The Big “What If”: Savard over Wickenheiser

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June 11th, 1980

MONTREAL, QUEBEC

The Montreal Canadiens had planted the seeds for this draft four years ago, and now, in 1980, the plan was about to come to fruition. In 1976, the Habs traded Ron Andruff and Sean Shanahan to the Colorado Rockies in exchange for the right to switch picks in the 1980 Entry Draft; the thinking was that Colorado, as one of the worst teams in the league, would not be able to improve much in that time, and the Canadiens would end up with a very high pick. It wasn’t a new tactic for then-General Manager Sam Pollock, who had done the same thing with the California Golden Seals in the late ‘60s, thus allowing Montreal to claim Guy Lafleur with the 1st Overall Pick in the 1971 Amateur Draft. Pollock’s gamble landed the team a franchise player, and his trade in 1976 was made with the aim of getting another future star in similar fashion.

The trade worked as planned. Colorado was stuck in the basement of the NHL as per usual, and Montreal would exercise their switch to move up to the #1 spot. Irving Grundman, who was going into his third season as GM of the Habs, now had a choice to make. There were two exciting young forwards available for the taking: Doug Wickenheiser and Denis Savard. Wickenheiser had just come off his third season with the Regina Pats, putting up 89 goals and 170 points – both of which led the WHL by significant margins. He was the standout player in the league that year, ranking well ahead of players like Tim Tookey and Jim Dobson who had already been drafted into the NHL and had yet to sign with their pro clubs.

While Wickenheiser had results on his side, Savard had something more. Denis may not have dominated his junior league like Doug did, but he actually managed more points that season with 181. And while Wickenheiser’s previous career high in juniors was 94 points, Savard had already managed two season with more points than that, scoring 116 in his rookie year, than putting up 158 in his sophomore season. Of course, not only had Savard been so prolific in his QMJHL career, but he had done so right under the noses of the Habs’ brass; Denis had plied his trade for the Montreal Juniors, who played in the historic Forum that the Canadiens called home.

Make no mistake, Savard had appeal, having already become a Forum favourite without even putting on a Habs jersey yet. But not everyone in the Montreal organization – or in the hockey world, for that matter – agreed. Wickenheiser was ranked #1 in the draft by both The Hockey News and the NHL Central Scouting Bureau, and it was no surprise that Grundman, on the advice of assistant GM Ron Caron, took the Regina native with the top pick. Wickenheiser would never be the star that his 1st-Overall status demanded of him, only playing 556 games in the NHL, and managing 276 points. Denis Savard’s success only twisted the knife further, as he would go on to be a fantastic star for the Chicago Blackhawks, only joining Montreal when he was starting to get past his prime. Savard would finish with 1338 points in 1196 games, eventually getting inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2000.

But how would things have worked out if the Canadiens elected to go with Denis Savard instead? Would he have blossomed the same way under the hometown spotlight? Would Doug Wickenheiser have been free to develop in Chicago without Claude Ruel to hold him back? And would Montreal have been equal with the likes of the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers as a top team of the decade?

WHAT IF THE MONTREAL CANADIENS SELECTED DENIS SAVARD INSTEAD OF DOUG WICKENHEISER IN 1980?

WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: As mentioned, Doug Wickenheiser had the draft rankings in his favour. He may not have been a no-brainer selection, but at the very least, he was expected to go #1. And according to the linked article, Guy Lafleur himself had begged the team to go out and get a bigger centre to replace the departed Peter Mahovlich, who had been traded away a few years back. But there was one important voice who preferred Savard: head coach Claude Ruel. Claude was overruled by the management team, who went with the consensus choice instead.

Now, obviously, something has to change within the mindset of both Irv Grundman and Ron Caron for them to abandon their plans to draft the Regina Pats star. As it was, they would have felt little pressure from any outside source to be swayed away from Wickenheiser, but with a public demand or two from an influential figure, that could change. There would be no better figure suited to do this than Ruel himself; he may not have had the resume that his predecessor, Scotty Bowman, had managed, but Claude did lead the Habs to a Stanley Cup in his first go-around as coach in 1969, so he had some cachet in the Montreal hockey world. And, of course, a head coach’s say can go a long way in swaying the front office’s decision.


Heading into the 1980 NHL Entry Draft, the Montreal Canadiens’ front office is mired in a battle over who to pick with the 1st Overall selection they acquired from Colorado a few years earlier. While scouts have projected Regina centre Doug Wickenheiser as the likely #1 pick, there was a public sentiment in favour of Denis Savard, the star centre of the Montreal Juniors who had finished 3rd in the QMJHL in points – just behind Canadiens prospect Guy Carbonneau. The opinions in favour of Savard were heavily influenced by a radio interview by coach Claude Ruel just a few days prior to the Draft, in which he was fiercely adamant that the team must select the local hero over the Saskatchewan-based Wickenheiser.

On Draft Day, there is now a growing question as to who the Canadiens will actually choose. Do they go with Wickenheiser, and risk angering their head coach? Does Irving Grundman bow to public pressure and take Denis Savard instead? Do they go an entirely different direction and take Portland Winter Hawks defenceman Dave Babych to avoid any controversy? As the Habs are announced to have the 1st Pick, fans at the Montreal Forum wait with bated breath as Grundman leans in to the microphone at his desk…

“With the 1st Overall Pick, the Montreal Canadiens select… from the Montreal Juniors, Denis Savard.”

