky's arrival in 1988, but the decline of Calgary and Edmonton has opened a window of opportunity. And L.A. should seize that opportunity quickly. Gretzky is 30, Kurri is 31, and the Kings still rely on wing Dave Taylor, 35, and defenseman Larry Robinson, 40.
If the left knee of No. 1 center Joe Nieuwendyk, which required minor surgery following an injury in Canada Cup training camp, isn't right, a lot figures to go wrong in Calgary. The Flames' depth, the best in the NHL the last few seasons, has largely disappeared. Their two fire-breathing forwards—Gary Roberts and the remarkable 5'6" Theoren Fleury, a 51-goal scorer last season—aren't big enough to play policeman, and the defense lacks a bouncer. The best set of point cannons in the league, Al MacInnis and Gary Suter, still makes Calgary dangerous, but two straight first-round postseason failures suggest the Flames need a personality transplant to get back over the playoff hump.
The Oilers' clearance sale is nearing completion. After Messier is traded, defenseman Kevin Lowe will be the only remaining player from all five of Edmonton's Cup-winning teams. "We'll still be in the hunt," claims Sather. If Sather can bolster a thin corps of centers in the Messier deal, the Oilers, now coached by Ted Green, will be more than an idle threat. Damphousse, Petr Klima, Craig Simpson, Joe Murphy and Esa Tikkanen will still provide ample firepower, and the defense is big and bruising. Fuhr's departure leaves no question in goal: Bill Ranford carried the Oilers to the 1990 Cup.
A March trade that brought center Cliff Ronning and wingers Geoff Court-nail and Sergio Momesso from St. Louis keyed the Vancouver Canucks' late rush to a playoff spot. As a result, delusions of grandeur—this is the year for third place!—have overtaken the Canucks, who have not had a winning season since 1975-76. But Ronning, at 5'8", isn't exactly a prototypical No. 1 center, and Courtnall is with his fifth team in five years. What does that tell you? Vancouver won't turn the corner for good until two brilliant young talents, Soviet winger Pavel Bure and Czech center Petr Nedved, grow into dominating players.
The Winnipeg Jets can move the puck, but it never seems to wind up in the net. Last season the Jets had only two forwards—Pat Elynuik and Ed Olczyk—who scored more than 20 goals. This team has to get bigger and stronger to get better.
There wasn't much talent in the expansion draft, so San Jose went for muscle. Assuming the Sharks flex it and catch some clubs coming off Napa Valley wine tours, they'll win 15 games. San Jose's top entry-draft pick, 19-year-old forward Pat Falloon, will play whether he's ready or not. The goaltending (Brian Hayward, Jeff Hackett, Latvian rookie Artur Irbe) may be decent. It had better be.
Leetch will help bring the Rangers' 51-year drought to an end.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
Janney's playoff failures can't be abided much longer in Boston.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
After storing 86 goals last year, Hull will gun for Gretzky's record of 92.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
In fuhr's absence, Ranford will be the Oilers' main man in the net.