When the National Hockey League opens its 69th season Thursday, one-third of the 21 teams will have new faces behind the bench.
In addition to the wholesale coaching turnover, there will be a player shuffle as well. Gone are familiar figures such as Brad Park, Darryl Sittler, Terry O'Reilly, Anders Hedberg, Mike Milbury and Steve Shutt. Wearing their uniforms are a flood of touted rookies, including an unprecedented number from Europe, with potential so great most general managers chose to avoid trades and await development.
With all the change, however, there is one constant. The Edmonton Oilers once again figure to drink from the Stanley Cup.
The challengers managed to pass a new rule limiting the four-on-four situations in which the swift Oilers excel, but it would take a handicap setup, such as in golf, to bring Wayne Gretzky and friends back to the pack.
Tight races are likely in three of the four divisions. The Smythe could be close, too, if the Oilers treat the 80-game regular season as the uninspiring warmup it has become for many of the NHL's better teams. Here is a rundown of each race, with predicted order of finish and 1984-85 points in parentheses: PATRICK DIVISION
Washington Capitals (101) -- Don't be fooled by the mediocre exhibition results. A healthy Bengt Gustafsson, playing center, should provide a big lift and rookie defenseman Kevin Hatcher looks like a good one. There still is a need for a left wing who can score consistently.
New York Islanders (86) -- This is a rebuilding year and there are a lot of question marks. Can Kelly Hrudey blossom into a first-class goaltender? Can Denis Potvin and Ken Morrow lead young defensemen such as Paul Boutilier and Gord Dineen to a higher level of play? Will Patrick Flatley and Pat LaFontaine achieve the stardom predicted for them after the 1984 Olympics? Because of last season's slump, Coach Al Arbour is expected to emphasize the regular season for a change.
Philadelphia Flyers (113) -- A thin defense took the Flyers a long way a year ago. It is not likely to happen again. Brad Marsh, who enjoyed his best NHL season, will be hampered by the official emphasis on penalizing stick grabbers. Goalie Pelle Lindbergh is another who will have a tough time repeating last season's success. The Flyers do have tough, tenacious forwards and Mike Keenan has proven he is a well prepared, competent coach. But this time they will catch nobody by surprise.
New York Rangers (62) -- Ted Sator, credited for much of Philadelphia's success as a Flyers' assistant coach, takes over a team that was riddled by injuries last season. Although there have been few personnel changes, just good health for players like Don Maloney and Barry Beck would lift New York. Rookie defenseman Terry Carkner and Finnish center Raimo Helminen are two promising new faces. One thing the Rangers proved during the exhibition season is that they are ready for the physical play in this division.
Pittsburgh Penguins (53) -- Mario Lemieux is a year older and rookie Craig Simpson will anchor another line. Possibly the key newcomer is goaltender Gilles Meloche. If he can make some big saves, the Penguins will score enough to win on a regular basis.
New Jersey Devils (54) -- Defenseman Craig Wolanin is a youngster of considerable potential. Promising center Kirk Muller is a year older, but so is goalie Chico Resch, at 37 the NHL's elder statesman. The Devils do not figure to pass anyone, but they are improved enough to guarantee that no Patrick team will hit 100 points. ADAMS DIVISION
Montreal Canadiens (94) -- Montreal has the most talent in the division and young players make it a team of the future. Right wing Kjell Dahlen from Sweden, goaltender Patrick Roy and center Stephane Richer could make an impact quickly. The big question is the new coach, Jean Perron. Reportedly called "a meathead" by a Montreal player last year, when he was an assistant, Perron must fill some big shoes belonging to departed Jacques Lemaire.
Buffalo Sabres (90) -- Rookie Coach Jim Schoenfeld replaces a legend, Scotty Bowman, with the knowledge that the legend will be looking over his shoulder from the general manager's perch. Bowman had no patience with young players, so Schoenfeld could help youngsters such as Swedish center Mikael Andersson. The big weakness is on defense, where Schoenfeld, Jerry Korab and Dave Maloney will be missing.
