Early NHL action indicates Gretzky-less Oilers could still be No. 1. Calgary, Boston, Montreal look like other top threats

The National Hockey League season is a month old, but ``the trade'' is still hogging the news. Can the Edmonton Oilers repeat as Stanley Cup champions after airmailing the game's singular talent, Wayne Gretzky, to Los Angeles? Can Gretzky make the suntanned Kings respectable? Can Hollywood turn all this into a torrid soap opera starring Gretzky's actress wife, Janet Jones?

Stay tuned. It's a long, long, long season, and even the preliminary answers probably won't emerge until after the holidays.

In terms of the national exposure the NHL so acutely needs, Gretzky's move to the Kings is a plus, but not nearly as much of one as it would have been had he wound up in New York. As it is, he will still spend most of his energy playing in the Smythe Division, which consists of four teams from western Canada plus the remote American hockey outpost of Los Angeles - and he'll still play in New York City, the media capital of the world, only a handful of times all season.

Gretzky remains the most dominant player in team sports. Going into the season, he needed only 181 points to pass Gordie Howe as the NHL's all-time scoring leader, and he's just 27.

``He easily could catch me this season,'' says Howe, a good friend of Gretzky's. ``I wish he didn't have so much new pressure on him, though. Those people in Los Angeles expect the total world of him.

``Deep down, Wayne would rather have won a couple more Stanley Cups with his buddies in Edmonton, I think. He can't think Stanley Cup where he is now. He'll help those kids, sure. He took a great talent like Mario Lemieux in the Canada Cup last year and turned him around. That's how good Wayne is.''

Good as he is, Gretzky cannot tend goal too - and Los Angeles gave up more goals last season than any other NHL team.

The Kings, who got off to a fast start, will win and lose a lot of high-scoring games. They lost, 8-6, in Gretzky's first return to Edmonton, where he received a long standing ovation. He played a bit tensely, but managed two assists.

Oiler goaltender Grant Fuhr stymied Wayne on his best scoring chances. Fuhr is the finest pressure goalie in the game, which is a major reason Edmonton could be No. 1 again. Other major reasons are Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Kevin Lowe, Craig Simpson, and Mark Messier, who has replaced Gretzky as captain. All are world-class players. And don't forget that the Oilers acquired a 50-goal scorer, young Jimmy Carson, in ``the trade.''

Even with Gretzky, the Oilers won with rigorous defense; they had the best goals-against average in the playoffs. They have to miss Gretzky, but they may not miss their usual objective of the Stanley Cup. They have the extra incentive to win without him, and they won't be everybody's favorite target for a change.

The main challenges should come from Calgary, a division rival that finished first in the 1987-88 regular season; the successfully rebuilding Boston Bruins; and the confusing Montreal Canadiens. It's hard to see anyone else contending.

Calgary is big, muscular, and the most prolific offensive team in the league. Joe Nieuwendyk was the Rookie of the Year and should keep improving. But can the defense hold together?

Boston general manager Harry Sinden has managed the momentous: making the team younger and better at the same time. The Bruins reached the cup finals last spring and are leading the Adams Division this year. Perennial All-Star Ray Bourque has been voted the league's top defenseman the past two seasons, while Reggie Lemelin and Andy Moog provide excellent goaltending. With Bourque's prolific offense from the blue line, plus a dynamic first line of ex-Olympian Craig Janney, Bob Joyce, and Cam Neely, the Bruins need only more scoring from the other units to be top rank.

Montreal, eliminated by Boston from the playoffs, should be more disciplined under new coach Pat Burns, a former police detective. The Canadiens' young stars have not meshed well with veterans like Bob Gainey and Larry Robinson, but on paper this may be the best-balanced and deepest team in the NHL. Stephane Richer, who had 11 game-winning goals last season, is the key to the offense.

The tightest race again should be in the extremely physical Patrick Division, where seven points is all that separated all six teams in last season's standings. Anybody could win and anybody could finish last.

The New York Rangers (8-3-1 in their first dozen games) are off to the fastest start. The Rangers have brought Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur, 37, out of retirement and he sometimes plays on an old-timers' line with another 37-year-old, Marcel Dionne. And the defense, featuring Olympian Brian Leetch, is finally sounder.

New Jersey, with youthful Sean Burke bidding to become one of the best in net, is trying to show that last spring's playoff success was no illusion. Philadelphia welcomes back high-scoring forward Tim Kerr from the injury list, but is still thin on defense. Washington is thin on offense. Pittsburgh has a one-man offense in league-scoring leader Lemieux (already with an eight-point game in his portfolio this season), but a void in goal. The New York Islanders will miss the retired Denis Potvin and Mike Bossy.

The weakest division remains the Norris, in which Toronto is away on top, with defending champion Detroit and St. Louis next in line.

Overall, though, attention remains focused on ``the trade.'' Maybe the NHL should just play a two-team, 80-game schedule matching only the Edmonton Oilers and the Los Angeles Gretzkys. Then we'd get some answers.

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