Hockey's Edmonton Oilers look hard to stop in bid for third title

The National Hockey League, back from the shortest off-season in sports, has resumed its ongoing game of hide-and-seek. The Edmonton Oilers, winners of two straight Stanley Cups, are expected to run off and hide from their opposition as the other 20 teams frantically seek a way to stop them. The Oilers are changing the way the game is played in the always quick-to-emulate NHL. Their emphasis on goal-scoring, which they accomplish with an artful mix of speed and finesse, is making everyone else more offense-minded too.

The trend is toward sleek, slick European-style skaters and turbo-charged attacks, and some of the other teams are copying the Oilers rather nicely. The trouble is, nobody else has Wayne Gretzky, around whom the devastating Edmonton offense is built.

The slender Gretzky (he is trying to put on 10 pounds, from 170 to 180, with a new diet and exercise program) has been the most valuable player in the NHL for six straight years, which is how long he's been in the league.

Last year he scored 208 points in 80 regular season games, and 47 more in 18 playoff games. The only major scoring records he hasn't surpassed are the overall numbers posted by Gordie Howe in a career that lasted more years than Wayne has lived.

While he hopes eventually to break Howe's records, a more immediate objective for Gretzky is to score 100 goals this season.

Don't bet your souvenir puck collection against him. His coaches want him to shoot more than last season, when his league-leading goals production was down from 87 to 73 because he passed to Jari Kurri so much. (Kurri scored 71 goals.) Gretzky's NHL record is 92.

As Gretzky quickly has gone from great to greater to greatest, the rest of the team also has progressed impressively.

Says Gretzky, ``We're very good at bearing down now and sustaining it. We don't make many mental mistakes when we get cranked up. Two years ago it wasn't that way.''

Besides Kurri, defenseman Paul Coffey (121 points last season) has emerged as the best at his position since Bobby Orr. Grant Fuhr is a pressure goaltender who may now be the best in the game.

Maybe the NHL should consider recasting its schedule to match Gretzky and his gunners against an all-star team from the rest of the league. The competition might be closer.

Philadelphia, which had the best regular-season record in 1984-85 under new coach Mike Keenan and new general manager Bobby Clarke, went to the Stanley Cup finals but again will need superior goalkeeping from Pelle Lindbergh and heavy scoring from Tim Kerr (54 goals last season). The feisty Flyers almost never lose on their home ice.

The Flyers could have trouble staying ahead of Washington and the once-dominant New York Islanders in the fearsome Patrick Divison. The Capitals, led by durable defenseman Rod Langway, need one more scorer to go with Bob Carpenter and Mike Gartner.

The Islanders have made seven roster changes, trying to speed their transition to youth. Veterans Bryan Trottier and Denis Potvin will have to rebound from mediocre years. Mike Bossy should be good for another 50-goal season, and rookie Mikko Makela from Finland should add zest to the offense.

The other two New York area teams, the Rangers and the New Jersey Devils are down, if not out.

Next best after Edmonton in the Smythe Division should be Winnipeg, which played well on the road and had the fourth-best record in the league last season. Six Jets scored more than 30 goals, led by Dale Hawerchuk, perhaps the best center in hockey after Gretzky. He had 53 goals and 77 assists.

Chicago and St. Louis should thrash it out in the Norris Division, the league's weakest recently. The Black Hawks return one of the NHL's most dangerous lines in Denis Savard, Steve Larmer, and Al Secord, but they lack depth and consistent goaltending. St. Louis is a well-organized club with a fine scorer in Bernie Federko but insufficient backup help.

Minnesota, under new coach Lorne Henning, who played on the great Islander teams, should be more consistent. And Detroit has spent a fortune to sign eight free agents, among them pros Warren Young and Mike McEwen and college stars Ray Staszak and Adam Oates.

The Adams Division is up for grabs. Even perennial weak link Hartford could win it with goalie Mike Liut over from St. Louis and top draft choice Dana Murzyn fortifying the defense. Sylvain Turgeon is due to break loose up front, and Ron Francis is a greatly underrated center.

Boston and Buffalo have promoted players to head coaching jobs: chattery Butch Goring with the Bruins and tough Jim Schoenfeld with the Sabres.

Goring needs revived performances from winger Rick Middleton and goalie Pete Peeters, plus solid years from Gord Kluzak and Barry Pederson. The Bruins lack scoring power. Defenseman Ray Bourque was their No. 1 scorer and will have to be their leader on the ice as well.

There is no lack of scoring punch in Quebec, where the Stasny brothers stage frequent fireworks displays, but the defense remains suspect.

Montreal is rebuilding, largely with young American players, of all people, and could be dangerous. Big, young wingers like Stephane Richer and Sergio Momesso will have to be watched.

Buffalo is counting on a big year from Dave Andreychuk up front and continued fine goaltending from Tom Barrasso.

All fingers still point, though, to the wondrous Gretzky and his Oilers. They may not repeat as Stanley Cup champions, but then it may not snow in Edmonton this winter either.

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