Quebec Nordiques (91) -- Defense is a problem here, too, although youngsters such as Randy Moller and Gilbert Delorme may have acquired enough NHL experience for a big jump forward. Mario Gosselin provides solid goaltending. Right wing John Anderson was an important addition. A possible drawback is the club's penchant for dissension; Mario Marois and Michel Goulet spent the summer grousing.
Boston Bruins (82) -- Another rookie coach, Butch Goring, takes over a team in the midst of change. With O'Reilly and Milbury gone, an era ended for the Bruins. The big names now are Ray Bourque and Barry Pederson, healthy after shoulder surgery, and the emphasis is on speed rather than mayhem in the corners. Pete Peeters needs a big year in goal to assure Bruins of a playoff berth.
Hartford Whalers (69) -- The Whalers keep improving and could be a playoff team after four dry years. This division is so close that fewer than 20 points should separate first and fifth, with a couple of key injuries making any team a candidate for elimination. Mike Liut in the nets should be a big plus for Hartford, and Ulf Samuelsson is a much improved defenseman. The Whalers' forwards are excellent forecheckers, and Jorgen Pettersson will add scoring punch. NORRIS DIVISION
Chicago Black Hawks (83) -- Beset by regular-season injuries, the Hawks rebounded to take Edmonton to six games in the Stanley Cup semifinals. Roger Neilson will serve as General Manager-Coach Bob Pulford's chief strategist, a perfect role for him. Chicago's principal concern is in goal, where Murray Bannerman and Warren Skorodenski have been erratic.
Minnesota North Stars (62) -- Lorne Henning becomes another in a long line of coaches under General Manager Lou Nanne. He learned much at Arbour's right hand, but he must overcome the ire of folks who wanted Herb Brooks as coach. Kent Nilsson adds scoring punch, but what this team needs are discipline and sound goaltending, neither of which is yet in evidence.
St. Louis Blues (86) -- Center remains a weak spot with Doug Wickenheiser still recuperating from the serious knee injury he suffered in an ill-advised March snipe hunt. Bruce Bell should add mobility to the defense, and Mark Hunter and Rick Nattress add toughness, but overall the Blues are thin and vulnerable to injuries.
Detroit Red Wings (66) -- A lot of people will be watching to see if money can buy respectability. Petr Klima, Ray Staszak and Adam Oates did not come cheaply, so there will be pressure to produce for Harry Neale, who goes behind the bench. Defense is questionable, with Reed Larson struggling. Mike McEwen and Harold Snepsts, both slowed by preseason injuries, must carry a heavy load, perhaps too heavy.
Toronto Maple Leafs (48) -- If youngsters such as Russ Courtnall, Gary Leeman and Wendel Clark can steer clear of the turmoil that annually grips the club, the Leafs could be more competitive. The defense is suspect and Borje Salming at 34 cannot be expected to cover up teammates' mistakes forever. Don Edwards is the man on the spot in the net. SMYTHE DIVISION
Edmonton Oilers (109) -- Finnish winger Esa Tikkanen and Craig MacTavish, the former Bruin who spent last season in jail, figure to make a great team a tad better. Only complacency has a chance to beat the Oilers.
Calgary Flames (94) -- Injuries have been a problem for the Flames, who will miss Nilsson's 37 goals. His departure should make for a closer-knit team, however, and there is enough talent and mobility to regain second-place status after last year's fall.
Winnipeg Jets (96) -- Goaltending is the major question here, with Brian Hayward and Marc Behrend in the NHL's lower echelon. There is plenty of offense, Dale Hawerchuk is close to superstar status and toughness is no problem.
Los Angeles Kings (82) -- The Kings moved ahead last year when Coach Pat Quinn instilled some discipline, but they lack the talent to challenge the division's top three. Marcel Dionne is 34 and presumably won't go on forever. The defense is solid, the goaltending questionable.
Vancouver Canucks (59) -- Toronto West figures to improve under Tom Watt, former coach of the year in Winnipeg. This will be a rebuilding season and a playoff berth would be a bonus. The defense is young, the forwards small and the prospects in this difficult division dim.