Stanley Cup champions were once built to last. Between 1976 and '83, the Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders each won four consecutive titles, and the Edmonton Oilers followed with four championships of their own in the next five seasons.
Now the NHL throne has become an ejection seat. Next June the Rangers will become the fourth team to win the Stanley Cup in four years. The cursed, choking, put-on-this-earth-to-fail Rangers? Sure, it's their turn. In an era of one-time champions, even a team that hasn't won in 51 years comes due.
Money is one reason why sustained excellence is only a memory. The Oilers reached their peak just as a few maverick owners began to loosen hockey's purse strings. When Edmonton's Peter Pocklington refused to pay his stars top dollar, the Oilers were forced to trade those players and the team was broken up. The Pittsburgh Penguins have already received a steep bill for winning the Stanley Cup last spring. They've had to match the Boston Bruins' five-year, $5.3 million offer for left wing Kevin Stevens, plus fork over $3.6 million for four seasons to keep right wing Mark Recchi. With Mario Lemieux making $2.3 million a season and defenseman Paul Coffey $1.1 million, somebody, probably Coffey, is going to have to go.
Alarmists see the sky falling on small-market teams and the NHL's newly found competitive balance being destroyed. But similar fears expressed for baseball in the 1970s proved unfounded. If Cincinnati and Minnesota can win World Series, maybe the Winnipeg Jets will someday own the Cup. All they have to do is build a club good enough to have one hot playoff run. There won't be a perennial powerhouse standing in the way.
The rule changes in '79 and '80 that lowered the draft age from 20 to 18 work against a great club's ever again being assembled. The NHL's latest expansion scheme, which begins this season with the addition of the San Jose Sharks, figures to further spread the talent. Now the NHL has good teams, not great ones. Two seasons ago only one club amassed 100 points; last season five did, but none had more than 106. The Penguins didn't even make the playoffs in 1989-90 and had only 88 points last season, yet they won the Stanley Cup. Now that's parity.
Pittsburgh jumped into the hunt when Lemieux returned to action last January after being out 11 months with a back ailment. Then the Penguins climbed to the top by doing the best job of filling their needs by the March 5 trading deadline. Blessed with plenty of offense, they dealt center John Cullen (who would wind up the season as the NHL's fifth-leading scorer) and promising offensive defenseman Zarley Zalapski to the Hartford Whalers for Ron Francis, a strong two-way center, and feisty defenseman Ulf Samuelsson. When it made that deal, Pittsburgh became the best team.
The lesson? The NHL doesn't really start until April, so it's difficult to figure out its puzzle in October. The only smart thing is to pick the team with the most pieces in place. That club is the Rangers—especially if one of their pieces is Mark Messier. During a slide late last season from the top of the Patrick Division and then a first-round playoff loss to the Washington Capitals, New York was exposed as a team that lacked character. Nevertheless, in a flawed field, the Rangers start this season with the best chance to win the Cup.
Messier, a proven winner who could take the Rangers over the top, has decided not to return to Edmonton. He wants to go to a contender who will pay him $2 million a year. Pocklington wants some cash, and Oiler general manager Glen Sather desires one solid veteran plus several strong prospects for Messier, a 30-year-old center who was the NHL's MVP two seasons ago. New York has a well-heeled corporate owner in Paramount Communications and a good crop of minor leaguers. Expect the Rangers to ship some kids and 30-year-old center Bernie Nicholls along with a large check to Edmonton in exchange for Messier. Then expect New York to win the Cup.
Whichever of the Ranger youngsters-right wings Steven Rice and Tony Amonte and center Doug Weight—whom general manager Neil Smith doesn't send to the Oilers will upgrade an already talented New York lineup. But even if the kids don't make an instant impact, the acquisition of veteran Tim Kerr from San Jose (which had claimed him from the Philadelphia Flyers in the expansion draft) will give the Rangers the clutch playoff scoring they didn't receive last season from wings Mike Gartner or John Ogrodnick. Despite the knee and shoulder ailments that have beset Kerr in recent seasons, the Flyers let him go prematurely. Kerr will add character to New York, as will Adam Graves, a gritty center signed as a free agent from Edmonton.
Once free-agent Mike Richter, who became the Rangers' No. 1 goalie last season, signs a new contract and rejoins the team, Smith will be able to fill another need by trading the capable John Vanbiesbrouck, whom Richter supplanted for the starting job. But the best reason of many to like the Rangers is Brian Leetch, the top young defenseman in the NHL, who is on the brink of a monster season. After Leetch, James Patrick and David Shaw, the New York defense has proved to be frail and brittle, but with considerable depth at other positions, the Rangers will be able to beef up the backline through trades.