Sections of the Forum erupt. Here was a young man who had starred in this arena for three years as a Junior, now getting a chance to move up to the storied Canadiens. Savard greets the Habs’ staff at the desk, and proudly displays his new Montreal jersey for waiting photographers. In the following days, opinion pieces are written by a couple of hockey journalists outside of Montreal saying that the team may have made a mistake in passing on the bigger, stronger Wickenheiser, who instead went 3rd Overall to Chicago, but writers in the city are ecstatic to see the hometown boy suit up for “Les Bleu-Blanc-Rouge” next season.


FROM MONTREAL’S PERSPECTIVE

1980-81: The Canadiens might not have been as utterly dominant as they were in the 1970s, but there were clearly reasons to be excited for the near future. Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt had not yet reached 30 years of age, and younger names like Mark Napier and Rod Langway were beginning to come into their own as NHL stars. When Denis Savard was added into the mix, it looked as if the Habs might still be a competitive team for years to come, with the former Montreal Junior in waiting to be the centrepiece of an awaiting dynasty.

As exciting as the future was on paper, the style of play was anything but. Claude Ruel made sure that his team would play a strict, disciplined form of defensive team hockey, never allowing one particular unit to outshine the others. Even stars like Shutt and Lafleur were held back, with both of them only barely breaking the 70-point mark each (73 and 70, respectively). The one player who was allowed to roam free was the rookie Savard, who repaid his coach’s trust by leading the team with 75 points; it was clear from the start that the Habs made the right choice, as Denis would score two goals against Doug Wickenheiser’s Chicago Black Hawks on opening night.

Montreal may not have had as much style as their fans were used to, but they had substance. They would allow the least goals in the NHL, while also finishing 2nd with 108 total points. They would be drawn against the 15th-place Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round; the Pens had only barely made the post-season thanks to the efforts of 55-goal scorer Rick Kehoe and offensive defender Randy Carlyle, making up for the poor goaltending the team got from starter Greg Millen. By playoff time, however, Millen was ready to make up for his regular season deficiencies, and the Pittsburgh ‘keeper would step up huge in the series against Montreal. His .893 SV% would be the difference as the Penguins would claim a huge upset, eliminating the Habs in four games.

The result was stunning for Montreal, and nobody may have been more stunned than coach Ruel himself. The man who had once led his team to the Stanley Cup in 1969 would resign mere days after his team’s elimination, only one and a half seasons after his return to the coaching job. In his place would be former Los Angeles bench boss Bob Berry, who had earned 43 regular season wins with the Kings this season, but like Ruel, found his team out in the first round of the playoffs. Berry actually had previous history with the Canadiens, having signed his first pro contract with the team in 1968.

Thanks to two trades that Montreal made in 1978, they would end up with three picks in the 1st Round of the 1981 Entry Draft. The Canadiens would use Pick #7 (acquired from Pittsburgh) on Brantford Alexanders winger Mark Hunter, Pick #18 (acquired from Los Angeles) on Chicoutimi blue-liner Gilbert Delorme, and Pick #20 (their natural pick) on Lethbridge defender Marty Ruff.

1981-82: For the Montreal Canadiens, there were many changes to be observed going into the 1981-82 season. For one, they had a new coach in Bob Berry, who would be expected to help the team recover the offence they had seemed to misplace in last year’s playoffs. They had a new captain, too, with Bob Gainey taking over for Serge Savard, who had left in free agency. But more than just having a new head coach or captain, Montreal were now in a new Division, having been grouped in the Adams with Buffalo, Boston, Hartford, and Quebec. The new grouping was also part of a new playoff structure, in which the 1st-place team in each Division would face the 4th-place side, as well as #2 and #3 squaring off; the two series winners would face off in the second round, with the winner of that going into the Prince of Wales Conference Final against the winners of the Patrick Division.

Given a couple of tough opponents in Boston and Buffalo, the Habs would need to find their attack quickly if they were to stake a claim to the Adams like they had in the Norris Division in prior years. Coach Berry knew he had a star in the making, and would entrust Denis Savard with more time alongside the big scorers Shutt and Lafleur. The scheme worked brilliantly, as Savard would lead the team by a wide margin with 119 points in 80 games; he wasn’t the only one in form, as Lafleur, Mark Napier, and Keith Acton would all manage more than 80 points that year. (Shutt wouldn’t, only playing 57 games due to injuries, and recording 55 points).

Montreal was once again a regular season juggernaut, earning 115 points to finish 2nd in the NHL and 1st in the Adams. This would mean that the Habs would clash with their provincial rivals in Quebec, who finished 4th in the Division. If Montreal’s offence was formidable again, Quebec’s was scary – owing primarily to the three Stastny brothers, defectors from Czechoslovakia who had come to take the NHL by storm over the past two years. The Canadiens found their depth in this series, with Pierre Mondou leading the way with 7 points, but despite the Habs’ offensive outbursts, Quebec seemed to win when it counted. They would take the series to five games, eventually winning the decider in over-time thanks to Dale Hunter.

It was the “same old, same old” for Montreal. They had dominated in the regular season, but when push came to shove, they couldn’t sustain their success. It’s not like they had over-relied on a bad goalie; they had cycled through Rick Wamsley, Denis Herron, and Richard Sevigny, all three of whom had performed well above league average. It’s not like they had poor scoring, thanks to the rise of Denis Savard and the players he was elevating. And it’s not like the defending let them down, either, as the team allowed the second-fewest shots in the league that year. For whatever reason, the team just didn’t seem to be able to get the wins they needed in key moments.

Montreal would end up with the 20th Pick once more in the 1982 Entry Draft. Having taken two blue-liners in ’81, the Canadiens would continue the trend, selecting Portland Winter Hawks defenceman Jim Playfair.

1982-83: The playoff stagnation of the Montreal Canadiens was leaving fans and journalists alike frustrated. Firing Claude Ruel didn’t work. Letting the shackles off of Denis Savard for good didn’t work, either. Now, another poor post-season showing meant that Irv Grundman would be on the hot seat, and he knew it. Grundman would make several desperate moves in September, most notably acquiring Ryan Walter and Rick Green from the Washington Capitals in exchange for several pieces, most notably Doug Jarvis and Rod Langway. Denis Herron, too, would leave, being traded to Pittsburgh for a 3rd-Round Pick in 1985. Montreal, once thought immovable from the top of the league, now looked a team ready to slip into chaos with one bad season.

Of course, when play actually started, the worries seemed to go away, if even a little bit. Yes, the team may not have looked like the dynamos they had in recent years, but they were still the favourites in most of their match-ups. Denis Savard looked like a star once more, leading the team by a wide margin with 121 points, and earning a Hart Trophy nomination. Seven other players managed over 60 points, including Ryan Walter, who had a successful first season as a Hab with 75, and rookie Mats Naslund, who picked up 71 points in his first season of North American pro hockey. Perhaps the one drawback of this season was in goal, as Rick Wamsley and Richard Sevigny shared the duties once more; while they were both still above the league average in save percentage, they weren’t quite as outstanding as they had been last year.

The slight dip in goaltending form was enough to knock Montreal out of 1st place in the Adams, but their 104 points were still good enough for 5th in the NHL. The Canadiens would get a match-up against the Buffalo Sabres in the first round, a team still trying to find their way following the departure of two members of the “French Connection”. Gilbert Perreault may have been past his prime, but he was finding himself surrounded by young talent, including rookie blue-liner Phil Housley and first-year winger Dave Andreychuk. The key player in this series, however, would be goalie Bob Sauve; though he was league average during the regular season, Sauve would put together an unbelievable series against Montreal, recording two straight shutouts, then letting in only two goals in Game Three as Buffalo cruised to a sweep.

Irv Grundman’s desperation had backfired. Not only had Montreal been eliminated in the first round again, but they managed only two goals in the series against Buffalo, facing a goalie they should easily have lit up. And just to rub salt in the wound, Rod Langway, one of the players traded away in the off-season, would go on to win the Norris Trophy in his first season with the Capitals. The time had come for Grundman to leave, with Serge Savard joining as managing director. Savard had just finished his last season as a player, having played in 76 games for the Winnipeg Jets; prior to this, he had spent 14 seasons with Montreal, winning eight Stanley Cups.

The Habs would have the 17th Overall Pick in the 1983 Entry Draft, selecting centre Alfie Turcotte from the WHL’s Portland Winter Hawks – the same team they had taken Jim Playfair from a year earlier.

1983-84: The Canadiens had to face facts: they were no longer the class of the Adams, or of the NHL. They had fallen out of first place in their Division, and with Boston boasting a new superstar in Ray Bourque, it was unlikely they would be moved from their spot atop the rankings for a while. And even if Montreal found a way to best Boston in the regular season, their recent playoff failures would nullify that. The Habs were going to have to find a way to get good quickly, or face being a perennial also-ran in the Adams for the foreseeable future.

Serge Savard had a quick look at the team in the first month of the season, and determined that they weren’t quite good enough as was. He would make a trade in October with Minnesota, acquiring Bobby Smith in exchange for Keith Acton, Mark Napier, and a 1984 3rd-Round Pick. Smith would slot into the second line, putting up 64 points, but that was a far cry from the 114 he had recorded just a couple of years earlier. The team as a whole seemed to regress, all the way from Denis Savard (only 94 points) to the goaltending (a combined .857 SV%, third-worst in the league).

While everyone knew that the Habs weren’t going to be at the top, few could have predicted them to get only 84 points. Now in 4th in the Adams, Montreal would have to deal with the Boston Bruins and their deadly trio: goal-scorer extraordinaire Rick Middleton, young playmaker Barry Pedersen, and emergent blue-liner Ray Bourque. Not only did the Canadiens look like a clear underdog, but they were going into this series with a new head coach, as Jacques Lemaire had taken over following Bob Berry’s firing. Lemaire raised some eyebrows with his decision to start Steve Penney in the first round (4 games, .835 SV% in the regular season), but Penney would miraculously find his form against Boston, allowing only two goals as the Habs won the series in a surprising three-game sweep.

To the shock of virtually the entire hockey world, the Canadiens had knocked off Boston in commanding fashion, and now had to take on the Quebec Nordiques for the Adams title. Quebec had breezed by Buffalo, but focused more on scoring, recording 13 total goals in their sweep of the Sabres. Faced with a suddenly hot netminder in Penney, the Nordiques did their best to try and break him, but the rookie would not give in, keeping his team in the hunt going into a crucial Game Six. It was in this game that the mutual hate between the two provincial rivals would finally be ignited, as the two sides were involved in a duo of bench-clearing brawls that would forever be known as the “Good Friday Massacre”. When the fighting finally subsided, it was the Canadiens that took control, scoring 5 times in the third period to win the game 5-3, and the series 4-2.

The intense final game of the last series had woken up the Habs, and just in time; they were now faced with the daunting task of facing the four-time defending champion New York Islanders. New York may have been somewhat worn down by the constant runs into late May and June, but their talent spoke for itself. Montreal did an admirable job of keeping the series close (and even got a star turn from young defenceman Chris Chelios, who recorded six points), but they would not be the ones to topple the Islanders’ dynasty. New York would win the series in six games, but would finally be bested in the Stanley Cup Final by the Edmonton Oilers, the team they had beaten at this stage a year ago.

When the post-season started, virtually everyone in Montreal was dreading the impending result. Very few, however, could have imagined that the team would not only beat Boston, but go all the way to the Conference Finals. That the Canadiens beat the Bruins in a sweep was a pleasant surprise, and that they stood strong against the Nordiques was a testament to the players’ pride in their sweaters. Heck, the fact that they were able to take a couple games off the freakin’ Islanders was itself worthy of some applause; even after the literal beating they took at the hands of Quebec, Montreal was still resilient enough to hang with the dynasty of the time.

The Habs had more surprises in store at the 1984 Draft. Having made a trade in 1981 to acquire Hartford’s pick, Montreal would select 5th Overall; with that pick, Serge Savard would select defenceman Petr Svoboda from CHZ Litvinov of the Czechoslovakian league. The thought of a player from behind the Iron Curtain would be selected so high in the Draft was almost laughable, but the laughter stopped when Svoboda himself came to the floor of the Montreal Forum to accept his new uniform. Instead, the home fans burst into cheering, their new GM having made a brilliant move.

Montreal would also trade with St. Louis to get the 8th Pick, one that they would use to select centre Shayne Corson from the OHL’s Brantford Alexanders.

1984-85: In one year, Serge Savard had restored public faith in the Montreal Canadiens. He brought in Jacques Lemaire to coach the team, which led to the Habs making it to the Conference Final. He made a shock move at the Draft to select a Czechoslovakian player, then brought him out to receive his Montreal jersey in front of a jubilant Forum crowd. The degradation of the franchise looked over, and now, the Canadiens had new life; there were a few writers – most of them within the city – predicting this team to make it to the Stanley Cup Final in 1985. Of course, getting there would be a monumental task, and dethroning the Oilers looked damn near impossible at this point.

The regular season got off to a rocky start for the Habs, as both Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt would leave the team in November – Lafleur retiring due to disputes with both Lemaire and manging director Savard, and Shutt being traded to Los Angeles. Nonetheless, Montreal rumbled through the year, taking control of the Adams with the help of a multifaceted defence, including the very impressive rookie Petr Svoboda, who proved himself more than adequate in his first year of North American play (31 points and a +16 rating in 73 games). Steve Penney may not have been at the level of his playoff performance from a year ago, but his .876 SV% in 54 games as a starter was at least adequate.

The Habs were back on top of the Adams, with their 107 points putting them 3rd in the NHL. They would get another go-around with the Boston Bruins in the first round, and now it was Montreal who looked to have a clear advantage; not only did the Bruins fall to 4th place in the Division, but they no longer had Barry Pederson for the season, as he had surgery to remove a benign tumour in December. Boston wasn’t going to go down without a fight, and managed to take Game One at the Forum by a score of 5-4. This only angered the Canadiens, who responded by winning the next three, including a wild Game Four which ended in an 8-7 scoreline following Chris Chelios’ OT winner.

Once again, the Adams title would be decided in a Battle of Quebec, with the Nordiques and Canadiens set to renew hostilities following last year’s brawling. Fans expecting a long, brutal series would be shocked, though, as the Habs would continue their momentum from the previous round to take a four-game sweep over their provincial rivals. This put Montreal in the crosshairs of the Philadephia Flyers, the team that had finally knocked the Islanders off the Patrick Division perch. Led by star goalie Pelle Lindbergh and the scoring duo of Tim Kerr and Brian Propp, Philly had talent to spare, and toughness to boot; Montreal had already survived the Nordiques, though, so a rough-and-tumble series wasn’t going to intimidate them one bit. The Habs would pick up another series victory, eliminating Philadelphia in seven games.

The Habs were back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1979, but fortune didn’t exactly favour them this time around. On the other side of the battle were the Edmonton Oilers, the defending Champions, and the shining symbols of the new era of hockey. Jacques Lemaire would hope to make the series a defensive battle, and picked up a 5-1 victory on enemy ice to start the series; much like what had happened in the Habs’ first playoff series, this only served to awaken the Oilers, who claimed Game Two. The Cup Final only became more offensive from there, as the Canadiens would win Game Three in over-time 5-4, only for Edmonton to win the next three, scoring a combined 19 goals in those contests en route to their second straight Stanley Cup.

The Canadiens had gotten so close that even getting to the Cup Final wasn’t enough. And to make matters worse, the loss to Edmonton marked the first time ever that an opposing side raised the Stanley Cup at the Forum. Really, they couldn’t have much shame in the result; they took on two divisional rivals and made short work of them, then faced a dragon slayer in Philadelphia and stopped them, too. It took a truly special team to finally end the Habs’ run at the last hurdle, and it looked like there was nobody that could keep up with the Oilers in the playoffs. Another additional feather in the cap of Montreal was that they went so far without two of their former legends in Lafleur and Shutt, instead relying on their new star Savard and a collection of younger players to lead the way.

Montreal would have two picks in the 1st Round of the 1985 Entry Draft after making a trade with St. Louis to get the 12th Overall Pick. With the Blues’ pick, Montreal would get right winger Jose Charbonneau of the Drummondville Voltigeurs. The Habs also held their natural pick at #19, selecting another winger: Yvon Corriveau of the OHL’s Toronto Marlboros.

1985-86: As far as anyone was concerned, the Canadiens needed to change very little going into the 85-86 season. They were blessed with young talent, a coach with the ability to get the most out of everyone on the team, and a penchant for showing up when the games mattered the most. It seemed as if another clash between the Oilers and Habs was inevitable, and Jacques Lemaire seemed to believe it, too, scheduling extra defensive practice for the team in training camp. In his mind, they had been shown up by Gretzky and his buddies the year before, and a second humiliation would be unforgivable.

To the surprise of many within hockey, it wasn’t a defensive showcase that defined Montreal’s season, but an offensive explosion from multiple sources. Denis Savard would once again lead the team with 116 points, followed closely by Mats Naslund with 110 – a career high for the impressive Swedish winger. Larry Robinson got in on the act, too, recording 82 points, his highest total in nine years. Virtually the only regression visible in the line-up came from Steve Penney, who would lose his starting job thanks to some poor performances early on in the season; rookie Patrick Roy would be called in to take his place, playing 47 games and recording an acceptable .875 SV% in that time.

Montreal now found themselves glued to the top of the Adams, finishing 4th in the league with 100 points. Surprisingly, they would face the Hartford Whalers in the first round, a team that had long been at the bottom of the division, but got in thanks to the Buffalo Sabres falling apart that year. The Whalers weren’t the only ones with little playoff experience, however, as Roy would be given the starting job for Montreal in the post-season. Looking to follow in the footsteps of Steve Penney before him, the rookie would excel in the first round, bouncing back from a Game One loss to win the next three.

For Habs fans, this was looking rather familiar. Roy had not only usurped Penney’s spot, but was putting in the same fantastic efforts that his predecessor had just a couple of years ago. Next up, however, would be a crucial rivalry series against Boston in the Adams Division Final, a test of the first-year goalie’s ability to stand strong in a pressure situation. Patrick, however, was not going to fade in the spotlight, recording a .911 SV% as his team cruised to a four-game sweep. Montreal would face the surprising New York Rangers in the Conference Final, but as miraculous as their runs had been, even they were no match for the rookie Roy; the on-fire goalie would produce his best results of the post-season, putting up a .938 SV% as his team eliminated the Rangers in five.

The Habs were back in the Stanley Cup Final, but to virtually everyone’s surprise, their expected rivals, the Edmonton Oilers, were not. They had been eliminated in the Smythe Division final by the Calgary Flames, who beat Edmonton in seven games, needing a fluke own goal from Steve Smith to win the Battle of Alberta. The Flames were going with a rookie of their own in Mike Vernon, who had played only 18 games that year before taking over as the starter in the post-season. Vernon looked much more settled in for Game One as Calgary won 5-3, but Patrick Roy had bounced back from an opening game loss before, and he would do so again. The Montreal rookie would allow only eight further goals in the series as the Canadiens swept the next four, winning their first Stanley Cup in seven years.

While many thought that Montreal would be the eventual representative of the Prince of Wales Conference in the Cup Final, nobody expected that they would do so with Patrick Roy in goal. Roy’s performance in the post-season was considered nothing short of a miracle, considering his unique goaltending style and his relative inexperience to that point; so miraculous was it that local media were already dubbing him “Saint Patrick”. He would be awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy for his efforts, the youngest ever to do so.

Montreal would have the 18th Overall selection at the 1986 Draft. With that pick, the Canadiens would select Ken McRae, a winger from the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves.

1986-87: With great results come great future expectations, and Montreal had their fans expecting big things once again. Patrick Roy had emerged as a star in the playoffs, and it was expected that he would continue his post-season form into the 86-87 campaign, and not follow in the footsteps of Steve Penney, who had lost his starting job to Roy last year. Penney would not be on the roster in training camp, having been traded to Winnipeg in August in a deal for Brian Hayward; Hayward had been less than impressive as a starter with the Jets, and would be expected to take over as a back-up for Roy with the Canadiens.

In addition to the change in goaltending, Jacques Lemaire would also stress a return to defensive hockey in order to keep the Habs competitive. This meant players like Mats Naslund and Denis Savard would see their point totals fall below the 100 mark, with Savard’s 90 leading the team. What Montreal lacked in offensive production, they made up for in defensive responsibility, as they would allow the fewest shots on goal during the season; even when shots did get by the defence, Roy and Hayward were more than up to the task, putting up a combined .889 SV% to rank second in the league in that category. The tandem would also win the William Jennings Trophy for the least goals allowed by one team, as both ‘keepers had played over 25 games (46 for Roy, and 37 for Hayward).

Montreal were no longer just content to finish 1st in the Adams, but were actually gunning for 1st in the league, falling short by a single point to the Edmonton Oilers. The first round was an expected match-up against the Quebec Nordiques, but Quebec were not there to roll over, putting seven goals past Patrick Roy in a Game One victory at the Forum. Brian Hayward was in for the next game, and though he would lose Game Two, he would win the next four to rescue the series for Montreal. The second round would see the Habs take on the Hartford Whalers, with Hayward once again anointed the starter; Hartford was no match for the Canadiens, losing in a decisive sweep.

Montreal had won eight in a row on the back of Hayward’s goaltending, but now they would have to face one of the hottest netminders in the league in Ron Hextall, who was only in his first season in the NHL, but looked like he belonged already. Hextall had played a league-leading 66 games, and finished with a .902 SV%, which was also tops in the NHL. Neither of the New York teams had found a way to score on the rookie goalie, and it was hard to believe a more defensively-focused Montreal team could do it either; the Habs, however, managed to find a way, as they would score a total of 25 goals in a five-game series victory.

The Stanley Cup Final was the 1985 re-match that virtually everyone expected: Montreal vs. Edmonton. The Oilers had recovered from the shock of ’86 with a dominant playoff performance, winning 12 of 14 games up to this point. While the team still had the likes of Gretzky, Kurri, and Messier to rely on, they also added at the trade deadline, getting Kent Nilsson from Minnesota to round out their top six. The Habs would give a valiant effort, taking the series all the way to Game Seven, but a 3-1 win at the Northlands Coliseum would see Edmonton hoist the Stanley Cup on home soil. There was a slight consolation prize for the Canadiens, as Brian Hayward would be given the Conn Smythe Trophy in a losing effort – the first player to receive the award on a team that didn’t win the Cup since Reggie Leach in 1976.

Once again, the Habs had fallen short at the last hurdle, stopped by the Edmonton Oilers. Most other cities would at least respect the effort of getting to the Cup Final, but Montreal wasn’t going to take this loss quietly. Mere days after the final game of the season, articles would start to appear criticizing coach Lemaire’s defensive strategy, arguing that teams like Edmonton had shown that offence was the way forward. Many of those articles pointed out that when Lemaire let the team loose the year earlier, it ended with a Cup victory. The coach would defend his game plan in interviews following the team’s return home, and stated that he had no intention of changing his strategy just to go with what was popular at the time.

The Habs would end up with the 20th Pick in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft, selecting blue-liner Darren Rumble from the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League.

1987-88: It was hard to believe that a coach who had just come off three straight Stanley Cup Finals (and one win) in three years was on the hot seat, but Montreal wasn’t your average hockey town. The defensive strategies Lemaire had stuck to didn’t seem to work in this day and age; even with all the talent the Canadiens were blessed with, their tendency to try and shut down other teams only seemed to hold themselves back. Furthermore, the goalie who had been hailed as Montreal’s new hero, Patrick Roy, had his starting job taken from him during the post-season by Brian Hayward, who almost willed his team on to a Cup, but for the nigh-unstoppable Edmonton Oilers.

Roy, however, wasn’t going to just accept being a back-up. He would work hard on his new style of goaltending, and would come back strong in the 87-88 season, playing 45 games and leading the league with a .900 save percentage. Hayward, too, kept up his form, with his .896 SV% in 39 games helping Montreal to the least goals allowed in the NHL and the league’s highest combined SV% (.897). While most of the team stuck to their defensive responsibilities, the Savard line was given freedom to attack, and the star centre would repay his coach with a career high 131 points. Bobby Smith would add 93 of his own, while young Stephane Richer would break out with his first career 50-goal season.

Montreal seemed to have found just the formula to rise to the top of the NHL. Their 113 points were enough to earn the President’s Trophy, well ahead of second-place Calgary. The first round of the post-season would see the Habs face off against the Hartford Whalers, with Patrick Roy getting the nod as the starter. After a high-scoring Game Four in which the Whalers won 7-6, Roy would get benched for the next game, with Hayward back to play saviour. Though Brian allowed 3 goals in a Game Five loss, he would recover in the next one, allowing only a single goal as the Canadiens won the series in six games.

Old problems were beginning to come back. Brian Hayward was once again tasked to relieve Patrick Roy, and the defensive tactics that Lemaire had relied on for so long were getting exposed. Up next were the Boston Bruins, a team rejuvenated by the break-out success of former Vancouver 1st-Rounder Cam Neely, who had become a nightmare for opposing players, either due to his scoring prowess or his physical strength. Neely, however, would not be the story of the series; once again, it was the Montreal goaltending, as Hayward would be pulled in Game Two, only for Patrick Roy to come back in and win that contest to give his side a 2-0 series lead. Though Roy would lose the next three, his performance in goal was good enough that Lemaire would bet his job on him in Game Six. Not only would “Saint Patrick” win that one, but he would take the next game to win the series for the Habs.

The Prince of Wales Conference Final would see the Canadiens take on the surprising New Jersey Devils, a team that had been reinvented by new General Manager Lou Lamoriello and new head coach Jim Schoenefeld, who had taken over mid-season and led his team to upsets over both the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals. New Jersey proved a much tougher series than the Habs were expecting, or the referees, for that matter; following a few missed calls against his team in Game Three, Schoenefeld would get into a confrontation with referee Don Koharski, prompting a protest by the officials in the next game when the coach was not suspended. Jim would serve his suspension the next game, and Montreal would eventually close out the series in seven games.

Montreal vs. Edmonton seemed to be the defining rivalry of the decade, and it was once again on the cards for the 1988 Stanley Cup Final. Despite the Oilers’ recent dominance, the Canadiens felt they had a chance, not only because of the Oilers beginning to slip into disarray (having traded Paul Coffey due to money concerns in the off-season), but also due to the fact that the Habs had actually won all three games the two sides played in the regular season. Their confidence was very well-placed, as the Canadiens battled to split the first four games. After both sides claimed home victories in Game Five and Six, it came down to a deciding contest at the Montreal Forum; all ideas of defence were out the window, as the Oilers would shell Patrick Roy in the first period en route to a 7-4 victory.

Though a growing portion of Montreal fans were now screaming for Jacques Lemaire to be dismissed as head coach, Serge Savard would not get the chance, as Lemaire would resign following the conclusion of the post-season. Pat Burns, previously the coach of the Habs’ AHL affiliate in Sherbrooke, would be tapped as Jacues’ replacement. Burns’ story was rather inspirational, as he had previously worked as a police officer and part-time QMJHL scout before taking over the coaching job with the Hull Olympiques. At only 36 years of age, Burns would have a lot of pressure on his shoulders to get this team back to winning the Stanley Cup, but Savard was confident that Pat would be the man for the job.

