This is year for Canadiens, Avalanche

Time for fun and games. To begin at the end, look for the Colorado Avalanche and the red-faced Montreal Canadiens to be duking it out in the Stanley Cup finals.

Snicker if you will, but it could happen.


The Avalanche used to be the Quebec Nordiques, and the

Nordiques were the Eastern Conference regular-season champions last season. Now in the Western Conference, the team has a rugged style that should provide an advantage over its new conference foes.


Just how much may begin to become clear tonight, when Colorado faces off against last season's Stanley Cup runner-ups, the Detroit Red Wings, in the NHL season opener (ESPN, 8 p.m.).

You're probably thinking the Nordiques collapsed in the postseason last spring, but this week Colorado made a trade for Claude "Mr. Playoffs" Lemieux, who powered the New Jersey Devils' run to the Cup. If coach Marc Crawford does the coaching job he did a year ago, the Avalanche is there.

As for Montreal, the Canadiens missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years last spring. The last time that happened, Montreal came back to win the Cup the next season -- one of its 24 championships in 79 years.

Add to that the fact that this is the 1995-96 season. Montreal won the Cup in 1985-86, 1975-76, 1965-66, 1955-56 and 1945-46.

Who needs more logic than that?

The Endangered Seven

For nearly half its existence, 38 years if you want to count, the NHL had seven or fewer teams. This year, there are seven new head coaches. That's a 27 percent turnover in one season.

It does not speak well for longevity when the longest-serving coach in any NHL organization is the Dallas Stars' Bob Gainey, with five years, and when the Washington Capitals' Jim Schoenfeld, with 1 1/2 years in the job, is in a six-way tie for third.


The latest to make themselves available for the chopping block:

* Boston's Steve Kasper, 34, the youngest head coach in professional team sports, who will attempt to lead the Bruins into the playoffs for the 29th straight year.

* Buffalo's Ted Nolan, who was given a pretty fair idea of what Sabres fans want when he crossed the Canada-U.S. border into town. A customs official asked to look into his trunk -- "to see if there was any blood and guts in there."

* Craig Hartsburg, who spent 10 years as an NHL defenseman, is the rookie coach in Chicago.

* In Florida, Panthers director of player development and pro scouting Doug MacLean has moved into the head coaching position. MacLean, who has worked as an assistant coach in St. Louis, Detroit and Washington, was the head coach of the AHL Baltimore Skipjacks during 1989-90 and was 17-13-5.

* Mike Milbury, who coached the Bruins to the Stanley Cup finals in 1990, has traded his ESPN job for the chance to direct the New York Islanders.


* Another veteran NHL coach, Pierre Page, will try again with the Calgary Flames.

* And, in Los Angeles, NHL Hall of Famer Larry Robinson, who was the assistant coach with Stanley Cup-winning New Jersey last season and has six Stanley Cup rings of his own as a defenseman for Montreal, will try to right the fallen Kings.

Up and coming

Goaltenders Jim Carey (Washington) and Blaine Lacher (Boston) and forwards Peter Forsberg (Quebec, now Colorado), Paul Kariya (Mighty Ducks of Anaheim) and Jeff Friesen (San Jose Sharks) rose to the top of the rookie class a year ago, with Forsberg lugging off the Rookie of the Year award.

Who will be the standout rookies this time around?

Be advised to keep an eye on: defensemen Ed Jovanovski (Florida Panthers), Brendan Witt and Nolan Baumgartner (Washington) and centers Chad Kilger (Anaheim), Saku Koivu (Montreal) and Jeff O'Neill (Hartford Whalers).


Milestones ahead

* Six players are within 19 of 500 career goals: Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux (494) is closest and Detroit's Steve Yzerman (481) is at the far end.

In between are the St. Louis Blues' Glenn Anderson and New York Rangers' Mark Messier (both at 492), Buffalo's Dale Hawerchuk (489) and Pittsburgh's Joe Mullen (487).

* Detroit's Paul Coffey needs 22 assists to reach 1,000. . . . Toronto's Doug Gilmour is 31 from 1,000 points. . . . Twelve players can reach 1,000 games played, including former Capitals and current Devils Scott Stevens and Bob Carpenter. . . . Goaltenders Tom Barrasso (Pittsburgh), Andy Moog (Dallas) and John Vanbiesbrouck (Florida) are just four shutouts away from career totals of 25 each.

McKee's picks

Postseason predictions, six months ahead of schedule:


Vezina Trophy (goaltender of the year): Martin Brodeur (New Jersey)

Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP): Mario Lemieux (Pittsburgh)

Art Ross Trophy (points scoring leader): Eric Lindros (Philadelphia)

Calder Trophy (rookie of the year): defenseman Brendan Witt (Washington)

Norris Trophy (defenseman of the year): Chris Chelios (Chicago)

Masterson Memorial Trophy (perseverance, dedication to hockey): Mario Lemieux (Pittsburgh)


Division winners:*

Atlantic: New Jersey. Northeast: Hartford.

Central: Detroit. Pacific: Colorado.

* Eight teams from each conference qualify for the postseason, and winning a division title often means little. Note New Jersey's run to the Cup last year. The Devils were fifth in the Eastern Conference and did not have home ice in any playoff round.