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Throwback Thursday: Canadiens trade top defensive duo

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The Habs pay a heavy price for coveted left winger Ryan Walter.

Rod Langway
Getty Images / Bruce Bennett

In the late 70s and early 80s, there was no better defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens than Larry Robinson. The undisputed numbers two and three, and closing in fast, were Rod Langway (drafted 26th overall by the Canadiens in 1977) and Brian Engblom (selected 22nd in 1975).

From 1978 to 1982, they were consistently second and third in scoring among defencemen for the team, providing the club with a stabilizing force on the back end, and the heirs apparent on defence.

La Presse named Engblom “the most consistent defenceman” at the end of the 1981-82 season. He was voted to the Second All-Star Team at the end of the year, only second to Wayne Gretzky in the plus-minus department, and well ahead of Robinson.

Langway was being called “the next Robinson,” and not just because they both sported the same hair style and mustache, but because of the nastiness of his style of play.

The 1981-82 season concluded with a rather embarrassing first-round playoff exit to their provincial rival, the Quebec Nordiques. This was the third season in a row where, despite finishing very strong during the regular season, the once mighty Montreal Canadiens failed to get past the opening series of the post-season, and people were starting to freak out. This was, after all, the team that was four seasons removed from a dynasty.

Blame was being assigned, from the managing director, Irving Grundman, to head coach Bob Berry, all the way to the team’s chief of scouting, “Professor” Ronald Caron, who failed to draft capable replacements for the team’s aging stars. The Montreal Gazette ran a critical article of the team’s direction with the infamous title “Canadiens’ once-proud dynasty in Ruin plastered across the front page of the sports section on the eve of their elimination. It was certainly time to act, and the entire team realized that changes would have to be made.

Tough financial reality in Canada

It was a tumultuous time in Canada in 1982, with interest rates hitting record highs of around 21% due to runaway inflation rates that sent the Canadian economy into a crisis. The Canadian dollar began to crash, and unemployment rates spiked as companies began downsizing to be able to compete with overseas manufacturing.

Unemployment in Montreal went up 39% in a single year. All of these factors, combined with a new federal budget that increased the income tax burden on the nation’s citizens, decreased the quality of life in Canada, and everyone felt the pinch of the financial crisis, especially for residents of Quebec who paid the highest provincial taxes in the country.

Canadiens players were looking to renegotiate their contracts, something that was permitted under the collective bargaining agreement at the time, under special circumstances. Among the most vocal were Larry Robinson, Guy Lafleur, and Rod Langway.

Robinson and Lafleur ended up forming a collective front, and gradually increased their threats from refusing to play any pre-season games to not showing up to training camp, to outright retiring and going to play in Japan (that last one was more of a facetious threat that never held any water).

Grundman was ready to begin talks with Robinson and Lafleur, however he set a different tone for contract discussions with Langway, telling La Presse that “he better come equipped with some real solid arguments to convince me to renegotiate his contract. As an American citizen Rob is not taxed the same way as the rest of the guys.”

Langway replied to the comments a few days later saying that “I’ll be there when training camp starts [...] but I’m not sure if I’ll still be there when it ends.” Langway had been previously quoted stating that he wanted to continue his career in the United States to make more money, and although he denied those reports, they hurt his standing with the Canadiens.

Other players rumoured to also be looking to renegotiate their deals included Pierre Mondou and Brian Engblom, but at least in the case of the former, discussions never took place.

The big shock came down on September 9, 1982 — three days before training camp was due to open — when Grundman made a six-player trade sending Langway, Engblom, defensive specialist Doug Jarvis, and Craig Laughlin to the Washington Capitals for defenceman Rick Green and forward Ryan Walter.

Reactions to the trade

The trade was widely panned in the media, notably for involving Engblom, even running afoul of iconic Gazette columnist Red Fisher, who has covered the Canadiens since the late 1950s. In his scathing article, Fisher claimed that the Canadiens “gave away too much for what they received. Far too much. [...] What was Irving thinking about when he agreed to relinquish Engblom, who has been the best Canadiens’ defenceman during the last two seasons... by far?”

Several players also voiced their displeasure in the trade:

Rick Wamsley: “How are we gonna get the puck out of our end? Nine times out of 10 Brian and Rod would get the puck out of our end. We’ve lost two of the best.”

Larry Robinson: “I thought we gave up too much. [...] when you give away someone like Brian, you’re not only giving up an All-Star, you’re giving away experience, something we’re not left with right now.”

