Expansion Plans: Leaving the black-and-white era behind by necessity

Success, along with a threat from the WHA, forced the NHL’s hand to expand five times in 12 years. This is how the changing landscape affected the Montreal Canadiens.

With the news that the city council of Seattle has unanimously approved a $600 M renovation project for KeyArena, speculation has begun to ramp up that the National Hockey League will be more than happy to grant a new expansion franchise to the city.

During the last round of expansion talks that yielded a successful bid from the Vegas Golden Knights (and an unsuccessful one from Quebec City), it was well known that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was very displeased that the ownership group in Seattle was unable to secure an arena deal. It seems now that things are finally moving along in the right director for the American Northwest to get their NHL team.

The Montreal Canadiens, as one of the oldest teams in the league, have obviously been exposed to each one of the previous 12 expansion drafts, and have suffered some losses along the way. It seems they may be about to gear up for yet another.

This three part series will look at the 12 expansion drafts chronologically, focusing on the players that the Canadiens have had to part with. A big thank you to Historical Hockey Stats & Trivia for providing a great amount of information on these events.

First off, let’s look at the five expansion drafts that took the NHL from the Original Six era, past the WHA threat, to the end of the 1970s, ushering the NHL into the modern TV era.

Expansion Draft #1: 1967 — The league doubles in size

As far back as 1965, the league had decided that it wanted to grow. I did so for the 1967-68 season, adding a second division of six teams to join the Original Six lineup.

Existing teams were allowed to submit a protected list of 11 players and one goaltender. Exemptions included rookies and junior-aged players who played on a pro team.

After the first, third, fifth, and subsequent rounds teams were able to add another name to the protection list. Once a team had 18 players and two goaltenders on their protection list, rookies then became available.

The first two rounds were dedicated to drafting goaltenders. The Canadiens chose to protect Lorne “Gump” Worsley, which left two up-and-coming goaltenders, Charlie Hodge and Rogie Vachon exposed. The California Seals chose Hodge, after which the Canadiens placed Vachon on their protected list. Gary Bauman was chosen as the second goaltender from Montreal by the Minnesota North Stars to complete the goaltender portion of the draft.

The first skater drafted overall was Montreal’s Dave Balon by the North Stars, which was quite suspicious given that highly touted prospect Claude Larose was available, and Balon was hardly considered an equal. Collusion between the teams was evident, but never really admitted to.

The draft continued for a total of 20 rounds during which the Canadiens lost Gord Labossiere, Jim Roberts, Noel Picard, Jean-Guy Talbot, Leon Rochefort, Noel Price, Joe Szura, Keith McCreary, Bob Lemieux, Garry Peters, Howie Hughes, Bill Inglis, Jean Gauthier, Tom McCarthy, Jacques Lemieux, Bobby Rivard, and finally Bob Courcy.

Jean-Guy Talbot was a member of the Montreal Canadiens for 12 years, and probably the biggest loss by the team despite the volume of skaters selected.

Talbot was not surprised to be picked during the expansion draft. “I was expecting it. In fact I would have been more surprised if I wasn’t taken.”

However despite all the losses, the Canadiens were able to add Claude Provost, Dick Duff, Carol Vadnais, Serge Savard, and Jacques Lemaire to their protection list during the course of the draft, limiting the damage.

Expansion Draft #2: 1970 — Buffalo Sabres, Vancouver Canucks

After being snubbed for expansion the first time around, Buffalo and Vancouver were finally granted franchises for the 1970-71 seasons.

The rules around the draft were largely the same as for the 1967 draft. To say that the Canadiens didn’t lose a great deal of talent would be an understatement. Buffalo chose defenceman Francois Lacombe and goaltender Rocky Farr, while Vancouver chose centreman Ralph Stewart and defenceman John Schella.

None of these players went on to have a significant NHL career, and certainly would not have made much of an impact with the Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s.

Expansion Draft #3: 1972 — Atlanta Flames, New York Islanders

As the 70s got rolling, so did the National Hockey League, adding another two franchises to the mix. With the ascent of the rival World Hockey Association, the NHL decided to head the upstart league off at the pass, adding expansion teams in places that would be obvious targets for the WHA, in this case Atlanta and Long Island. This would be the third expansion in five years for the league.

The rules of the draft allowed each team to protect 15 skaters and two goalies. The expansion teams would pick three players from each team, and when a pick was made, teams would be allowed to add a name to their protection list, similar to how drafts were done previously. First-year skaters were exempt.

In addition, Montreal was exempt from losing a goalie since they lost one in 1970, but they chose to expose one nonetheless in order to protect an additional skater. As the first round was dedicated to goaltenders, Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock decided to leave goaltender Phil Myre exposed for Atlanta to pick so that he could add top AHL prospect Chuck Lefley to the protection list.

