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  • Writer's pictureDerek Ochej

Team Checklists: Smythe Division

We are on to the second division in the Campbell Conference, and the last of four divisions from the 1991-92 NHL season. Constantine 'Conn' Smythe was a Toronto businessman and hockey enthusiast who coached the University of Toronto Varsity Grads in the last 1920s, including at the 1928 Winter Olympics.

In the NHL, after flirting with the New York Rangers administration, Smythe put together a group of investors and bought the Toronto St. Pats in 1927. He quickly renamed the team the Maple Leafs and was coach soon thereafter. He would coach for parts of four seasons before moving back into his ownership role, which included the building of Maple Leafs Gardens in the middle of the 1930s Depression. Smythe would re-enlist in the Canadian Forces for WWII (he served in WWI) and upon his return to the NHL would be heavily involved in anti-union activities, earning a reputation as a strict taskmaster. His difficult ways would extend to his son, Stafford, who was part of his ownership group. By the early 1960s Conn had sold most of his shares in the Maple Leafs to his son, as well as the infamous Harold Ballard and John Bassett. After leaving the Leafs he would be heavily involved in philanthropy and supervising the construction of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. In 1965 the Conn Smythe trophy, awarded to the playoff MVP, was introduced. For the 1974-75 season, the Smythe Division was named after the former Leafs owner. Smythe passed away at the age of 85 in 1980.

Card # 97: Vancouver Canucks - Trevor Linden

1990-91 saw the Canucks finish fourth in the Smythe Division (28-43-9), losing in six games in the division semi-final to the heavily favoured Los Angeles Kings.

Things would turn around quickly under coach Pat Quinn in his first full year behind the helm, as Vancouver would win the division with a 42-26-12 record. The team was led in scoring by captain Trevor Linden (31-44-75) and Cliff Ronning (24-47-61), and boasted Calder Trophy winner Pavel Bure (34-26-60). All-Star goalie Kirk McLean minded the crease, posting a league high 38 wins to go with a 2.74 GAA and .901 save percentage.

In the playoffs the Canucks would fall behind division rival Winnipeg three games to one, but storm back to win three in a row by scores of 8-2, 8-3 and 5-0, with game seven including a Geoff Courtnall hat trick. That would be the end of the magic, as the Canucks would fall to the Edmonton Oilers in six games in the division final.

YouTube clip: Pavel Bure being interviewed after his first NHL game.

Card # 85: Los Angeles Kings - Tomas Sandstrom

The Kings won the Smythe Division in 1990-91, and would defeat the Vancouver Canucks in six games in the division semi-final before being upset in the division final by the Edmonton Oilers in a tight series, where four of six games went to overtime.

In 1991-92 the Kings, led by coach Tom Webster, would take a step back, finishing second in the Smythe Division with a 35-31-14 record. Wayne Gretzky, naturally, led the team in scoring (31-90-121) while winning his second-straight (and third overall) Lady Byng Trophy. Left winger Luc Robitaille led the team in goals with 44. Kelly Hrudey tended the twine, finishing with a 26-17-3 record, 3.37 GAA and .897 save percentage.

The Kings would draw the Great One’s former team, the Oilers, in the division semi-final this year. Only two points separated the teams in the regular season standings, and the Oilers would again get the best of the Kings, winning in six games. Former King Bernie Nicholls led the Oilers in scoring with 13 points.

During the 1991-92 season, the Kings added two of Gretzky’s former Oiler teammates to the roster. Jari Kurri was acquired from Philadelphia before the start of the season in exchange for Steve Duchesne and Steve Kasper. Defenceman Paul Coffey was acquired in February from Pittsburgh for a package including Brian Benning, Jeff Chychrun and 1st round pick.

YouTube clip: long before the Winter Classic outdoor games, the Kings and Rangers played an exhibition game outdoors at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. These are the highlights from the game, including the Hrudey Cam.

Card # 83: Edmonton Oilers - Esa Tikkanen

The 1990-91 season saw the Oilers finish third in the Smythe Division, upsetting Calgary and Los Angeles on their way to a division title. Their run would end in the conference final, courtesy of another Cinderella-team, the Minnesota North Stars.

Coached by Ted Green, the Oilers would again finish third in the Smythe in 1991-92, with a 36-34-10 record. The team was led in scoring by the newly-acquired Vincent Damphousse (38-51-89) and former # 1 overall pick Joe Murphy (35-47-82). Bill Ranford tended the crease, going 27-26-10 with a 3.58 GAA and .884 save percentage.

The Oilers would play spoiler again in the playoffs, upsetting both the Los Angeles Kings and division-champion Vancouver Canucks in five games each. And much like 1991, the team would be swept out of the conference final, this time by Chicago.

