Earlier this season, I put out a piece suggesting that the Canadiens should retire the number six in honour of the late Toe Blake. Recently, the club finally retired the sweater of Guy Lapointe, reuniting him with Larry Robinson and Serge Savard. With the big three finally together again in the Bell Centre rafters, it got me thinking again about other players who might be deserving of such an honour.
As I mentioned in the Blake article, I have absolutely no intention to disparage Guy Lapointe. I am a huge fan of Canadiens' jersey retirements, and believe that Lapointe was long overdue to have his moment. He had an amazing career, it took too long for him to have that moment, and I believe there are other players in Canadiens history that deserve it as well.
I wouldn't necessarily suggest that Steve Shutt falls into the category of unknown, as he is rather well known and a Hall of Famer. Any Habs fan lucky enough to have lived through those 70's powerhouse teams would have fond memories of the Toronto-born sniper, and his scoring touch. What I would say is that, by many in the hockey world, he is criminally underrated.
Shutt was an early first-round pick of the Canadiens; selected at fourth overall in the 1972 entry draft. A decidedly average skater with average size, Shutt climbed the draft board due to his torrid scoring pace in junior. He had the proverbial 'knack for finding the net,' exemplified by his two final seasons with the Toronto Marlboros, eclipsing the 100 point mark in both as he headed into the draft. But success at the OHL level does not guarantee success in the NHL, and many harboured concern in regards to his ability to make it in the pros.
By his own admission, Shutt himself had concerns about his ability to crack a roster that featured a number of living legends, despite his scoring in Junior. His concerns were understandable, as this was a team featuring names like Guy Lafleur, Yvan Cournoyer, Frank Mahovlich, Pete Mahovlich, Jacques Lemaire, and even an ageless Henri Richard.
While he was always a confident player, he knew that getting into the Canadiens' lineup would be the most difficult task of his career. In his early years, he credited Henri Richard, who used to stay after practice to work with him. Richard saw something in Shutt and wanted to help his young teammate develop.
To his own credit, Shutt never allowed the many games spent in the press box to quell his desire to be successful with the club; continued to work hard and waited until he got his opportunity. Dick Irvin recalled talking to Scotty Bowman about his concerns regarding the viability of Shutt as an NHL player, to which Bowman responded: "Just wait ... Just wait."
And the wait was well worth it. His rise was meteoric, as he exponentially increased his point totals from his rookie season as a sophomore, and yet again in his third year with the club. He spent a lot of time in the press box his first two seasons, but after that it was apparent that he was there to stay. With Guy Lafleur as his fellow winger, and Jacques Lemaire playing pivot, they formed arguably the best trio in the NHL at the time.
Shutt had unbelievable hockey sense, and perhaps some of the best hands the NHL has ever seen. He was always in perfect position, and had such a quick release that you could easily miss him having the puck entirely before it was in the back of the net. He also had fantastic hand-eye coordination, enabling him to pick pucks out of the air and create goals by deflection as well as anyone in the game.
As Jacques Lemaire put it, "The puck had a lot of movement when he shot. I'd never seen anything like it." He would often unleash a slap shot one or two steps inside the offensive blueline and beat goaltenders clean. On a team ripe with legendary players, Steve Shutt was arguably the purest sniper among them. He could clean up rebounds in tight, and he could finish from a distance as well. They would have been a good team without him, but there is no arguing that the team benefitted greatly from his services.
His 60 goals and 105 points in 76-77 represents a major part in the Canadiens team which still holds the best record in NHL history, losing a mere eight games over an 82-game schedule. In all, Shutt posted 408 goals and 776 total points with the Canadiens, good for fifth and eighth respectively among the team's all-time leaders. His name appears on the Stanley cup five times, and he is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, but is all of this enough to warrant a jersey retirement?
The reason why I would classify Shutt as underrated lies in the countless times people will invoke the term "garbage goal" when discussing his career. Yes, he did put away a fair amount of Guy Lafleur rebounds, and playing alongside a player of that caliber is bound to help your totals, but to suggest that he amassed the totals he did merely as the benefactor of Lafleur would be a rather significant oversight. In fact, Lafleur would likely tell you that he benefited as much from Shutt as the latter did from him.
To answer the titular question, I do think that the Canadiens should retire Steve Shutt's number 22. Many may disagree with this contention, but I find it hard to argue with the numbers. All four men ahead of him in career goals have had their sweaters deservedly raised. On the career points list he, Jacques Lemaire and Saku Koivu are the only three members of the top ten who have yet to see their sweaters retired. He was a key member in an era of sheer Montreal dominance, and I would consider it fair to honour him as such; like they did for Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Yvan Cournoyer, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Henri Richard, Bob Gainey, and Ken Dryden.
It may be considered a tad ambitious to place Steve Shutt alongside those names, but his contributions to those 70's teams I feel have earned him a place in the Bell Centre rafters alongside these aforementioned teammates. Whether the club should be switching to the Toronto model of honouring sweaters without removing the number from circulation is certainly a discussion worth having, but I can say without a doubt that I would personally support any move to honour the number 22 of Steve Shutt.