Pollock was back to his old tricks again, making side deals with the Flames and Islanders. The first and second skaters selected in the expansion draft were both Montreal players: Bart Crashley to the Islanders and Kerry Ketter to the Flames. Meanwhile Pollock was able to protect promising Voyageurs defenceman Bob Murdoch.

Over the next few months following the draft the Canadiens made various favourable trades with the Flames and Islanders. The Flames ended up with Rey Comeau, Noel Price, Lynn Powis and Ted Tucker. The Islanders received Denis DeJordy, Chico Resch and Germain Gagnon. The Canadiens never really received anything other than high draft picks in return.

Out of all the players involved in the 1974 expansion draft, it’s probably Resch who had the best NHL career, ironic since he was mainly a throw-in as compensation for considerations in the draft.

Expansion Draft #4: 1974 — Washington Capitals, Kansas City Scouts

Expansion continued in order to keep ahead of the WHA’s plans. Arenas were obviously the main driving factor for cities to host professional hockey teams (as they are now), and the NHL was trying desperately to make deals with local investors before they chose the rival association. This time it meant new franchises in Washington and Kansas City.

The rules to the 1974 expansion draft were the same as for 1972: 15 skaters and two goaltenders could be added to the protection list. The Canadiens were once again exempt from protecting a goaltender due to the 1972 draft, and yet again chose to expose one to protect an additional skater.

The Canadiens chose to expose Michel Plasse as their goaltender, knowing full well that Ken Dryden was making a return to professional hockey the following season. When the Scouts took Plasse first overall, Pollock was able to add the name of John Van Boxmeer to his protection list; shades of 1972.

Talent was very limited in this draft due to the player exodus to the WHA which had thinned out an already diluted talent pool. The only other player of note available off of the Canadiens roster was Claude Larose, but he went unclaimed, with the Scouts preferring Ed Gilbert, while the Capitals picked Larry Fullan. Neither player had much of an NHL impact.

Expansion Draft #5: 1979 — Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets

This wasn’t a case of a classic expansion with regards to brand new franchises. The war with the WHA was over, and the NHL had won. They would be absorbing four teams from the defunct WHA, and the league had to sort out the situation of player rights being held by multiple teams. The WHA had its own separate draft at the time, and many NHL players would be picked. Some players on WHA contracts belonged to NHL teams, and vice versa.

An agreement was reached that existing NHL teams would be able to reclaim players that had defected to the WHA, and therefore an expansion draft would be necessary to repopulate the four new NHL teams with players.

Interestingly enough, this was called an ‘expansion’ by the league rather than a ‘merger’ because the 1975 Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NHLPA had a termination clause that nullified the deal should the NHL and WHA merge one day.

The first step of the expansion was a dispersal draft of the Cincinnati Stingers and Birmingham Bulls, two defunt WHA teams who would not follow into the NHL, with players going to the remaining four former WHA franchises. Among the players drafted included goaltender Mike Liut, Robbie Ftorek, and Barry Melrose.

Next came the reclamation draft which allowed the existing NHL teams to reclaim defecting players from the former WHA teams. Montreal had around 22 players they could have reclaimed, but only chose four: Alain Cote and Dan Geoffrion from Quebec, Alan Hanglesben from Hartford, and Peter Marsh from Winnipeg. Strangely enough they passed on Edmonton’s Dave Hunter, and Quebec’s Marc Tardiff and J.-C. Tremblay unclaimed, players widely expected to be reclaimed by the Canadiens.

In addition, Montreal never protected those players they did reclaim for the third and final phase of the process — the expansion draft itself — even though NHL teams were allowed to protect 15 skaters and two goaltenders each.

As if on cue as part of the expansion phase of the draft, Marsh was selected back to Winnipeg, Hangslenen back to Hartford, Cote to back Quebec, and Cam Connor went to Edmonton.

It’s clear that the Canadiens general manager, Irv Grundman, has made some side deals to allow the four franchises to keep the majority of their players on the reclamation lists if they allowed the Canadiens to protect Bill Nyrop, Gilles Lupien, and Rod Langway, who were added to the protection list after the teams made their selection.

It became evident that side deals were a standard way of preparing for a draft, and the ability to add players to the protection list as the draft went on disappeared from the rules in subsequent drafts to allow the expansion teams to have a bit more leverage.

But the next bout of expansion wouldn’t come for another 12 years.

Listen to Andrew weekly on TSN 690 Radio Sundays at 8:05am on Habs Breakfast, part of Weekend Game Plan.

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