PHT Time Machine: NHL expansion teams build Montreal dynasty
Throughout the summer we will be taking a look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back to when a bunch of expansion teams unintentionally helped build one of the NHL’s great dynasties in Montreal.
You may think of the present day Montreal Canadiens as a dysfunctional mess of a franchise without much in the way of a long-term plan, producing a consistently disappointing on-ice product.
This, of course, was not always the case as the 24 Stanley Cup banners hanging in their rafters illustrate. You don’t get that many championships by being dumb.
Many of those championships are the direct result of a long-term plan by former long-time general manager Sam Pollock that was not only ahead of its time, but feasted on the -- let’s say -- ignorance of the teams around him.
This is the story of how a bunch of expansion teams helped the Montreal Canadiens build one of the NHL’s greatest dynasties.
Throughout 1960s the NHL went through several changes that would forever change the look of the league.
Among those changes...
- The amateur draft: Starting in 1963 the NHL introduced the amateur draft as a means of giving every team equal opportunity to land young, star players. Prior to the draft NHL teams would “sponsor” junior teams and players, limiting which teams they could play for once they were ready to turn pro.
- Expansion: Then in 1967 the league doubled in size going from six teams to 12 with the additions of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota North Stars, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, and Oakland Seals.
The Montreal Canadiens would use these two changes to their advantage to help build one of the greatest teams ever assembled.
Here is how they did it.
The Plan And The Trades
Let’s just start with this: Pollock had a long-term vision for the Canadiens and was often times thinking multiple years in advance. While the rest of the league was playing candy land, he was playing an elaborate game of chess.
Starting in 1968 Pollock began executing a plan that would see him stockpile as many future draft picks -- specifically first-round picks -- as he could, with those picks usually coming from one of the new expansion teams that were simply trying to make a name for themselves and land some established players. They were not only trying to get established veterans, they also probably did not fully understand the value of draft picks.
Between 1968 and 1973 Pollock traded veteran talent off of the Canadiens roster and acquired 14 future first-round draft picks from other NHL teams, often times multiple years in advance.
A quick run down of those trades:
- May 21, 1968: Traded Norm Ferguson and Stan Fuller to Oakland for Wally Boyer, Alain Caron, Oakland’s 1968 first-round pick and its 1970 first-round pick.
- June 10, 1968: Traded Danny Grant, Claude Larose to Minnesota for Minnesota’s 1972 first-round pick and 1973 first-round pick.
- June 11, 1968: Traded Gerry Desjardins to Los Angeles for Los Angeles’ 1969 and 1972 first-round draft picks.
- June 12, 1968: Traded the rights to Carol Vadnais in the waiver draft to Oakland for Oakland’s 1973 first-round pick and its 1973 second-round pick.
- May 22, 1970: Traded its own 1970 first-round pick and Ernie Hicke to Oakland in for Oakland’s 1971 first-round pick.
- August 22, 1972: Traded Terry Harper to Los Angeles for Los Angeles’ second-round pick in 1974, its first-round pick in 1975, its third-round pick in 1975, and its first-round pick in 1976.
- May 15, 1973: The Canadiens used the first-round pick it had acquired from Oakland in 1968 (the No. 2 overall pick) to trade back two different times, accumulating future first-round picks from Atlanta/Calgary in 1977 and St. Louis in 1975 as part of the trades. On this same day they also traded the first-round pick acquired from Minnesota in 1968 to the Vancouver Canucks for Vancouver’s 1974 first-round pick.
- May 29, 1973: Traded Bob J. Murcoch and Randy Rota to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for the Kings’ first-round pick in 1974. On the same day he traded Chuck Arnason to Atlanta/Calgary for the Flames’ first-round pick in 1974.
As mentioned above, that is 14 future first-round draft picks. How unique was this strategy at the time? Just consider that during the same time period between 1968 and 1973 the rest of the teams in the NHL only traded for four future first-round draft picks, and three of those trades were made by the Boston Bruins.
Nobody else in the league was looking this far ahead or valued draft picks this highly.
Part of the reason the Canadiens were able to make all of these trades for future picks was due to the fact their team was already loaded with talent, and there was always the risk that the WHA could poach some of that talent away from them.
One of the most intriguing trends in all of those moves is the number of future first-round picks Montreal received from the Oakland/California franchise.
