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Talent-rich Oilers should rule NHL again despite some key absences

The Edmonton Oilers have heard all the good reasons why they won't repeat as Stanley Cup champions. But they can cite better reasons why they can win their fourth cup in five years. Since the Oilers flipped the Philadelphia Flyers in the playoff finals last spring, their roster has been riddled by defections. Defenseman Randy Gregg and alternate goalie Andy Moog joined the Canadian Olympic team. Defenseman Reijo Ruotsalainen and winger Kent Nilsson decided to play overseas. Other key players held out for big raises, and superstar defenseman Paul Coffey still hasn't suited up. Most teams couldn't stand that kind of adversity. Edmonton isn't most teams, though. It's the most talented group in hockey history, and well aware of the fact.

``We have the best offense ever,'' says defenseman Charlie Huddy. ``We have the best goalie, Grant Fuhr. Our defense is much improved. How do you top that?''

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Good question, Charlie. And you didn't even mention Wayne Gretzky by name. Gretzky has won the National Hockey League scoring championship seven straight times, and the Most Valuable Player trophy eight straight. He needs only 71 points to pass Phil Esposito and jump into third place on the all-time scoring chart, behind just Gordie Howe and Marcel Dionne.

Furthermore, he's only 26 years old and probably hasn't even reached his prime of primes. That's what the Russians said after Gretzky proved the difference in Canada's thrilling Canada Cup victory over the Soviet Union few weeks ago.

It is a shame, by the way, that the Canada Cup came before the long NHL schedule instead of after. The grand finale was first instead of last. After watching the intensity, skill, and pace of the Canada-USSR showdown, fans are finding this month's early NHL games slow and sluggish by comparison.

Another thing making it hard to whip up interest at the beginning is the sheer length of the schedule. Once again this season the league will stage an 80-game campaign over six months to eliminate five of 21 franchises, followed by two months or so of playoffs. Call it the National Hype League.

Philadelphia coach Mike Keenan is talking about rotating more players in and out of his lineup so they will be fresher for the playoffs. The Flyers played a record 116 games last season from taining camp through the playoffs!

Goalie Ron Hextall played 92 and may have weakened at the end. He's resting for the first eight games of this season, however, suspended for a stick-swinging incident in the playoffs.

``If we can make it to the playoffs without getting tired and battered, we can go all the way,'' says Keenan.

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The other two leading contenders, Washington and Montreal, both should be stronger.

Bengt Gustafsson, back from Sweden, and Dale Hunter, acquired from Quebec, will perk up the Washington offense. The Capitals, who feel they must avoid their perennial slow start to win the Patrick Division over Philadelphia, got off on the right foot by winning four of their first six games.

Montreal, which scraped through to the Stanley Cup in 1986, returns the best defense in the league, although the great Larry Robinson broke a leg playing polo during the off-season and will be out at least until Christmas. On offense, young Shayne Corson could mature into a major scorer.

Montreal competes in the fiercest of the four NHL divisions, the Adams. Hartford won it last season, then succumbed quickly in the playoffs.

The Whalers have developed steadily. They need a long-awaited sensational scoring year from Sylvain Turgeon, and possibly more muscle in this most physical division.

Boston boasts the league's best defenseman in Ray Bourque but is beset by doubts about its defensive depth, goaltending, and scoring punch. Look for the Bruins to play a lot of youngsters like top draft pick Glen Wesley, and jell late in the winter.

Buffalo is expecting immediate help from the No. 1 draft choice overall, forward Pierre Turgeon, younger brother of Hartford's Sylvain.

The weakest division is the Norris, as in ``Don't bore us with the Norris.'' No team attained a .500 record last season.

Minnesota may surprise here under new coach Herb Brooks. The man who led the United States to an Olympic gold medal in 1980 must discipline a squad of chronic underachievers - the very sort of challenge he relishes.

Detroit went from worst in the entire NHL to most improved last season under Jacques Demers. Steve Yzerman continues to refine his offensive pyrotechnics and leadership qualities. The Red Wings can go only so far with limited ability and positive thinking, however.

Positive thinking works best in the NHL when practiced by the Edmonton Oilers, who should be favored to win the Smythe Divison and then the Stanley Cup again. They have the exceptional talent to back it up.

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