I was recently reading an old hockey magazine from the early 1970's and there was a nice article about Johnny 'Pieface' McKenzie. He had jumped to the new WHA as a 35 year old and in his opinion the league was not getting it's due respect.
In the article he states of the upstart league, "Certainly we're not equal to the NHL, but don't forget they've been around a hundred years. If we keep robbing their players and signing juniors we'll be equal in four or five years". He continued saying "The New England Whalers would have held their own in the NHL over the whole year. I know they're better than four or five teams right now. In fact, our top four teams could have beaten the Flames or the Islanders." The question is, was he correct?
The 1972/73 New England Whalers finished with 94 points in 78 games and beat third overall Cleveland 4 games to 1 in the semi-finals before beating second overall Winnipeg in the Final, also 4 games to 1. The Whale was definitely the cream of the WHA crop that first year. They were led by Tom Webster who was only one year removed from a 30 goal, 67 point NHL rookie season. Webster tallied 103 points for the Whalers and would definitely have been a solid NHLer that year. Centre, Terry Caffery was a 3rd overall selection of Chicago Black Hawks in 1966, but had yet to make an impact in the NHL. He parlayed an 88 point year in the AHL into a 100 point season with New England.
Larry Pleau had played 55 games for the Montreal Canadiens in 1971/72 and contributed 87 points to the Whalers championship campaign. Brit Selby a veteran of 350 NHL games and former Calder Trophy winner, chipped in 42 points that year and Tom Williams had over 500 NHL games on his resume and the previous season scored 17 goals with the North Stars and Golden Seals. Other than Williams, all these guys were 27 years old or younger.
The real strength of the Whalers that year was their defense. Jim Dorey, Ted Green, Brad Selwood and Rick Ley. All had played regularly in the NHL the previous season, and very well could have again if not jumping to the WHA. In net the Whalers had Al Smith
who had played over 40 NHL games the last three years with Goals Against Averages of under 3.25 each season.
In summary, John McKenzie definitely had a point. New England would have certainly held their own in the NHL of 1972/73. That season, Montreal, Boston and New York Rangers were a cut above the rest of the NHL. I would guess New England would have had at least a .500 record and been in a fight with Detroit and Buffalo for a playoff spot.
As for McKenzie's estimation that in 4 or 5 years the WHA would be equal to the NHL, that one was a bit off.