1992 would mark the final time the once mighty Oilers would make the playoffs for four years. GM Glen Sather dismantled the dynasty with a series of trades that season:

  • Jari Kurri traded to Philadelphia for Scott Mellanby, Craig Fisher and Craig Berube (May 1991)

  • Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson (plus Berube) to Toronto for Damphousse, Peter Ing, Luke Richardson and Scott Thornton (September 1991)

  • Steve Smith to Chicago for Dave Manson

  • Mark Messier to the New York Rangers for Louie DeBrusk, Bernie Nicholls and Steven Rice

  • Ken Linesman to Toronto for cash

These last three trades happened in a one-week period in early October

Card # 99: Winnipeg Jets - Ed Olczyk

In 1990-91 the Jets finished fifth in the Smythe Division (26-43-11), two points behind Vancouver for the final playoff spot. In the off-season, coach Bob Murdoch would be relieved of his duties.

1991-92 saw coach John Paddock take the reins, with the Jets improving to fourth in division with a 33-32-15 record. Two of the team’s top three scorers would be defenceman, with Phil Housley (23-63-86) finishing first and Fredrik Olausson (20-42-62) third. Ed Olczyk led the team in goals with 32. Bob Essena led the team in starts with 47, finishing with a record of 21-17-6, 2.88 GAA and .910 save percentage; Essensa also led the NHL in shutouts with five.

In the playoffs, Winnipeg would take a 3-1 series lead on division champion Vancouver before dropping the final three games by scores of 8-2, 8-3 and 5-0 to be eliminated in the division semi-final.

Card # 80: Calgary Flames - Theoren Fleury

The 1990-91 season saw the Flames finish second in the Smythe Division, 20 points clear of their first-round opponent and provincial rival, the Edmonton Oilers. In a back-and-forth series the Oilers would get the last laugh, winning Game 7 in overtime courtesy of Esa Tikkanen’s hat-trick goal.

1991-92 would mark a downtrend for the once powerful Flames, as they would finish fifth in the Smythe Division (31-37-12), one point behind Winnipeg for the final playoff spot. Coach Doug Riseborough would be fired before the end of the season, replaced by Guy Charron.

Gary Roberts would lead the way in goals (53) and points (90), with defenceman Al MacInnis taking the lead in assists (57). Mike Vernon was the main man in net, sporting a 24-30-9 record, 3.58 GAA and .883 save percentage.

Fans could mark early January 1992 as the beginning of the end for the Flames, with the infamous 10 player swap with Toronto. Doug Gilmour, Jamie Macoun, Kent Manderville, Ric Nattress and Rick Wamsley were sent to TO for Craig Berube, Alexander Godynyuk, Gary Leeman, Michel Petit and Jeff Reese. Gilmour would go on to have the best seasons of his career in Toronto, almost leading the Leafs to the Cup finals in 1992-93.

YouTube clip: highlights from a 2-2 tie game versus Montreal on January 3, 1992. Given the high-scoring nature of the early 90s, this was a goaltender’s dual between Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon.

Card # 95: San Jose Sharks - Neil Wilkinson

1991-92 was the Sharks inaugural season, becoming the NHL’s 22nd franchise. They would finish last in the Smythe Division (17-58-5) and last in the NHL, wrestling that title from the Quebec Nordiques who finished 13 points ahead of them.

The team was led by George Kingston, who prior to coaching the Sharks was an assistant in Minnesota and the season prior to 1991-92 was coaching the Norwegian national team. The team was led in scoring by first round pick Pat Falloon (25-34-59). Jeff Hackett took on the starting role by season’s ending, finishing with a 11-27-1 record, 3.84 GAA and .892 save percentage.

The Sharks lost their first game in team history, 4-3 to the Vancouver Canucks, with California native Craig Coxe scoring the franchise's first goal. It would only take the Sharks three games to record their first win, a 4-3 victory over Calgary. After that win they would go on to lose 13 games in a row, as well as seven games in a row to close out the season.

For a team built from scratch the year prior, the Sharks were only involved in one significant trade - acquiring future Hall of Famer Doug Wilson from Chicago for Kerry Toporwoski and second round pick. Wilson would go on to captain the Sharks for their first two seasons. He would retire after his second season in San Jose, but would return in 1997-98 as director of player personnel. Wilson is still employed by San Jose, currently in his 18th season as general manager.

The Sharks inaugural season will go down as one of the worst in modern NHL history, beaten only by the 1992-93 Ottawa Senators (10-70-4) and the 2000-01 Atlanta Thrashers (14-61-7).

YouTube clip: the pre-game ceremony before the Sharks' first home game on October 5, 1991.

The next post we get into, after 100 cards, the base set for the 1991-92 Upper Deck series. It will feature Stanley Cup winning goals, the man who has the second greatest assist of all-time and one of the greatest American-born players in history.

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