What with expansion and free agentry, the age of the dynasty in sports is over - except, of course, for the New York Islanders. They are threatening to become an island unto themselves.
With the 67th National Hockey League season now under way (its opening weeks overshadowed as usual by the World Series and football), the best team of our time is launching its bid for a fifth straight Stanley Cup. The goal seems an entirely conceivable one, too, even though only one other team - the Montreal Canadien juggernaut of 1956-60 - has ever accomplished the feat. In other major team sports, only the dominance of the old New York Yankees and Boston Celtics outdoes that of the Islanders.
And this is a relatively young aggregation of hockey talent. Goalie Billy Smith, the MVP of last spring's playoffs, is the lone key performer over 30. Center Bryan Trottier, winger Mike Bossy, and defenseman Denis Potvin are looking forward to five more top years at least.
''Everyone here has a certain role to play, and when everyone does his job the machine runs smoothly,'' says Captain Potvin. ''No one thinks he's more important than anyone else. As long as our attitude remains as disciplined and unselfish as it's been the last four years, we should continue to be the team to beat.''
The publicity department is doing its part by coming up with a new slogan for each Stanley Cup defense. This year it's ''drive for five.''
General Manager Bill Torrey and Coach Al Arbour, the movers and shakers behind the Islander dynasty, kept the roster intact last season, but now may have to find room for unusually promising young worthies like goalie Kelly Hrudey, defenseman Gord Dineen and forward Pat LaFontaine, who is occupied with the Olympic team until February.
Edmonton, which lost the Stanley Cup final to the Islanders in four straight games, has the likeliest chance to challenge them again. The Oilers are young and purposeful and remind many analysts of the Islanders in their formative years. (The schedule being bloated as it is, the two teams do not meet until December.)
Edmonton scored an NHL record 424 goals in 1982-83, the redoubtable Wayne Gretzky racking up 71 of them. Gretzky, who has set or tied three dozen league scoring records, also had 125 assists in continuing to establish himself as the greatest offensive force the game has seen.
Grant Fuhr slumped in goal for the Oilers last season, but seems to have regained his flair now.
The top goalie in the league last year was Pete Peeters, who led Boston to the best regular season record. The Bruins subsequently lost free agent defenseman Brad Park to Detroit. Though the Bruins will miss the way Park could control the tempo of a game, they turned around and signed the two best defensemen available, Jim Schoenfeld and Guy LaPointe, to go with the powerful Ray Bourque.
If the Bruins can generate more scoring at left wing to complement the offensive output of centers Barry Pederson and Peter McNab and right wing Rick Middleton, they could threaten the Islanders.
Buffalo, loser in the Adams Division finals to Boston on an overtime goal in the seventh game, is optimistic. Like the Bruins, the Sabres are looking for more ammunition at left wing, where they obtained 28-goal scorer Real Cloutier from Quebec and where they are experimenting with veteran defenseman Lindy Ruff.
Of these four apparent top clubs, Edmonton is off to the most impressive start (a best-in-the-league 9-2-1 over the first four weeks), and Boston and Buffalo are also winning, while the Islanders are all even at 6-6. But of course it's such a long season, running through April 1, that there's plenty of time for things to level off, as they usually do.
Barring unforeseen developments, the next tier of teams figures to consist of the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Chicago Black Hawks, Minnesota North Stars, Quebec Nordiques, and Montreal Canadiens.
Some of these clubs, too, have gotten better starts than others, with the Flyers and Rangers off very fast, the Black Hawks and Nordiques both doing well, the Canadiens and Capitals struggling a bit in the early going, and the North Stars having their problems with a 3-7-1 record.
The Flyers, Rangers, and Capitals all play in the exceedingly competitive Patrick Division with the Islanders.
Philadelphia won the division's regular season title a year ago, but this team is aging noticeably. Bobby Clarke, 34, and Darryl Sittler, 33, were their two leading scorers. Thomas Eriksson from Sweden and Doug Crossman from Chicago should make the defense more consistent.
The Rangers have developed steadily under former US Olympic coach Herb Brooks , and brought in 6 ft. 5 in. defenseman Willie Huber during the off-season while sending forwards Ron Duguay and Eddie Johnstone and goaltender Ed Mio to Detroit. Additions to the offense include Jan Erixon and Peter Sundstrom from Sweden and free agent Pierre Larouche. Mio must be replaced in goal.
Washington, apparently getting the better of last year's trade with Montreal for defenseman Rod Langway, finished third in the division and made the playoffs for the first time. The Capitals are thin in goal, however.
The Black Hawks won their division in 1982-83, and they count again on stonewall goaltending from Tony Esposito and Murray Bannerman to cover for a sometimes unreliable defense. The offense is fine, featuring Denis Savard, Al Secord, and Steve Larmer, the rookie of the year.
The North Stars were a close second to Chicago in the Norris Division and have the material to win it, including Brian Lawton, who was drafted No. 1 in the league and could be an early sensation. But somehow this team which reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1981-82 has failed to come together since then. A suspect defense could be part of the problem.
The Nordiques, featuring the Stastny brothers (Peter, Anton, and Marion) from Czechoslovakia, have had problems developing a defense to go along with their high-powered offense. They seem to rise to the occasion at playoff time, however , and have pulled off a couple of notable post-season upsets.
The Canadiens, who have been making surprising early departures from the playoffs in recent years, need bolstering on defense, where Larry Robinson has been asked to carry too much of the load. Offensively, they and the North Stars swung one of those deals over the weekend that could help both clubs - Montreal acquiring center Bobby Smith, who holds the Minnesota club record for points in a season (114), and the North Stars getting two fine forwards in Mark Napier and Keith Acton plus a draft choice.
The tradition-minded Canadiens can derive extra incentive this season, of course, from the Islanders' drive to match the record set by Montreal in capturing the Stanley Cup from l956 to 1960. It will take extra incentive and then some, however, to unseat the Islanders.