The first NHL Entry Draft was held in 1963. The format was changed in 1969 to allow for all amateurs players under the age of 20 to be eligible to be drafted by any NHL team. Before 1969, only amateur players who were not already property of NHL teams were eligible. In those days, NHL teams owned junior teams, thus making the players on those junior rosters their property.
That meant the original six franchises lost their stranglehold on the amateur hockey talent in North America. This affected the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs more than any of the other teams, as they held amateur players in the prime real estate markets of amateur hockey—the province of Quebec and most of Ontario, respectively.
In 1970, Gilbert Perreault was selected No. 1 overall by the Buffalo Sabres. Perreault, an outstanding junior star in Quebec, would have surely been property of "Les Habitants" had the rules not been changed.
Montreal selected instead Ray Martynuik and Chuck Lefley fifth and sixth overall, respectively. Toronto selected Darryl Sittler with the eighth spot that year (arguably the last quality first-round selection the Maple Leafs made since the NHL changed the amateur draft format).
One wonders if these two storied, and to that point successful, franchises rested on their laurels for too long—not adapting quickly enough to scouting and development of players to keep up with the changing landscape of the franchise building process.
Taking some time to sift through the history of first-round selections made by these two franchises since 1970, we may find that although storied and successful, not many stars or future Hall of Famers have passed through either organization in the past 39 years up to last summer's draft.
Montreal, through a shrewd move by Sam Pollock, was able to obtain the first overall selection in 1971 to acquire Guy LaFleur. The Canadiens then selected Steve Shutt and Bob Gainey the next two seasons.
From 1974 to 1985, the only players of mention selected by Montreal would be Mark Napier (1977) and Petr Svoboda (1985)—not exactly a great track record over a 12-year span. In 1980, Montreal elected to draft Doug Wickenheiser with the No. 1 pick instead of Quebec native Denis Savard.
The only players of note that the Canadiens drafted in the first round from 1986 to 2009 would be Saku Koivu (1993), Chris Higgins (2002), and Carey Price (2005)—not exactly franchise players, but decent to solid NHLers. Many of the other selections plied their trade in the minors with a few games in the NHL. Others never played a game in the NHL.
Toronto Maple Leafs fans can look to 1970, 1985, and 1986 to find what would be considered quality first-round selections. Darryl Sittler was the team's only true star for over a decade, and Wendal Clark was the team's captain and heart and soul after being selected No. 1 overall in 1985. In 1986, Vincent Damphousse was selected sixth overall and, although he only spent four seasons with the Maple Leafs, he went on to have a very strong NHL career.
Toronto's track record may be even worse than Montreal's.
Since 1987, the "Buds" have drafted players of note, such as Luke Richardson (1987), Nik Antropov (1998), Brad Boyes (2000), Carlo Coliacovo (2001), and Alexander Steen (2002). Boyes has moved on to become a 40-goal scorer and the other players probably won't be working on their Hall of Fame acceptance speeches any time soon...or ever.
When breaking down the draft history of these two "storied" franchises, we can see that in a combined 78 years of first-round selections, there could only be an argument made for a total of five or six players being considered franchise-altering picks.
For too long these organizations had the strongest hold on amateur players and simply did not adapt quickly enough to the changes the NHL implemented. Thirty-nine years later, they are still paying for it.