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If paper could play hockey, the 1988-89 Golden Eagles would have already gone down as the best Eagle team in years - maybe ever.

The roster for the season that starts tonight at 6:30 MDT at Milwaukee's new Bradley Center is the most formidable Salt Lake's ever had - on paper.Living up to that promise against an International League that is probably now stronger than the old Central League will be the Eagles' mission.

"It's up to us to come together as a team," says second-year Coach Paul Baxter, who took last year's club from last place to the Turner Cup championship as new players gradually came in and fit in. Now, 14 of those title-team players are back, and two members of last year's Calgary Flames, the best regular-season team in pro hockey, have been sent here as well.

Calgary also stocked the Eagles with five untested rookies who looked good enough in training camp to take jobs away from several of last year's Eagles - Jeff Wenaas, Rick Barkovich and Darwin McCutcheon have all been loaned elsewhere after making big contributions to the title drive last spring.

On this 1988-89 Eagle team, there is firepower (Theoren Fleury, Rich Chernomaz, Peter Lappin, Jim Johannson, Randy Bucyk, Paul Ranheim). There is sharp goalkeeping (Doug Dadswell, Wayne Cowley), solid defense (Ken Sabourin, Rick Lessard, Brian Glynn), finesse on defense (Dave Reierson, Chris Biotti), there are defensive forwards (Doug Clarke, Mark Holmes, Bob Bodak, Marc Bureau), and there is toughness (Stu Grimson, Rick Hayward, Martin Simard).

Assistant Coach Bob Francis says the biggest pitfall for this team could be overconfidence.

Says owner Art Teece, "It's going to be interesting to see if our expectations come about, but you go into that locker room, and they're all so enthused."

Baxter is anxious to see if Cowley is a consistently hard worker and how Fleury, Lappin and Johannson react to a new season after making such a big splash during the playoff drive.

Fleury played 10 games (14 goals, nine assists) after coming out of juniors, Lappin played 20 games (17 goals, 13 assists, playoff MVP) out of college and Johannson 37 games (22 goals, 21 assists) after the Olympics.

The 1979-80 Eagles, with Doug Palazzari at his peak, had the best record in franchise history, 49-24-7 for 105 points in 80 games. They were 8-5 in winning the CHL Adams Cup. But that team didn't have the depth this one should.

Baxter, admittedly keeping his fingers crossed for luck, has set this season's goals even higher. "The team that we have has the potential to challenge Muskegon's record of last year," he says. The Lumberjacks won an IHL-record 58 games and scored 126 points during the regular season. They also set a league goal record with 415.

The 1980-81 Eagle team, which won a second straight Adams Cup after finishing second to Dallas in the regular season, probably had the best overall personnel of any Eagle team until now - Palazzari, Joe Mullen, Paul MacLean, Jim Nill, Bobby Crawford, Richie Hansen, Rick Heinz, Paul Skidmore, Mark Reeds, Red Laurence, Len Frig. Mullen, MacLean, Nill, Crawford, Heinz and Reeds went on to NHL careers, and Mullen, MacLean, Nill and Reeds are still in the big league.

Says Francis, "I think we have a team of that caliber. It's a very talented bunch. And they have the same notion - that we're going to have to work hard for what we get. We have good character and solid individuals."

"We've set high goals for ourselves that we feel are very reachable if we play as a team. The key word is `team,"' says Bucyk, a captain last year. "We have the capability, the nucleus, to be a contender, but until you've proven it, you haven't proved anything."

Chernomaz, another of last year's captains and the leading regular-season scorer, says having talent is fine, as long as each man remembers his role. "It's a matter of keeping unity. A lot of times, that will overtake talent.

"One of the reasons we won last year is that everyone really pulled together and appreciated each other for their abilities as hockey players."

Agrees Bucyk, "It's amazing what you can accomplish when nobody cares who gets the credit."

Baxter says that having such early season potential will change the way he coaches. "I'll have to be a little tougher and expect more and have patience when necessary. I expect more of myself," he says.

But, as he prepared to leave for the season's first road trip, Baxter said he was truly uncertain about his line combinations and starters. "I can't figure out who to play with each other," he said. "I don't know why."

Maybe it's because all combinations look good. At least on paper.