Between 1968 and 1970 the Seals were run by Frank Selke Jr., a former long-time employee of the Canadiens. Of the 16 trades he made while in charge of the Seals, six of them involved the Canadiens, far more than any other team in the league at that time.
Those trades involved Montreal collecting five first-round draft picks from the Seals, including four future picks years down the road. Montreal was the only team he traded any draft pick to. If you are a conspiracy theorist that track record of trades is, at the very least, eye-opening given Selke’s history working for the Canadiens.
The Kings were the other team that seemed to have no problem trading future assets to Montreal.
The long-term results would prove to be disastrous for those teams and forever change the NHL.
Not all of those future draft picks amounted to anything of significance, but the ones that did were certainly impactful.
So what did Montreal get out of those picks?
A future scoring champion and MVP: The trade that worked out the best was May 22, 1970 trade that saw Montreal get Oakland’s 1971 first-round pick. The Seals finished the 1970-71 season with the NHL’s worst record, meaning that draft pick would be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. The top prospect that entered the NHL that year was Guy Lafleur. Lafleur would go on to be one of the NHL’s best players, win three scoring titles, and be one of the key building blocks for the Canadiens’ run of five Stanley Cups throughout the 1970s, including the four-peat between 1976 and 1979.
The 1970 first-round pick that Oakland received in return was used to select Chris Oddleifson, who would never play a game for the team. Instead he was traded to Boston for Ivan Boldirev who would have two okay seasons with the team before being traded to Chicago. Hicke, the other asset acquired for that pick, also had two decent seasons before being lost in the 1972 expansion draft.
It is also worth nothing that along with getting Lafleur with the top pick in 1971, the Canadiens also used a second-round pick that they had acquired a year earlier from the Kings (in exchange for Dick Duff) to select Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson.
Robinson and Lafleur were two of the best players of all-time.
The game’s best shutdown forward: May 15, 1973 was also a big day for Pollock and the Canadiens when they used the No. 2 pick (acquired five years earlier, also from Selke Jr.) to move back to No. 8 thanks to a pair of trades with Atlanta and St. Louis. Along with acquiring the future draft picks in 1975 and 1977 they used the No. 8 overall pick to select Bob Gainey, who would go on to be one of the best defensive forwards of all time, winning four Selke Trophies as well as a Conn Smythe award as playoff MVP.
The initial return on the trades and the pick already had Montreal looking ahead to maybe use its future picks to trade up for Mark Howe (never happened) and how good Gainey already was defensively.
From the Montreal Gazette:
Gainey won five Stanley Cups with the Canadiens (including four in the 1970s) and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992.
This sequence of trades also landed them Mark Napier (No. 10 overall in 1977, one of the picks acquired from Atlanta in the trade for the No. 2 overall pick in 1973) who would go on to play six years in Montreal, including as a member of the 1979 Stanley Cup winning team.
Another Hall of Famer: The Canadiens used the No. 4 overall pick in 1972, acquired as part of the 1968 trade that sent Gerry Desjardins to Los Angeles, to select Steve Shutt. Shutt would go on to play 14 seasons with the Canadiens, scoring 424 goals, including a league-best 60 during the 1976-77 season. He won five Stanley Cups with the Canadiens in the 1970s and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1993.
Another four-time champion The 1973 trade that saw Montreal trade Murdoch and Rota, two marginal NHLers, to the Kings for their 1974 first-round pick resulted in the Canadiens selecting Mario Tremblay, who would go on to score 258 goals in 12 years with the team before suffering a career-ending injury 1986. He was a part of all four Stanley Cup winning teams between 1976 and 1979.
On a team level, the Canadiens were the most dominant team of the decade.
Between 1971 and 1980 their 508 wins were the most of any team in the NHL, and were one of just two teams (Boston being the other) to win at least 425 games and one of only three (Boston and Philadelphia) to win more than 400.
They also won six Stanley Cups, including the four in a row between 1976 and 1979.
Probably none of it happens with Lafleur, Robinson, Gainey, Shutt, and Tremblay, a core of players that were only acquired due to long-term outlook and plan of Pollock, and the lack of foresight by some of the NHL’s newest expansion teams.
(Stick tap to NHL Trade Tracker for much of the trade information)