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NHL PREVIEW : Once Again, It Looks Like a Race for Second Spot Behind the Oilers

October 09, 1985|CHRIS BAKER | Times Staff Writer

The morning after Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers had won their second straight Stanley Cup on May 30, radio stations in Edmonton kept playing the same song, "Best in the NHL." It was sung to the melody of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA."

The Oilers got to keep the cup by winning four straight from the Philadelphia Flyers after having lost the opening game of the final series in Philadelphia.

"We're the absolutely best team in the world," Edmonton Coach Glen (Slats) Sather crowed. "We'll play anyone who wants to play us."

The National Hockey League will open its 1985-86 season Thursday, and Sather's boast may still be viable. The Oilers still look like the NHL's best team.

The Oilers breezed through the playoffs last season after a tough first-round series against the Kings. They won 16 consecutive home playoff games, setting a Stanley Cup record in the process. Their cup-clinching 8-3 victory over the Flyers was the largest margin of victory ever in a title game.

The Oilers, perhaps the most cordially disliked team in the NHL, apparently thought they had something to prove last season.

"We have a reputation for being a little arrogant and a little cocky," Gretzky said. "And because of that, we haven't gotten the recognition we deserve. We wanted to win a second cup to show people that we're not a flash in the pan."

The Oilers, with an average age of 25.4, are still a young team. Gretzky, who has won five straight Art Ross Trophies as the league's leading scorer, and six consecutive Hart Trophies as the most valuable player, is only 24.

During the off-season the NHL even passed a rule aimed at Gretzky. Teams now will remain at full strength during coincidental minor penalties, whereas previously they skated one man short. Some coaches had argued that the Oilers tried to create four-on-four situations, for Gretzky excels at them.

Gretzky is bitter about the rule.

Goalie Grant Fuhr, who won 15 playoff games last season, tying a league record held by Billy Smith of the New York Islanders, turned 23 last month. Right wing Jari Kurri, who finished second in the league-scoring race behind Gretzky, is 25. Paul Coffey, who won the Norris Trophy for best defenseman, is 24.

The Oilers may be without left wing Dave Hunter, who was recently convicted of drunken driving for a third time. He is due to be sentenced next month.

If there's little doubt that the Oilers are the best team in hockey, there's equally little doubt that the Toronto Maple Leafs are the worst. The joke in Canada goes: "What do the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays have in common? Neither team can play hockey." There's some debate, however, as to the second-best team.

The Flyers, who were the youngest team in the NHL with an average age of 24.5 and had 12 players with less than two years' experience, not to forget a rookie coach and general manager, weren't even picked to win the Patrick Division title last season.

But tough-guy Coach Mike Keenan led his players to the best record in the regular season with 113 points.

It remains to be seen, however, whether goalie Pelle Lindbergh can match his performance of last year, which earned him the Vezina Trophy.

The Washington Capitals led the Patrick Division for much of the season until the Flyers overtook them. Even so, the Capitals still finished with the third-best record in the league. They have two 50-goal scorers in right wing Mike Gartner and young American center Bobby Carpenter. But they may need a high-scoring forward and more consistent goaltending from Pat Riggin to be a real contender this season.

The Winnipeg Jets were another major surprise last season. The Jets had been a perennial doormat after leaving the now-defunct World Hockey League to join the NHL. But General Manager John Ferguson, who insiders say calls all the shots at Winnipeg, has turned the Jets into one of the best teams.

Ferguson was even in the bidding for Guy Lafleur, retired star of the Montreal Canadiens who is considering a comeback. Ferguson dropped out of the bidding, however, when Lafleur was reported to be seeking a three-year contract, a salary in excess of the $400,000 he was making, and a signing bonus.

Lafleur has reportedly given the Canadiens a list of teams that he would like to be traded to, among them the Kings, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks.

The Jets finished with the fourth-best record in the NHL last season, and some people think that the Jets'Dale Hawerchuk is the second-best center in the game, behind Gretzky. Hawerchuk finished third in scoring last season, behind Gretzky and Kurri. The Jets have signed Hawerchuk to a lifetime, multimillion-dollar contract.

General Manager Bob Pulford of the Chicago Black Hawks did such a good job of coaching after he took over when Orval Tessier was fired last February, that he was asked to remain behind the bench this season.

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