The usually conservative National Hockey League owners did two shocking things during the past summer. They spent big money and made big trades.
Seven prominent players changed teams during the off-season, and with two strokes of a pen, the St. Louis Blues set off a chain reaction that dramatically altered the league's salary structure.
Among the players traded were former All-Stars Chris Chelios, Denis Savard and Dale Hawerchuk. Chelios went from the Montreal Canadiens to Chicago, where his aggressive play may be enough to boost the high-scoring Blackhawks into the Stanley Cup finals. Savard, unhappy in Chicago, was traded for Chelios. In Buffalo, the arrival of the high-scoring Hawerchuk from the Winnipeg Jets could be the push that the Sabres need to jump over the Boston Bruins.
On the financial front, blame it all on the Blues. St. Louis signed Brett Hull and former Washington Capital Scott Stevens in June and July, and by summer's end, at least seven other players had new six-figure contracts.
Other situations to follow during a season that begins tonight:
* The restructuring of the Minnesota North Stars, who will lose half their team to the expansion San Jose Sharks next season.
* Pittsburgh Penguins forward Mario Lemieux's attempt to overcome yet another back ailment.
* The suspension of Edmonton Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr for at least half a year for cocaine use.
* The continued influx of European and Soviet players.
* The "race" for Eric Lindros, a 6-foot-5, 212-pound center who is expected to be the first pick in the 1991 entry draft.
A division-by-division look at the league:
The New York Rangers were the only division champions twin fewer than 40 games last season, and their 85 points would not have qualified them for the Adams Division playoffs. The final division playoff berth was not decided until the day before the season ended.
Thanks to a midseason trade that brought Bernie Nicholls (112 points) from the Los Angeles Kings and a later deal that brought Mike Gartner from the Minnesota North Stars, the Rangers have a potent offense that paid off in last season's stretch run. The New Jersey Devils enjoyed their best finish last season . Peter Stastny, acquired late last season from the Quebec Nordiques, and Kirk Muller give the offense a 1-2 punch at center.
Defenseman Neil Sheehy has been lost for at least three months because of a broken left ankle, and the Washington Capitals will be hard-pressed to repeat the success of last season, when they advanced to the Wales Conference finals.
Other than Pat LaFontaine, who led the team with 105 points, the New York Islanders did not have a player who scored more than 68 points. The Penguins missed the playoffs by one point, going 1-6-3 in their last 10 games; they brought in a new management team of Bob Johnson and Scotty Bowman. The Flyers missed the playoffs last season for the first time in 18 years, but things look brighter now.
This division was the best in the league last season. Boston finished first overall, with Buffalo third and Montreal fourth. Of course, the division also had the worst team in the league, Quebec, winner of only 12 games.
The Bruins could repeat as Stanley Cup finalists. Ray Bourque, last season's Norris Trophy winner as the league's top defenseman, has a new $1 million contract and has looked as good as ever in training camp.
The Sabres should have one of the league's best offenses, because Pierre Turgeon, a 106-point man last season, has Hawerchuk to take some pressure off him. The additions of Savard and Sylvain Turgeon will take some heat off Stephane Richer and Shayne Corson to carry the of
fense -- the league's worst on the power play last season. But replacing Chelios will be tough.
Ron Francis (32 goals, 68 assists) had a fine year last season, and he will need to do something like that again for Hartford to make the playoffs. The Nordiques again should be the worst team in the league.
This division race could be the most interesting. Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit have the potential to win the division and go deep into the playoffs.
In Chicago, Steve Larmer, Jeremy Roenick, Steve Thomas, Adam Creighton and Doug Wilson will be expected to make up for the offense lost when Savard was traded to Montreal for Chelios, and Chelios and Wilson are as good on defense as anyone else. The St. Louis Blues have a potent offense with Hull and Adam Oates, but they will need another good season from center Rod Brind'Amour, who scored 61 points as a rookie last season.
Although their front office underwent a shake-up after the death of owner Howard Ballard, the Maple Leafs seem to be the only team in the division that did not improve itself through off-season trades. Minnesota will be losing some of the its key second-line players next season, off to San Jose under the agreement that will allow the expansion Sharks to take 30 players from the North Stars organization to stock their roster.