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NHL Preview : Oilers Face Problems in Their Bid to Win Fourth Stanley Cup

October 04, 1987|LOU RABITO | United Press International

The season that ended in back-slapping and champagne-sipping deteriorated into an offseason of back-biting and dissatisfaction.

Now, the Edmonton Oilers may accomplish what 20 NHL teams failed to do last year: prevent the Stanley Cup from landing in Edmonton. The Cup-winning Oilers could offset their vast talent through dissension during the new season that opens Oct. 8.

Paul Coffey, the league's best offensive defenseman since Bobby Orr glided through opposing defenses, had not attended training camp as of late September because of a contract squabble.

Glenn Anderson and Mark Messier have also had disagreements with team management. Kent Nilsson and Reijo Ruotsalainen left the team following the playoffs to return to the European circuit and goalie Andy Moog joined the Canadian Olympic team.

"I must be doing something wrong," Coffey said during the Canada Cup. "I'm not a good negotiator. Slats (General Manager-Coach Glen Sather) is not being fair."

Coffey wants to renegotiate his contract or be traded. Following the Oilers' Cup victory, he expressed his career-long dissatisfaction with team management. Oilers owner Peter Pocklington has said Coffey could sit out the entire season if he wants. Coffey's absence would drop the Oilers' offense closer to the level of the rest of the league.

Edmonton, sparked by perennial leading scorer Wayne Gretzky, led the NHL last year with 372 goals -- 54 more than the second-best offense produced. Gretzky, as he has done all eight of his NHL seasons, led the league in scoring, and he was joined by teammates Jari Kurri and Mark Messier to fill three of the top four scoring spots.

The Oilers have won the Cup three of the last four seasons, failing only in 1986. They have been in the final round of the postseason four of the last five years.

"If we win this year, will they rate us a dynasty?" Gretzky asked. "We must stay together to win our fourth Cup."

The playmaking of Gretzky and Messier -- arguably two of the top three centers in the NHL along with Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux -- enabled five Oilers, including the two playmakers, to surpass the 30-goal mark last year. Esa Tikkanen and Anderson finished with 35 and 34, respectively, while Gretzky collected 62, Kurri 54 and Messier 37. Grant Fuhr returns as the No. 1 goalie.

"They should be on top," Chicago first-year coach Bob Murdoch said of the Oilers. "They have 10 world-class players. Twenty teams will be chasing them. Can they be beaten? Sure, but you have to have great goaltending and frustrate them."

The Philadelphia Flyers came closest last year to beating the Oilers. The Flyers extended Edmonton to a seventh game in the Stanley Cup final -- and did it without injured goal-scoring leader Tim Kerr. Kerr, who has scored 50 goals each of the last four years, is expected to miss two months of the season recovering from shoulder surgery.

The Flyers may start slowly, since they will be without Kerr and second-year goalie Ron Hextall for the first eight games. Hextall will be serving a league-imposed suspension for a stick-swinging incident during the Stanley Cup final. But a healthy unit at playoff time could bring the Flyers their first Stanley Cup since 1975.

"There is no reason we can't move up one notch and win the Cup," said Bob Clarke, captain of the 1974-75 team, who enters his fourth season as Flyers general manager. "... We have been to the finals two of the last three years and it wouldn't take much for us to finally win."

The Washington Capitals, Hartford Whalers and Montreal Canadiens are expected to present the top challenges to Philadelphia's return to the Cup final. Edmonton should receive less serious opposition, especially from the Norris Division. The Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames could make the Smythe Division race interesting. The Norris Division, marked by mediocrity but improving steadily, could be won by any of its five teams.

Washington has recently enjoyed successful regular seasons only to falter in the playoffs. The Capitals lost to the New York Islanders in a four-overtime seventh game of the first round last season. Washington has finished second in the division the past four years and has never advanced past the second round of the playoffs.

The Capitals pulled off a major offseason trade when they sent left wing Gaetan Duchesne, center Alan Haworth and their 1987 first-round draft choice (Joe Sakic) to Quebec for goalie Clint Malarchuk and right wing Dale Hunter.

"Clint Malarchuk is a solid, consistent goaltender," said Bryan Murray, who enters his seventh season as Washington coach. "Hunter is the cement we need to play tough defense up front."

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