The Ice Already Might Be Cracking Beneath the NHL Champion Oilers

The Washington Post

While the Edmonton Oilers celebrated their third Stanley Cup triumph in four years, there was reason to believe hockey's dynasty of the 1980s may be winding down.

Defenseman Paul Coffey, the Norris Trophy winner in 1985 and 1986, almost certainly will not return next season, after he soured the postgame party by airing past complaints with General Manager-Coach Glen Sather.

And Sather declined to say whether he would be back behind the bench in the fall. For several years, he has assigned many of the coaching duties to John Muckler, officially his co-coach.

Winger Jari Kurri, who scored the Cup-winning goal in Sunday's 3-1 victory over Philadelphia, has played out his option and has indicated he has taken enough high sticks on his visor to contemplate joining a European team instead.

Also playing out their options and due to become free agents July 1 are Kevin Lowe, who may be the best defensive defenseman in the National Hockey League, and goaltender Andy Moog, who says he is tired of being Grant Fuhr's caddie.

Defenseman Reijo Ruotsalainen, a disappointment in the playoffs, and winger Jaroslav Pouzar definitely will play in Europe next season. Winger Kent Nilsson appears headed for a similar decision, having promised his wife Berit that this would be his last season in North America.

Overriding all else is the question of how long Wayne Gretzky will continue to play hockey. Gretzky has enough money to buy his own team and, although he still enjoys playing, he is not happy about the travel commitments. Gretzky hates to fly.

Although Gretzky preferred to celebrate rather than discuss the future, his father Walter told the Edmonton Sun, "I would say (Wayne's career) all depends on his flying. He's not feeling any better than that. He always said the day it's not fun for him anymore, that's the day he's finished."

Coffey has been quarreling with Sather much of the season and while teammates squirted champagne in the dressing room Sunday night, he allowed his ruffled feathers to show.

"This has been a rough year for me," Coffey said. "That stuff I had with Slats (Sather), we'll have to resolve it before next year or something's going to happen.

"During the L.A. series, Slats said he wasn't going to put me in the lineup. A newspaper guy asked him and he said we were playing fine without me. I don't think that was fair. I played seven years here and I don't need that."

Coffey and Sather were at odds during the regular season because Sather wanted the team to spend more time on defense, while Coffey is offensive-oriented. Sather's demands paid off, however, as the Oilers played superb defense in winning the Cup, limiting the Flyers to two shots in the third period Sunday.

"We've developed a hockey club to be a team," Sather said. "You can't beat a hockey club like Philadelphia unless you are a great hockey team."

Of his future, Sather said, "Right now, I'm planning to take a vacation in Alaska. When I get back, we'll see what happens from there."

Moog played 16 games in the 1983 playoffs, when the Oilers lost to the New York Islanders, but his role has diminished each year since, as Fuhr has become the No. 1 man.

"My ego is getting in the way and I want to play more," said Moog, who appeared in only two playoff games this spring. "I'm going to test the free-agent market. I don't know if I'm going to move, but I'm going to see what's out there."

Lowe, who would be a desirable commodity with any other team, said, "I like being a winner. I'm a free agent, but I like winning Stanley Cups. I'd like to think I'll be back."

If someone had to project a champion for 1988, the obvious choice would be the Flyers, who came so close this time without their top scorer, Tim Kerr, and with so many players skating despite serious injuries.

It is hard to figure a goaltender's future, but Ron Hextall, the Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP, would appear more sound fundamentally than the 1986 Smythe selection, Montreal's Patrick Roy, who was less effective this year. Hextall's puck-moving abilities give the Flyers a dimension available to no other team.

"We're closer now than we were in '85," said Philadelphia captain Dave Poulin. "I think we're very close. This year we got one of the best if not the best goaltender in hockey and Ron Hextall was undoubtedly the reason we took it to the wire."

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