The Norris Division Has Gone Respectable
The most maligned division in hockey, which has made mediocrity a consuming (and previously unattainable) pursuit, has evolved as the most improved group in the National Hockey League. No kidding. The Norris Division has gone respectable. This, we presume, allows for even more staggering possibilities, such as the proverbial 90-pound weakling rising up on the beach to kick sand into a muscle-bound face. Or, even more remarkable, for the league to finally rule on the great waiver draft controversy.
Okay, perhaps that's too far-fetched, but there is at least statistical evidence to prove that the Norris (yes, the lovable Porous, Bore-Us, Chuck Norris and Abhor-us) Division, is teetering on the brink of respectability, at long last. "It's about time," cracked Minnesota North Stars' general manager Jack Ferreira. "We've been down long enough."
In fact, dating back to the 1982-83 season, when the last bit of realignment was completed, the Norris has been the absolute laughing stock of the NHL. Chicago, Minnesota and Toronto have been abysmal. St. Louis has flirted with mediocrity and Detroit, at times, has been actually respectable.
The Norris has produced no Stanley Cup champion, no Stanley Cup finalist, has put no more than two teams in the league's top 10 in any given season, and hasn't had a team ranked higher than fourth overall, and that was seven seasons ago. Conventional wisdom suggests that if a team plays .500 hockey, odds are it will hang a division title banner in the rafters to celebrate the feat.
But, wait. There were three Norris Division teams in the top 10 (Chicago first, Minnesota fourth, St. Louis eighth), with another (Toronto, 13th) having just exited, for the week ending Nov. 19. There were none in the top 10 at the end of last season.
That is heady turnabout, even if we've only just hit the quarter pole of 1989-90 season. The Smythe, with a winning percentage of .556, remained the best, and the Adams .523 was next, but there was the Norris, close behind, at .519. The Patrick was last at .455. "It's obvious," said Detroit Red Wings' center Steve Yzerman. "The entire division has gotten better. Except us."
Oddly enough, the Red Wings were the only consistent link to respectability in the Norris the past three seasons. And they have endured an utterly horrific start this season. It included a 12-game winless streak and the truly unthinkable - it left coach Jacques Demers speechless. Otherwise, if the Red Wings had a normal start, it's conceivable all five Norris teams might have been among the best dozen overall. This is all quite fascinating, of course, but there are important questions to be answered. Such as, Why? Is this astounding turnaround linked to acid rain or the burning off of the ozone layer?
Will this phenomenon last? "It had to even out eventually," said Washington Capitals' assistant coach Doug MacLean, previously employed by St. Louis, and, therefore, an expert on old-time Norris hockey. "I think there are a number of factors behind it, but the biggest reason is the (entry) draft is finally working the way it was intended. "You look at the Norris teams, and they've all had high draft picks the past six or seven years. Now some of those draft picks are catching on. The teams that have struggled over the years, they've always had a couple of good players; then they made the rest of the team checkers. Now, they're adding their draft picks and suddenly they've got some pretty well-rounded teams."
The thinking is profound and it is witnessed outside of the Norris, too. Consider the improvements of the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres, for example. "Teams can only go so long not getting those top picks," said MacLean. "But that's also what the draft is supposed to do, so I guess it's working. But you look at our club (Washington), for instance. We've drafted late for a long time now, and who was the last No. 1 pick of ours to make it and be an impact player?" Defenseman Kevin Hatcher, selected in 1984."
Meanwhile, in the past couple of seasons the Blackhawks have added Jeremy Roenick and Dave Manson, the Blues have Rod Brind'Amour, the North Stars have Mike Modano, and the Maple Leafs have Vincent Damphousse, Daniel Marois and (when healthy) Wendel Clark.
Outside the division, the Canucks landed Trevor Linden, the Sabres Pierre Turgeon. All have had certain impact on their teams. "There are some good young kids in this division, no question," said North Stars' coach Pierre Page. "But there are also players such as Steve Yzerman, Denis Savard, Brett Hull, Mike Gartner, Brian Bellows, Vincent Damphousse, Ed Olczyk, Gary Leeman, all top players who can all score a lot of goals. In my opinion, the forwards in the Norris Division are as good as any division in hockey. To me, the biggest difference is on defense. We need some game-breakers back there. There are great receivers, but no quarterbacks, no Randall Cunninghams. But I think Toronto has improved that way. They already had Al Iafrate, then added Tom Kurvers."
And in Chicago, defenseman Doug Wilson has experienced a renaissance. In fact, of the top 27 scorers in the league, 10 came from the Norris, 10 from the Smythe, six from the Adams, and one from the Patrick, which for the past 15 seasons has been the most dominant and proficient in hockey.
And of the top 10 scoring teams, three came from the Norris. Of the top dozen defensive teams, again three were from the Norris. "Teams look to the Smythe Division and see the skating that goes on there and they see the success Calgary and Edmonton have had," said Leafs' captain Rob Ramage, a former Flame and Blue. "Teams try to emulate the Stanley Cup champions. (The Norris) has always been a grinding type of division, but teams have added speed, another dimension."
The other significant difference in the division has been the upgrading of coaching and the measure of consistency gained in the front office. Including changes made for this season and dating back to 1982-83, there have been nine different GMs and 23 different coaches employed in the division.
The caliber of coaching, especially, has been significantly upgraded the past two seasons, with Page in Minnesota, Mike Keenan in Chicago, Doug Carpenter in Toronto, Demers in Detroit, and the tandem of Brian Sutter and Bob Berry in St. Louis.
Only in past seasons, too, has the phenomenon of three and four-men coaching staffs swept into the Norris. "All the teams in the division have settled their management and coaching situations," said Blues' general manager Ron Caron, "and that has made all the teams better. I think the division has improved 50 to 60 per cent."
