It’s 1980. The second NHL Entry Draft is about to be held where its predecessor Amateur Draft was always held, in Montreal. The Canadiens had the first overall pick obtained from the Colorado Rockies for Ron Andruff and Sean Shanahan. It’s not the first time the Canadiens traded to get the first overall, but it would be, until present time, the most recent.
Although the Amateur Draft became the Entry Draft in 1979 (done to include junior-aged players who had begun playing professionally for the defunct World Hockey Association), the 1980 Entry Draft was really the inception of the modern-day draft as we know it. Including offering some pomp and circumstance by holding it in the Montreal Forum and open to the public rather than behind closed doors in a hotel ballroom. It was also the first time 18-year-old players were eligible. Prior to, they needed to have completed their junior eligibility, unless they had ‘exceptional status’, as Mario Tremblay did in the 1974 draft.
Of course there was lots of suspense leading up to the pick, with the pundits agreeing that the Canadiens were going to pick a forward, despite defenceman Dave Babych being ranked first overall by NHL Central Scouting. The choice would come down to second-ranked Doug Wickenheiser, or popular local kid Denis Savard, who was ranked third.
Ahead of the draft, Canadiens’ scout Eric Taylor described Wickenheiser as “a Maurice Richard who happens to play centre”. History would of course prove Taylor wrong, but at the time Wickenheiser seemed like the right choice over the popular Savard. The Canadiens, headed by Director of Amateur Scouting Ron Caron, felt they needed a centre, so they drafted for need. Grundman, Caron, Ruel, and the Canadiens’ scouting staff spend countless hours debating who to pick because there was no immediate consensus. Reportedly ,Taylor preferred Savard, but once a decision was made, he had no choice but to agree.
“We hope that at the end of the day our choice is the best. There are always risks in everything that we do,” said General Manager Irving Grundman. “At a certain point someone had to make a decision, and that someone was me.”
Never able to earn coach Claude Ruel’s trust, Wickenheiser spent his rookie season typically relegated to the end of the bench, with Ruel choosing to play older veterans over his team’s prized acquisition. The following season, under the orders of Bob Berry, Wickenheiser also saw limited game action. He never lived up to the hype and is considered one of the biggest drafting blunders of all time.
Drafting is anything but a sure thing regardless of your position, and a player who is dominant in junior will not necessarily translate his game over to the pro ranks. Wickenheiser is but one example. That’s why drafting became increasingly sophisticated and scouting methods improved over time to include quantitative and qualitative data gathering and analysis.
The final decision on a team’s draft selection is a nerve-wracking moment, and it takes confidence and certainty to make a decision that might take several years to yield a conclusion.
Over time, the Canadiens drafted 43 times in the first round since Wickenheiser, but never again first overall. Here are a few interesting stories from those subsequent entry drafts.
First-Round Pick, 0 Games Played
The 1981 draft was extremely successful for the Canadiens, who drafted four players that would play at least 500 games in the NHL: Gilbert Delorme, Chris Chelios, Mark Hunter, and Tom Kurvers.
But, the 1981 draft also contained something that only happened four times to the Canadiens since the start of the Entry Draft — a player who was drafted in the first round but never played an NHL game.
Selected in the first round, Jan Ingman wasn’t expected to turn pro at the time of his draft as per the rules of the Swedish hockey federation. He had to complete his studies and perform a year of mandatory military service. “This is why we don’t see any Swedes in North America before 22 or 23 years old,” said Grundman. Tord Lundstrom, full-time Swedish scout recommended Ingman. Although he played 13 seasons of pro hockey, he never did play in North America.
A year later, during the 1982 Entry Draft, forward Alain Heroux was selected 19th overall. “We are quite satisfied to get our hands on Heroux,” said Grundman. “This guy has everything needed to surprise everyone at the next training camp, like (Gilbert) Delorme and (Mark) Hunter did.” Michel Petit was the target that the Canadiens really wanted, but when Vancouver picked him, the Canadiens felt confident selecting Heroux. Unfortunately, after three unsuccessful training camps and a change of administration, Heroux found himself lost in the shuffle on the AHL farm team. He requested and received a buyout from the Canadiens ahead of training camp in 1985 and tried his luck with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He retired soon after, having failed to make the team.
Skip ahead to 1991 for the next first-round pick who failed to play an NHL game. Large 6’4” defenceman Brent Bilodeau was selected 17th overall, the third season in a row where the Canadiens picked a player from the WHL Seattle Thunderbirds in the first round. Serge Savard tried everything to trade up higher in the draft fearing that Bilodeau would be taken. Trade after trade failed, yet pick after pick Bilodeau remained available. “Bilodeau was the player we wanted,” said Savard. “But we did not believe at all that he would be available this late.” When Bilodeau finished his junior career, he spent two seasons with the AHL Fredericton Canadiens. In his third and final season with the organization, he was shipped out to the San Francisco Spiders of the International Hockey League, a clear indication that the new general manager, Rejean Houle, was headed in a different direction that he was was not a part of. “We need to make room for the other younger and more talented prospects,” said Andre Boudrias, Director or Player Development.
Finally in 2006, the Canadiens caught everyone by surprise by selecting defenceman 6’4” David Fischer. The Canadiens had the 16th overall pick, but decided to trade down to 20 with the Sharks, getting a second-round pick to go along with it. “I told Bob (Gainey) that we wanted second-round picks, and took the calculated risk that Fischer would still be available,” said Trevor Timmins. Fischer was a surprise pick as five other available defencemen, who ranked better, were still available. “He’s fast, agile, and a good skillset. In the new NHL that’s exactly what it takes to be successful.” Fischer was the first player selected by the Canadiens out of a U.S. high school but, unfortunately, even with amateur scout Pat Westrum watching him develop closely, the pick proved to be a disaster, as he never even signed an NHL contract. He played a couple of seasons in the ECHL before moving to Europe where he currently plays in the Austrian league.
First-Round Pick For Sale
The Canadiens traded away their first-round pick just three times in the Entry Draft era: 1979, 1999, and 2008. It’s a huge risk to take to essentially give up a probable future young roster player, so the return must be a sure thing. Were these three trades worth it?
Well, in 1979 the Canadiens’ pick went to Los Angeles in return for their 1981 first-round pick.
In 1999, the 10th overall pick was traded to the New York Islanders for veteran Trevor Linden.
In 2008, the 25th overall pick was traded to the Calgary Flames for Alex Tanguay.
Neither Linden nor Tanguay turned into any sort of long-term investment, and the 1981 first-round pick obtained from the Kings was used to pick Delorme, who spent two seasons in Montreal before getting packaged with Wickenheiser to St. Louis for Perry Turnbull.
Trade to Move Up
Traded picks in 1980 with Colorado (19th to 1st)
- Cost: Mark Hunter
- Reward: Doug Wickenheiser
- Hindsight verdict: Who knows what would have happened if the Canadiens didn’t destroy Wickenheiser’s confidence. As history stands, it was a bad trade.
Traded picks in 1984 with Hartford (11th to 5th)
- Cost: Pierre Larouche
- Reward: Petr Svoboda
- Hindsight verdict: Larouche was becoming a problem for Grundman, who was more than happy to ship him off. Win
Traded picks in 1989 with Rangers (20th to 13th)
- Cost: Chris Nilan
- Reward: Lindsay Vallis
- Hindsight verdict: Lost crowd favourite to take a risk on a pick who never panned out. Loss.
Traded picks in 1990 with St. Louis (18th to 12th)
- Cost: Mike Lalor
- Reward: Turner Stevenson
- Hindsight verdict: Both players enjoyed long professional careers, but away from the Canadiens. Probably a win for the Canadiens nonetheless.
Traded picks in 2002 with Edmonton (15th to 14th)
- Cost: 8R-2002
- Reward: Chris Higgins
- Hindsight verdict: Win. Higgins was a big part of the Canadiens for several years.
Traded picks in 2010 with Phoenix (27th to 22nd)
- Cost: 2R-2010
- Reward: Jarred Tinordi
- Hindsight verdict: A win at the time, but with the league changing a few years later, Tinordi never did become an NHLer. Roll the dice on whether the second rounder would have amounted to anything. Draw.
Traded picks in 2006 with San Jose (16th to 20th)
Ended up drafting: David Fischer
Hindsight verdict: The Canadiens hesitated between Claude Giroux and Fischer, and decided they needed more reinforcement on defence. Loss.
Adding First-Round Picks
Added first round pick in 1981
- Cost: Rod Schutt
- Reward: Mark Hunter
- Hindsight verdict: An easy win if the Canadiens didn’t dump Hunter a few years later for the exact same situation below. Both players ended up having long professional careers away from the Canadiens. Slight win.
Added a second first round pick in 1981
- Cost: Murray Wilson
- Reward: Gilbert Delorme
- Hindsight verdict: Wilson only played another season of pro hockey after the trade, whereas Delorme enjoyed an 11-year career, but only two and a bit with the Canadiens. Win.
Added one pick in 1984
- Cost: Rick Wamsley, 2R-1984 x2, 3R-1984
- Reward: Shayne Corson, 2nd round 1984 (Stéphane Richer)
- Hindsight verdict: Amazing.
Added one pick in 1985
- Cost: Mark Hunter, 2R-1985, 3R-1985, 5R-1985, 6R-1986
- Reward: Jose Charbonneau, 2R-1985, 4R-1985, 5R-1985, 6R-1985 (Donald Dufresne)
- Hindsight verdict: Loss.
Added one pick in 2000
- Cost: Vincent Damphousse
- Reward: Marcel Hossa
- Hindsight verdict: Loss.
Added one pick in 2001
- Cost: Danius Zubrus, Trevor Linden, 2R-2001
- Reward: Alexander Perezhogin
- Hindsight verdict: In addition to the first-round pick, the Canadiens also received Jan Bulis, so this trade did get two roster players for the Habs, but Zubrus was probably the best player in the trade in the long-run, so loss.
Added one pick in 2007
- Cost: Craig Rivet, 5R-2008
- Reward: Max Pacioretty
- Hindsight verdict: Easy win. Generally considered one of the best trades of the Gainey era, with Josh Gorges thrown into the equation.
TOP 5 BEST FIRST-ROUND PICKS BY NHL GAMES PLAYED
1- Shayne Corson, 8th overall in 1984
2- Saku Koivu, 21st overall in 1993
3- Petr Svoboda, 5th overall in 1984
4- Andrew Cassels, 17th overall in 1987
5- Ron Hainsey, 13th overall in 2000