The Canadiens, as the best overall team in the regular season, would have the 21st Overall Pick in the 1988 Entry Draft. They would select Canadian goaltender Jason Muzzatti from Michigan State University.

1988-89: For Pat Burns, he might was well have been starting his NHL coaching career on “extra hard” mode. He was taking over a team that had reached the last four Stanley Cup Finals, and one that had just finished 1st in the league in the regular season. If there was one silver lining, it was the fact that their Cup Final rivals Edmonton had just been shaken to their core after a massive trade that saw Wayne Gretzky join the Los Angeles Kings. “Determination” was a key word for Burns, as was “opportunity”; Montreal knew that with their biggest obstacle likely out of the way, their time to strike again was now.

Rookie or not, Pat Burns quickly got the locker room on his side, and it would show in the performances on the ice. Montreal used their depth very effectively, as Denis Savard would miss time due to injuries throughout the year, only for Bobby Smith (83 points), Guy Carbonneau (56), and Shayne Corson (50) to step up in his place. The Habs also added some wing talent, too, acquiring Russ Courtnall from Toronto in a shock trade that saw enforcer John Kordic go the other way. And in goal, Patrick Roy followed up his fantastic 87-88 season with another brilliant campaign, leading the league in both SV% (.908) and GAA (2.47). Roy’s efforts were enough for him to earn his first Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender.

Montreal was virtually untouchable at the top of the Adams Division, even if they had been barely supplanted by Calgary atop the league standings. With 113 points, the Canadiens would go up once more against the Hartford Whalers, who were benefitting most from the collapse of the Quebec Nordiques over the past few years. After his playoff recovery the past season, Patrick Roy would be the starter of choice, and would win all three of his games in the series, with Brian Hayward winning a tense Game Three to fill in on a four-game sweep. Next up was Boston, and this time, Roy would play four of five; the one game he didn’t play was the only one the Canadiens didn’t win of a five-game series.

The team that Montreal had eliminated at the Conference Final stage a couple of years ago was back for more, as the Philadelphia Flyers had advanced out of the Patrick Division. While they were much the same team as they were in 1987, they had some added firepower, acquiring Mike Bullard from St. Louis mid-season to bolster their offence. As much scoring as they may have had, the Flyers were still going up against Patrick Roy, who was saving his best for this series. Roy would play all six games, putting up a .940 SV% in the process as the Canadiens once again eliminated the Patrick Division representatives.

For the fifth straight year, the Habs were in the Cup Final, and for the fifth straight year, they were facing Albertan opposition, as Calgary had advanced to face the Canadiens once more. Like the Flyers, the Flames hadn’t changed much over the past few years, but they had a talented young centre duo in Joe Nieuwendyk and the recently-acquired Doug Gilmour. They also had a ton of determination themselves, as even with many predicting the Habs to win the Cup, they kept each game close. That mentality would serve them well, as they forced splits in the first four games, then won the next two to finish the series at the Forum. The lasting image of the series would be the legendary Lanny McDonald, having just played his last game in the league, finally getting his chance to hold Lord Stanley’s Mug.

To have the brass ring within their grasp, only to fail again and again, was maddening for Montreal fans. It didn’t matter that they had once again reached the Stanley Cup Final. It didn’t matter that they had eclipsed 100 points in the regular season. The fact that they had once again lost in the home stretch, and the fact that they had lost to Calgary – the one team they had managed to beat in their recent run of success – was almost an insult. Even after his feats as head coach, including the Jack Adams Award, Pat Burns already had detractors in the city. Once again, though, Serge Savard remained steadfast that Burns would be the man who would lead this team to the Promised Land.

Because of a mid-season trade Montreal had made with the New York Rangers in 1988, the Habs had the choice of swapping 1st-Round Picks in the 1989 Draft. They would exercise that right, moving up to the #13 spot to select Lindsay Vallis from the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds.

1989-90: By now, it was a given that Montreal would make it to the Stanley Cup Final. It was also a given that whoever they faced in the Final, they were very likely to lose. But even considering the Canadiens’ dominance of the Wales Conference, there were more than a few speculating that their time was soon to be up. Their core wasn’t getting any younger, and Denis Savard had started to run into injury trouble, something the Habs didn’t need one bit if they were to stay Cup contenders. Serge Savard would make few moves in the off-season, believing that what his team had was more than good enough to win the Conference once more.

Savard would be hampered by injuries once more, playing only 60 games and recording 80 points. He wasn’t alone on the sidelines, as all of Chris Chelios, Brian Skrudland, Mike McPhee, Bobby Smith, and Petr Svoboda would play 60 games or less that year. The constant injury troubles would have been devastating for the team, but for the efforts of Stephane Richer (51 goals and 91 points) and Shayne Corson (75 points). Patrick Roy, too, was immense in keeping the team competitive, as he would once again lead the league with an otherworldly .912 save percentage, earning his second straight Vezina Trophy.

The injury concerns were enough to knock Montreal off the top of the Adams, as they would finish 3rd in the Division with 94 points. For the first time in a long while, they would not have home-ice advantage in the first round as they faced the Buffalo Sabres. Led by the duo of Pierre Turgeon and Dave Andreychuk, as well as offensive blue-liner Phil Housley, the Sabres had scoring punch to spare, and looked a real threat to cause an opening round upset. They would take Game One by a score of 4-1, but from then on, Patrick Roy shut the door as the Habs went on to win four of the next five, avoiding a disappointing early elimination.