Mark Napier: “There’s no surprise about Rod. I was surprised about Brian. The two of them leaving ... it leaves us a little short back there.”

Doug Risebrough (who was also traded that day): “They’re blowing it apart, aren’t they?”

But there were a few voices who saw the bigger picture.

Captain Bob Gainey: “We gave up some important pieces, but I imagine that to acquire a player of Walter’s quality we had to give up a lot. In general I am opposed to any kind of change, so I can’t be happy seeing those guys go.”

Richard Sevigny: “It’s certain that we are now weakened on defence, but we got much better on offence. Since our defensive prospects are ready, Robert Picard in particular, I think that it was a good trade.”

Head Scout Claude Ruel: “We are bursting at the seams with defensive talent, and it is time to make some room for some younger players. Players like Bill Kitchen and Craig Ludwig.”

Jean Beliveau: “It was a necessary move. It’s no secret that it’s several years that I have advocated that the team add a big physical forward. [...] It’s important to realize that having a forward like Walter is very important.”

The Washington Capitals’ managing director, David Poile was ecstatic about the transaction, calling it a “trade that can happen only once every ten years in the National Hockey League. I can easily compare Langway to Larry Robinson at his best. With him nothing is impossible. As for Engblom, he’s an international-class player, and I have no doubts that we have greatly improved the team with this move. By losing Walter we lose a player capable of scoring around 35 goals. However we gained two excellent defencemen capable of reducing our goals against by 60 to 70 goals.”

Joining the Canadiens

In return the Canadiens received a player that they had been trying to acquire for two years, and over three different management regimes, in left winger Ryan Walter. The Canadiens were looking to refresh their aging left wing, with Steve Shutt and Rejean Houle in the twilight of their careers, while the top left winger, Mark Napier, was in the midst of new contract negotiations that were not going well at all. Walter was coming off a 38-goal, 87-point season in Washington, so big things were expected of him in Montreal.

Defenceman Rick Green came advertized as a large 6’3” defenceman with six years of NHL experience, slow on skates but hard to play against. Not known for the offensive flair of Langway or Engblom, Green was a stay-at-home defenceman, quite content in stopping the opponent from scoring. He was quite happy about the trade, telling the Montreal Gazette: “mainly I’m just glad to be getting out of here and to get with a winner. I’m not overly concerned about the tax thing, but I’ll be getting some professional advice about it pretty soon.”

Hindsight

Walter never came close to the 87 points or 38 goals he netted in 1981-82, but played nine seasons in Montreal. Initially he formed a dynamic offensive line with Guy Lafleur on the right side and Doug Wickenheiser at centre. Eventually as he aged he transitioned into more of a defensive role on the team.

Green stayed with the Canadiens for seven seasons, but missed the majority of the 1983-84 season with an injury.

Walter and Green were both part of the 1986 Stanley Cup-winning Canadiens team and the 1989 Cup finalist team.

Both players ended up having long careers in Montreal, but by far the brightest future of a player involved was Langway’s.

Langway immediately blossomed and made a major impact on the Capitals, being named captain and winning the Norris Trophy for best defenceman that year, and taking them to their very first playoff birth. He would bear the captaincy for 11 seasons with the Capitals, and won a second Norris in 83-84.

Engblom never reached the same career highs he had enjoyed with the Canadiens, seeing his goal differential stats fall from +78 in 1981-82, his last with Montreal, to -4 in 1982-83, his first with the Capitals. He was quickly traded to Los Angeles a season later as part of the deal that brought Larry Murphy the other way.

Jarvis would win a Selke Trophy with the Capitals, in the same year as Langway’s second Norris.

Grundman, historically seen as one of the worse general managers in Canadiens history, was relieved of his duties at the conclusion of the 1982-83 season.

Was it worth it?

The big question from this trade was whether the Canadiens weakened their defensive corps, or whether the younger players (and Green) could replace Langway and Engblom effectively.

Unfortunately, the answer was: no. The team allowed an additional 63 goals the following season, while scoring ten fewer. They also did not fare any better in the playoffs, getting knocked out early for a fourth straight season.

Kitchen and Picard were certainly not up to the task of replacing Langway and Engblom, and faded out of the lineup quickly. Ludwig and Green were serviceable, but it wasn’t until the emergence of Chris Chelios and Petr Svoboda a few seasons later that the team’s defence started to fill the hole. By the time the 1986 Stanley Cup Playoffs came around, Walter was not a difference maker, having played in only five games all playoffs due to an injury.