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NHL NOTEBOOK : Norris Division Now Chock Full of Contenders

November 26, 1989|JIM SMITH | NEWSDAY

How about that Norris Division?

Three teams are over .500: the Chicago Blackhawks (14-9-2), Minnesota North Stars (14-8-1) and St. Louis Blues (10-7-3, not including Thursday night's game). The fourth-place Toronto Maple Leafs (10-13-0, not including Thursday night's game) is improved. And as soon as Jimmy Carson starts scoring, the Detroit Red Wings (5-14-3) should rise.

"It's an amazing turnaround," New Jersey Devils executive vice president Max McNab said of the Norris Division, noting that all five Smythe Division teams are near .500. Looking ahead to the 1990 Campbell Conference final, McNab said, "I think whoever comes out of the Norris is going to give the Calgary (Flames) -- if it is Calgary -- a pretty good run for it."

In the 1980s, nine of the 10 Stanley Cup champions came from the Patrick or Smythe divisions. The New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers each won four Cups. Calgary won last season. The exception was the 1986 Montreal Canadiens, who came from the Adams Division.

The last time a current member of the Norris Division won the Cup was in 1967, when Toronto did. During the past six seasons, each Norris team has a losing record overall. Only the 1987-88 Red Wings (41-28-11) had a 40-win season. Of a possible 30 winning seasons in the six-season span, Norris teams had seven: two each by Chicago, Minnesota and St. Louis and one by Detroit.

Since the Norris was realigned in 1982-83, its teams have lost seven consecutive conference finals -- five to Edmonton and two to Calgary -- by a cumulative 28 games to eight. "All they did was keep Edmonton (or Calgary) sharp for the final," McNab said, "while the other conference was banging heads." It is too early to project a Norris team winning the next Cup. But these factors might make it possible:

--Good coaching staffs. Mike Keenan in Chicago, Pierre Page in Minnesota and Brian Sutter in St. Louis -- each is in his second season -- have sound defensive systems and are getting good goaltending. Two have former head coaches as assistants: Keenan has Jacques Martin and Sutter has Bob Berry. Page has former North Stars defenseman Craig Hartsburg and former Canadiens center Doug Jarvis as assistants. "Look at how much better Minnesota's penalty-killing is," McNab said. "Jarvis made a living on that. I'd say the players are getting solid instruction."

--Emerging stars and revived veterans. The Blues' Brett Hull was tied for the goal-scoring lead with Calgary's Joe Nieuwendyk at 17 entering Thursday night's game, and teammate Rod Brind'Amour (12) was one behind the New York Rangers' Darren Turcotte among rookies. Minnesota's Neal Broten is injury-free and centering high-scoring Mike Gartner and Brian Bellows. The Blackhawks' Troy Murray (12 goals, 17 assists) is off to his best start since 1985-86.

--A few good draft picks. Norris teams lately have been drafting high. "They are going to get one or two slightly better players each year," McNab said. "It proves the system work."

From the past six drafts, Chicago has added Trent Yawney, Dave Manson and Jeremy Roenick; Minnesota has acquired Kari Takko and Mike Modano; St. Louis has taken Tom Tilley, Tony Hrkac, Steve Tuttle and Brind'Amour, and Toronto has added Al Iafrate, Wendel Clark, Vincent Damphousse and Daniel Marois.

Philadelphia Flyers center Mike Bullard finished last season at 225 pounds. A few weeks later he received an ultimatum from General Manager Bob Clarke: slim down or be gone. In the offseason, Flyers physical conditioning coach Pat Croce accompanied Bullard's wife, Linda, to a grocery store, showing her how to interpret labels and buy nutritional foods.

Bullard changed his diet. From May to September, he also went on a strength-and-conditioning program that had been recommended by Croce. Result? He reported to training camp at 192 pounds, has stayed at that weight and is second in scoring to Murray Craven (26 points) on the team with 11 goals and 14 assists. Croce said he also took the wives of 11 other Flyers to supermarkets, advising them to buy high-fiber foods, whole grain cereals and breads, and to avoid fatty foods.

Blues center Rick Meagher, who turned 36 on Nov. 4, is the fifth-oldest active player behind Larry Robinson, Guy Lafleur and Borje Salming, each of whom is 38, and 37-year-old Helmut Balderis of Minnesota. Meagher plays as if he were 26 and should be a contender for the Selke Trophy, which is given to the top defensive forward.

In consecutive games in October, he was matched against the Blackhawks' Denis Savard, the Pittsburgh's Penguins' Mario Lemieux, the Red Wings' Steve Yzerman and the Los Angeles Kings' Wayne Gretzky. He held Lemieux and Yzerman scoreless. Savard had an assist, but it came on a power play. Gretzky had a goal when Meagher was not on the ice. In seven games against those teams this season, the Blues are 5-2, scoring 41 goals and allowing 22.

"He can skate with them," Blues general manager Ron Caron said. "He forces them to move the puck and then puts a blanket on them. He's got the speed and the tenacity." Caron said Meagher prolonged his career by changing his diet and reducing his weight to 175 pounds with the help of Blues consultant Mackie Shilstone.

Montreal forward Ed Cristofoli, a ninth-round 1985 draft pick who played the past four seasons at the University of Denver, is the son of Ed Cristofoli, who played for the Trail Smoke Eaters of British Columbia in 1961 when they were the last amateur club to win a World Championship. Bobby Kromm, the father of former Islanders left winger Rich Kromm, coached that team.

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