The Adams troubles weren’t over for Montreal, however. They were now up against the Boston Bruins, who had finished 1st in the Division in the Habs’ place. They had Cam Neely at his career best (55 goals and 92 points), and a young defensive group to supplement the incomparable Ray Bourque. They even picked up former Philadelphia sniper Brian Propp as a deadline acquisition, making their offence even more deadly. The Canadiens, to their credit, kept the early games close, even if they didn’t win either of the first two. A 6-3 loss in Game Three, however, was when it became clear the Habs weren’t winning this. Though Montreal would win the next one, Game Five would see Boston win by a score of 3-1; for the first time since 1984, the Montreal Canadiens would not be the Wales Conference representative in the Stanley Cup Final.

In Montreal, fans were asking a bunch of “what if” questions as to the team’s early exit from the post-season. What if the team had never run into so many injuries that year? What if the team had held on to Jacques Lemaire as head coach instead of Pat Burns? All in all, the mood in the city wasn’t one of anger, or even disappointment, but disbelief. After so long as the anointed champions of the Conference, the Habs had been slain in the second round. Maybe one day in the near future, Montreal fans would be outraged by the result, but right now, they were still trying to mentally process what had just happened.

The Habs would have the 12th Pick in the 1990 Entry Draft, having made a trade with St. Louis in 1989 for the option to swap 1st-Round Picks this year. With that pick, Montreal would select Turner Stevenson, a large, physical right winger from the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds – the same team that the Canadiens tapped for their 1st-Rounder a year earlier.

THE CANADIENS AFTER TEN YEARS: One may call it a hunch, but one would be more likely to call it “hometown peer pressure” – the Canadiens being effectively bullied into selecting the local boy by their head coach and the fans who attended the Montreal Forum in 1980. Whatever one calls it, the choice to select Denis Savard instead of Doug Wickenheiser clearly paid off. Right off the bat, Savard became a top centre on the Habs thanks to his slick puck handling and his on-ice vision. In ten years, Savard would record 1013 points in 736 games; he would finish 4th in total points that decade, trailing only Jari Kurri, Peter Stastny, and Wayne Gretzky. He may never have been the most valuable player in the league while The Great One was active, but he was one of the most valuable pieces of the Habs’ dynasty.

And yes, the Habs were, indeed, a dynasty. They may have won only the single Stanley Cup in 1986. But to that point, the team had appeared in the Stanley Cup five straight years. And when one looks at the teams that finally did topple Montreal those years, one would only find other dynasties: the New York Islanders in the 1984 Wales Conference Final, the Edmonton Oilers in the ’85, ’87, and ’88 Cup Finals, and the Calgary Flames in ’89, a team that was arguably the 3rd-best in the league this decade. While many fans would be disgusted with the fact that Montreal came away with only one ring, their track record of success cannot be denied.

As the 1990-91 season gets underway, Montreal’s roster looks as follows:

F1. Shayne Corson – Denis Savard – Stephane Richer

F2. Mike McPhee – Stephan Lebeau – Russ Courtnall

F3. Brian Skrudland – Guy Carbonneau – Mike Keane

F4. Jeff JacksonKen McRae – Brent Gilchrist

D1. Petr Svoboda – Chris Chelios

D2. Sylvain Lefebvre – Mathieu Schneider

D3. J.J. Daigenault – Donald Dufresne

G1. Patrick Roy

G2. Andre Racicot

Montreal’s top six may not be a constant threat, but Denis Savard still has a bit of the old magic left in him despite injury issues over the past year or two. Furthermore, the two wingers Richer and Courtnall have proven themselves able to pick up the slack as a top scorer when needed, and Shayne Corson can play just about anywhere the coach wants him to. Guy Carbonneau is one of the very best defensive forwards in the game, having won two Selke Trophies to this point, and he is flanked by two decent wingers in Skrudland and Keane. The last forward line may be Montreal’s weak point; Jackson and Gilchrist are acceptable enough in a very minor role, but McRae is only in the line-up to punch face.

The defensive group for this team is so stacked with talent that it has created a logjam. Svoboda and Chelios, obviously, aren’t going anywhere, but behind them, any of Lefebvre, Schneider, Dufresne, Daigenault, and Eric Desjardins are battling for ice time. When the time should come for the top pairing to leave, however that may be, it is clear that the team is in good hands. Speaking of good hands, Montreal has the arguable best goalkeeper in the league in Patrick Roy to start, as Roy has led the league in SV% the past three seasons. Behind him is Andre Racicot, who was solid in his first pro season with Sherbrooke, and now looks to take over the spot left vacant by Brian Hayward.

The three bolded players have wildly differing paths to the Montreal Canadiens. The most straightforward is Ken McRae, who gets selected by Montreal in the 1st Round of the 1986 Entry Draft instead of Mark Pederson. Next up is Chris Chelios, who stays with the team instead of getting traded to Chicago; because the Habs already have Denis Savard, they never have to give up Chelios and a 2nd-Round Pick to get him. Finally, Jeff Jackson’s path to the team is the most convoluted, as he is involved in a series of trades that trace back to Gilbert Delorme. Delorme, in the OTL, was traded to St. Louis in a deal also involving Doug Wickenheiser, but with Wickenheiser never being selected by the Canadiens, that trade is nullified.

In addition to the bolded players, the Habs also have Yvon Corriveau, Greg Smyth, John Tanner, Darren Rumble, and Jason Muzzatti in their system.


Next week is Part II of this series, where I go into detail on how Doug Wickenheiser would do as a Black Hawk, and how the Hawks themselves would fare in this new timeline, as well as the overall changes to the hockey world as a result of this switch.

5 COMMENTS

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