The National Hockey League begins its 61st season tonight with 17 teams, six nex coaches, a player who belongs to two clubs and a total absence of suspense about the eventual champion.
The Minnesota North Stars, combined with the buried Cleveland Barons, figure to ice a competitive team in place of two hopeless clubs. With so many franchises in financial difficulty, this could be the forerunner of other amalgamations, either between NHL teams or, if the necessary votes are forthcoming, World Hockey Association entries.
Danny Belisle, who replaced Tom McVie at Washington Monday, is the newest member of the coaches' club. Fred Shero has shifted to the New York Rangers, with Bob McCammon replacing him in Philadelphia. WHA product Harry Neale is guiding the Swedish revival at Vancouver, Bob Berry is behind the bench in Los Angeles and Harry Howell moves from Cleveland to Minnesota.
The Dale McCourt case continues to cast a shadow over the future of the league. He will begin the season in Detroit, while awaiting a ruling on the temporary restraining order granted by U.S. District Court Judge Robert DeMascio.
In the rules department, goaltenders will be forced to keep the puck in play unless closely checked or they will be tagged with penalties. This should provide more continuous action, as well as more goals. In addition, each team may call one 30-second timeout during a game.
Two things remain static. The league and no hope of crowning a new tract and no hope of crowning a new champion. The Montreal Candiens are even more dominant than before, with right wing Mark Napier joining the ranks after three outstanding WHA reasons.
Here is the probable order of finish in each division. NORRIS DIVISION
I - Montreal - The only fear is boredom. Napier is a plus and Piere Mondou figures to blossom as one of the league's outstanding centers.
2 - Detroit - Rogie Vachon provides expert goaltending and 6-5 draftee Willie Huber toughens the defense. If McCourt goes to Los Angeles, the Red Wings and Kings could flip flop.
3 - Los Angeles - Ron Grahame is no Vachon, but he will provide adequate goaltending. The loss of Gary Sargent has weakened a suspect defense.
4 - Washington - A new coach and many new faces make this a building year. The Capitals should be stronger when Ryan Walter and Jack Lynch are ready to play.
5 - Pittsburgh - The Penguins still don't check and they have less speed than before. The defense is weak. Look for Tom McVie to replace Johnny Wilson if the Penguins start slowly and lethargically. ADAMS DIVISION
1 - Boston - Dick Redmond will help Brad Park move the puck. Rick Middleton has capably assumed departed Greg Sheppard's penalty-killing duties. The only question mark is in goal, with Gerry Cheevers returning from knee surgery and Gilles Gilbert notorious in pressure situations.
2 - Buffalo - The Sabres are still strong offensively and rookie left wing Tony McKegney has been a training-camp standout. Don Edwards in the nets makes up for some defensive lapses.
3 - Minnesota - A 60-player fight for jobs has produced a competitive team. No. 1 draft choice Bob Smith adds offensive punch and Sargent anchors an improved defense.
4. Toronto - Any team that needs to pick up Walter McKechnie is in trouble.The Leafs have added Dave Hutchison to Dave Maloney and Tiger Williams, so they should occupy the penalty box, if not first place. PATRICK DIVISION
1 - Philadelphia - The Broad Street Bullies are back. With big Behn Wilson adding muscle, only the officials can stop the Flyers.
2 - New York Islanders - John Tenelli at left wing and Steve Tambellini at center help offensively. New York should battle Philadelphia to the wire.
3 - New York Rangers - Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson add scoring punch, but Shero is shackled with the league's poorest defense.
4 - Atlanta - The Flames look good on paper, particularly with the addition of Jean Pronovost, but they lack something on the ice. Atlanta rarely wins the big ones. SMYTHE DIVISION
1 - Chicago - The return of Bobby Orr, Keith Magnuson, Phil Russell and Jim Harrison from the injury list gives the Hawks a big edge over their mediocre divisional opposition.
2 - Vancouver - The Canucks have brightened themselves with red, orange and yellow uniforms. Swedes Lars Lindgren, Roland Erikson and Lars Zetterstrom make the prospects brighter, too.
3 - Colorado - Rookies Mike Gillis and Dave Watson have been Struck by injuries, so the Rockes, like the Capitals, will be late starters.
4 - St. Louis - Hockey's worst team is a candidate for amalgamation, but not the playoffs.