The teams have struck upon rebuilding plans - on and off the ice - that are beginning to show very real signs of working. Good coaching staffs have finally augmented the talent that was always present and draft picks. Together, they've created a marked improvement. But will all of this last? "There's no question parity has arrived in the NHL," said Capitals' GM David Poile. "The gap between one and 21 is getting closer, the other teams are catching up. Give teams like St. Louis, Toronto, Minnesota and Chicago credit, though, because they've done a good job and have improved. I think our division (the Patrick) will turn it around and get better, but I still definitely think parity has arrived."
And if parity has arrived, that means so has the Norris. But fear not. While the Norris one day might cease to be the unfailing target for jokesters, perhaps the torch could be passed to the Patrick Division. Let's see now, the Pathetic Patrick, the Pitiful Patrick, the...
Much changed in the two years that Doug MacLean worked outside the Norris Division. Once the National Hockey League's welcome mat, the Norris aka the: Chuck Norris or the Snorris now can field an all division team capable of competing with the best of the Smythe, Patrick and Adams divisions. "It looks like it is going to be a war every night, lots of physical contact, compared to other divisions," said MacLean, former Blues and Washington Capitals assistant coach who joins the Detroit Red Wings this season with new head coach Bryan Murray. "And there is an awful lot of skill now."
Last season, the Norris featured the, NHL's top two goal scorers and three of the league's top six rookie scorers. In addition, six of the top 18-point scorers and eight of the top 26 scoring defensemen were in the division. What happened? With a handful of blockbuster moves, Norris teams greatly bolstered their talent base. Established stars such as Steve Yzerman and Gerard Gallant of the Red Wings, Steve Larmer and Doug Wilson of the Chicago Blackhawks and Brian Bellows sand Neal Broten of the Minnesota 'North Stars have been joined by a new wave of Norris talent.
You know the Brett Hull story. Critics laughed at the Blues when they traded all-star defenseman Rob Ramage and goaltender Rick Wamsley to Calgary for Hull. But, he has 113 goals in two full Blues seasons and was one of the NHL's top stories last year.
Similarly, critics have panned the Red Wings' trade for center Jimmy Carson. They sent Adam Graves, Joe Murphy and Petr Klima to Edmonton for him last season, and that trio helped the Oilers win the Stanley Cup. Injuries and attitude problems made Carson's 1989-90 season a wash, but don't forget that he scored 186 points in his first three NHL seasons. "Jimmy Carson has had a great camp, he looks so strong and he's only 22 years old," MacLean said.
When the Capitals sent Paul Cavallini to St. Louis In the 1987-88 season, the earth didn't move. But Cavallini emerged last season as an all-star defenseman who led the NHL in plus minus rating. The Blues acquired defenseman Jeff Brown from the Quebec Nordiques last season; a former all rookie defenseman, Brown scored 164 points in his first three NHL seasons.
Then the Blues signed free agent defenseman Scott Stevens from the Capitals, bringing a 1988 All NHL performer to a division once woeful on defense. They also acquired left winger Geoff Courtnall from the Washington Capitals in the off season; his 113 goals in the past three seasons rank behind only Luc Robitaille at the position.
Defenseman Larry Murphy, who made the All NHL second team In 1987, came to the North Stars in a deal with the Capitals late in the 1988-89 season. He has scored 629 points in 785 NHL games. Chris Chelios, who won the Norris Trophy in 1989 as the league's best defenseman, has come to the Norris Division as a Blackhawk.
In an interesting one for one swap, Chicago acquired him from Montreal for all-star center Denis Savard. But that doesn't leave a dearth of centers in the division. Two pivot men who moved within the division Adam Oates and Ed Olczyk have blossomed into frontline players with their new teams.
Oates scored 102 points last season for the Blues after arriving from the Red Wings, and Olczyk has scored 75, 90 and 88 points in Toronto after the Leafs acquired him from Chicago.
Scouting and player development have proved as critical to the Norris improvement as trading. "There were a lot of high draft choices from when the division, was down," MacLean said. "First round picks, second round picks, and third round picks. It shows that the system works."
In Toronto, right winger Gary Leeman (drafted 24th overall, 1982), Al Iafrate (fourth overall, 1984), Vincent Damphousse (sixth overall, 1986) and Dan Marois (28th overall, 1987) all had career years last season. Among them, they produced 98 more points than they did the year before. Centers Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick and Rod Brind'Amour went within the first nine picks of the 1988 draft and they are on the verge of stardom with the North Stars, Blackhawks and Blues, respectively.
As a result of all these factors; the Norris has more quality forwards than ever before. "I mean, Leeman, he may be as good as the best, he's a proven 50 goal right winger," MacLean said. "Ed Olczyk is a 40 goal man every year. Yzerman is going to challenge the top guy. Yzerman has had consecutive 60 goal seasons."
The only murky region of the Norris is its goaltending. The Blackhawks are seeking a No. 1 netminder, with Eddie "The Eagle" Belfour the frontrunner, and ex Blue Greg Millen on the trading block.
The Red Wings and Blues hope youngsters Tim Cheveldae and Curtis Joseph, respectively, develop into stars, and Toronto will trade for a goaltender should the combination of Jeff Reese and Allan Bester falter again. Only Minnesota's Jon Casey, coming off back-to-back stellar seasons, appears to be set.
Last season, Casey tied for the league lead with 31 victories and tied for second with three shutouts. "Everybody has young goaltenders and any one of them could become a top guy," MacLean said. "You just don't know." If they do, the division's once weak talent base will be complete.
By Scott Morrison; December 1, 1989 The Hockey News By Jeff Gordon; Thursday, October 4, 1990 Of The Post-Dispatch
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