Ranking the Best Draft Classes in Montreal Canadiens History
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It’s hard to say which were the best-ever Montreal Canadiens draft picks, and not just because there were so many.
There are a lot of factors involved, including who else was available at the time each was picked as well as overall draft position. A case can be made that a player taken in the last round who goes on to enjoy modest success in the NHL is a better pick than a first-round one that simply lived up to expectations.
With that in mind, it’s just a tad easier to take each pick at a given draft into account and come up with a list of the Habs’ best ones overall, dating back to the 1963 NHL amateur draft (officially becoming the NHL entry draft in 1979).
Here they are for your reading pleasure:
New York Ranger defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
Heading into the 2007 draft, all the talk was about local-boy Angelo Esposito and whether or not he would become a Hab. It was an improbability (to be generous) as he had at one time been ranked the highest prospect available and the Habs only had the 12th pick.
Almost magically though, with players like Patrick Kane, James Van Riemsdyk, Sam Gagner and Logan Couture taken in the top 10, Esposito went untouched and was ripe for the Habs’ plucking. It was destiny. And then, general manager Bob Gainey’s selection: Defenseman Ryan McDonagh from Cretin Derham Hall High School in Minnesota.
Esposito actually had to wait another seven picks before being taken by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Did Gainey know something everyone else didn’t?
Considering Esposito, at only 24, has an injury history the size of a phonebook, has yet to play a single NHL game and McDonagh has turned into a complete defenseman, it’s quite possible he did—then he traded McDonagh to the New York Rangers for Scott Gomez and the thought passed.
While there’s legitimate, heart-wrenching disappointment in having a top-four defenseman (at least) slip through the Habs’ fingers, Montreal’s third selection that year kind of makes up for losing out on McDonagh: Norris Trophy-winning defenseman P.K. Subban.
Taking into account Montreal’s other first-round pick, Max Pacioretty, and, yes, even third-round pick Yannick Weber, it’s clear that 2007 was a good year at the draft for Montreal.
It gets even better when one considers these players have yet to hit their prime and some of the players who haven’t panned out still can. It’s unlikely, sure, but there’s still hope…just not for Gomez. He’s done.
Complete 2007 draft class:
A tribute to Guy Lafleur of the Montreal Canadiens.
What the Habs’ 1971 draft class lacks in quantity of NHL-caliber players, it more than makes up for in quality. When a draft produces one Hall of Famer (Guy Lafleur), it’s automatically a good draft. When it produces two (Larry Robinson)? Just incredible.
When one of those Hall of Famers ends up leading the franchise in points (1246 in 961 games), and the other does all the franchise’s defensemen (883 in 1202 games)? That particular draft belongs on this list.
The Guy Lafleur selection has become infamous all on its own thanks to some incredible forethought on the part of then-general manager Sam Pollock.
Not only did Pollock manage to acquire what would become the first overall pick (plus Francois Lacombe) from the California Golden Seals for Montreal’s first-round pick (and Ernie Hicke). Once California started playing better as a result of the trade, Pollock realized he had to do more to guarantee himself the player he wanted.
He then traded Ralph Backstrom to the Los Angeles Kings to further ensure California would finish below them in the standings. The Habs conversely? They won the Stanley Cup that year, yet still got that first overall pick and ended up winning four championships in a row from 1976-79 with an incredibly stacked lineup as a result of Pollock’s wheeling and dealing.
Now, Pollock could have theoretically taken Marcel Dionne, who ended up with 1771 career points in 1348 games (418 more points than Lafleur) first overall instead, but, at this point, it’s just splitting hairs.
Speaking of which, “Le Demon Blond” has a slightly better ring and fear-inspiring, non-sexual connotation to it than “Little Beaver.”
Complete 1971 draft class:
A tribute to Montreal Canadiens goaltender Patrick Roy.
It may come as a shock, but the Habs actually drafted Roy, Brodeur and Crosby…all in the same year.
Granted, that’s Lee “Not Martin” Brodeur and Troy “Not Sidney” Crosby, but, a fact is a fact.
Now, neither ended up playing a single game in the NHL and the latter, a goalie, became more famous for fathering this current generation’s most prolific player than stopping pucks. Patrick Roy (51st overall), however, thankfully did enough of that over his Hall of Fame career for the both of them.
Meanwhile, the fact that the Habs’ four first picks in that draft each played over 1000 games in the NHL also kind of makes up for the fact that their other 10 picks combined for a grand total of zero.
Another reason this draft class ranks as low as it does? Montreal picked center Jim Nesich with the 116th pick. At 117, the Calgary Flames picked Brett Hull. Luc Robitaille was also available, taken 171st overall.
Complete 1984 draft class:
Former-Montreal Canadien Eric Chouinard ruined an otherwise-exceptional 1998 draft class.
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The 1998 NHL draft will forever be remembered by Habs fans as the one at which Montreal drafted bust Eric Chouinard (16th overall) instead of Quebec Remparts teammate Simon Gagne (22nd overall) in the first round. It needn’t be that way, though.
In fact, Montreal’s 1998 draft haul included two top-six forwards and two top-four defensemen, all of whom are still playing—one of whom even for Montreal.
Mike Ribeiro (45th; traded away for Janne Niinimaa), Francois Beauchemin (75th; claimed off waivers by the Columbus Blue Jackets), and Michael Ryder (216; reacquired in 2013 and won’t be resigned for the second time by the Habs) all went on to experience various degrees of success and stupidity on the part of Montreal Canadiens management in the NHL.
Meanwhile, Andrei Markov (162) continues to toil away on the blue line and represents arguably the team’s best defenseman of the past generation.
Add into the mix a plucky fourth liner by the name of Gordie Dwyer and it’s clear that the Habs did their homework prior to this particular exam day—they just stupidly wrote out the wrong name at the very start of the test after managing to get even the pesky class section right.
Complete 1998 draft class:
Then-Montreal Canadien Eric Desjardins completes the hat trick in overtime in Game 2 of the 1993 Stanley Cup Final against the Los Angeles Kings.
Similar to in the 1984 draft, Montreal’s first four picks in 1987 all worked out (just on different teams, which is an unfortunate recurring theme on this list).
Andrew Cassels (17th overall), John LeClair (33rd), Eric Desjardins (38th) and Mathieu Schneider (44th) all had impressive careers. The latter three even helped the Habs win their last Stanley Cup in 1993.
Now, nine players the Habs took in that drafted never ended up playing a single game, but, overall, the draft was quite weak. If one goes through the entire draft, it becomes readily apparent that, considering just who was available, the Habs made the best selections with each and every one their first four picks.
In fact, after Schneider was taken in the third round, only a single player still available ended up scoring more than his 743 career points (Theoren Fleury, 1088 in 1084 career games after being taken 166th). That’s just good drafting…incredible drafting actually.
Now, as previously indicated, Cassels eventually got traded to the Hartford Whalers essentially for Valeri Bure (in draft-pick form). Schneider got dealt with Kirk Muller to the New York Islanders in a deal for Pierre Turgeon (coincidentally the first pick in the 1987 draft) and LeClair and Desjardins?
Well, it could have been worse, but they both got traded, along with Gilbert Dionne (Marcel’s younger brother, drafted by Montreal in 1990), to the Philadelphia Flyers for Mark Recchi and a third-round pick.
At the end of the day, it’s quite telling that the only one of those four players that did not end up reaching 1000 games was LeClair, who amazingly ended up scoring the most points in his career (819). This is clearly a testament to Montreal’s scouting staff (not so much the general management, of course, but that’s an article for another day).
Complete 1987 draft class: