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Without Gretzky, Edmonton Circles the Wagons : Defending Champion Oilers Still Loaded, but Vulnerable to Calgary, Montreal

United Press International

With the Wayne Gretzky era ended in Edmonton, the Oilers enter the 1988-89 National Hockey League season hungrier than ever to prove their Stanley Cup dynasty can survive.

With The Great One now a Los Angeles King, however, the rest of the NHL finally can believe in the possibility of parity.

The Aug. 9 trade that shook Canada and the league has finally created some doubt as to which team will emerge with the Cup in May. Beginning Oct. 6, the question will be at issue.

The deal that sent Gretzky, Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley to Los Angeles brought Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas and first-round draft picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993 to Edmonton. Even without the game’s brightest star, the Oilers still possess the best talent in the league, including eight holdovers from their four Stanley Cup championship teams and a 55-goal scorer in Carson. The extra incentive to win their third straight title and fifth in six years is the desire to emerge from Gretzky’s formidable shadow.

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“We’ll never be able to replace a player like Wayne, emotionally or physically,” Oiler Coach and General Manager Glen Sather says. “Our place in history is shaken.”

Although the Kings took a giant step toward becoming contenders, the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens should pose the most serious threats to Edmonton’s dominance. Last season, the Flames won the President’s Trophy for the league’s best record, but were swept from the playoffs by the Oilers in the second round. Surely, Calgary has taken heart in Gretzky’s departure.

The Canadiens, whose playoff domination of the Boston Bruins ended last season in the second round, enter this season with a new coach. Perhaps Pat Burns can coax the discipline and dedication that Jean Perron could not from the Canadiens. Perron, despite winning the Cup as a rookie coach in 1986, resigned under pressure from GM Serge Savard, who questioned his rapport with players.

Five other teams changed coaches since the end of last season. Mike Keenan, fired by Philadelphia, has taken over at Chicago, and is replaced by former Flyer Paul Holmgren. Gene Ubriaco will be behind the bench for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Brian Sutter retired from playing to become coach of the St. Louis Blues and Pierre Page assumed command of the Minnesota North Stars. Since the end of the 1986-87 season, 11 of the NHL’s 21 teams have changed coaches.

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This season, three teams open with new general managers. Tony Esposito will run the Penguins, Jack Ferreira takes charge of the North Stars and Martin Madden assumes control of the Quebec Nordiques--assisted by Perron.

One aging superstar will be missing this season, but another has come out of retirement. Denis Potvin, the most prolific and enduring defenseman of all time, last season concluded his 15-year career with the New York Islanders. Hall of Fame right winger Guy Lafleur, however, ended his four-year hiatus, and earned a spot on the New York Rangers’ roster.

Lafleur, 37, played 14 seasons with the Canadiens, and is 11th on the league’s all-time goals and points lists. The two-time Hart Trophy winner as the league’s MVP played on five Stanley Cup champions, and New York fans hope he can help end the Rangers’ 48-year championship drought.

“I feel I can play all 80 games--no problem,” said Lafleur, who departed from the Candiens bitterly. “It would be nice to say I could score 20 goals, but I don’t know. I’m not 26 years old anymore, and I know that.”

Almost forgotten is former All-Star right winger Mike Bossy, whose back injury has kept him off the ice for the Islanders last season. The only five-time 60-goal scorer in NHL history might be facing the end of the line.

At the other end of the ice, several rookies expect to make an impact this season. Some made conspicuous debuts last season, but retain their rookie status.

Following the Winter Games, a band of Olympians joined the NHL ranks, and some figured prominently in the playoffs. Sean Burke, a star goaltender for Team Canada, was instrumental in sparking the New Jersey Devils to their first-ever playoff appearance and pushing the Bruins to seven games in the Wales Conference final.

Craig Janney of the U.S. Olympic Team and Bob Joyce of Team Canada emerged from the Winter Games to help boost the Bruins into the Stanley Cup final with their offensive skills.

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Gelinas, acquired by Edmonton in the Gretzky trade, can only benefit from playing with the Oilers, who ease the burden on rookies by keeping expectations reasonable. Defenseman Greg Hawgood was sent down but is expected to make a contribution for Boston, and Andrew Cassels promises to complement Stephane Richer and Mats Naslund with Montreal.

Last year’s phenoms must prove their success was no fluke, and chief among the question marks is Joe Nieuwendyk, the second rookie to score 50 goals in a season.

The trickle of players from Soviet-bloc countries into the NHL continued during the off-season, with Czechoslovakians David Volek joining the Islanders, and Dusan Pasek and Igor Liba suiting up for Minnesota. The anticipated arrival of stars from the Soviet National Team has stalled, but before the season is over, Soviet defensemen Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov, who have received clearance from the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation, could be wearing Devil uniforms, if the Red Army lets them go.

The league held on to John Ziegler as its president, despite the fiascos he chose to overlook, including a playoff game at New Jersey worked by amateur officals in makeshift uniforms when the Devils received a court order that permitted Coach Jim Schoenfeld to temporarily overrule a league suspension.

Ziegler engineered a new television contract, with Sportschannel America supplanting ESPN as supplier to the American market. The new deal will mean more “home-town” games for regional markets, but ESPN had done an outstanding job at providing intelligent exposure for the league.

Boston, Buffalo and Pittsburgh should reach milestones this winter. The Bruins are 43 victories away from becoming the second team in NHL history to reach 2,000, joining Montreal.

The Sabres need 17 victories to hit 700, and the Penguins’ fourth triumph will give the franchise 600.

As usual, however, the focus will be on Gretzky, who will continue to set the standards by which all others are measured.

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