The Montreal Canadiens in their 100 years of history have produced some of the greatest snipers to ever play the game. Maurice "The Rocket" Richard and Guy Lafleur are two of the most famous. That league best setup man has been rarer for them.
Other organizations seem to produce a multiplicity of great passers and playmakers: Stan Mikita, Dave Keon, Sid Abel, Jean Ratelle, Alex Delvecchio, Denis Savard, Brian Trottier, Ron Francis, Phil Esposito, Wayne Gretzky, Marcel Dionne, Adam Oates, Joe Thornton, Gilbert Perreault, Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic, Bernie Federko, Dale Hawerchuk, Bobby Clarke, Steve Yzerman, Mike Modano.
The only forwards who played for the Montreal Canadiens and were among the top 30 career assist men in the league are Mark Recchi, Denis Savard and Pierre Turgeon. They had barely a decade of service in Montreal between the three of them. There are very few all-time great setup men who were career Montreal Canadiens.
A recent survey of team fans commemorating 100 years of Montreal Canadiens hockey produced this list of the top 10 playmakers in team history. I have used this list as my starting point and expanded and modified it.
I have made an attempt to include Montreal Canadiens from all eras. This is a problem especially when dealing with the early NHL and the NHA years when assists weren't counted or only awarded for a key play that set up a goal. Some of these players come from an era when the forward pass was illegal.
The Montreal Canadiens still have produced a large number of fast skating, highly skilled, stick handling, sharp passing, playmakers. I've ranked them using their total assist numbers, the assists they produced per game played, how often they lead the team in assists, how often they lead the league or were among the league leaders in assists in a regular season, how long they played in Montreal, as well as any personal recollections I have of players I watched from 1967 on, and any anecdotes I can glean from books and stories on the these players.
I have included with each player the amount of regular season games they played with Les Habitants, the number of assists they recorded in that time and the number of assists per game they generated in their Montreal Canadiens career. Those numbers all come from ourhistory.canadiens.com.
This then is my list of the players I believe were the greatest play makers or setup men, if you will, ever, on the Montreal Canadiens.
Three of the best play makers, in absolute terms, who have ever played for the Montreal Canadiens are Denis Savard, Pierre Turgeon, and Scott Gomez.
Denis Savard came to Montreal at a time when his career was winding down. He only played in 210 regular season games as a Canadien and was barely a half assist a game player for them. He was one of the great setup men in the league and with the Blackhawks he had 87 assists in two different seasons and 86 once. Savard was a top 10 assist man in the league on five occasions.
By the time the Canadiens traded for him the best he could manage in a season was 42. He still lead the Habs in assists that year but the total was uninspiring. That production combined with the fact that he spent three short years with Montreal kept Savard an all-time great talent and playmaker out of the top 25 list for Montreal.
Pierre Turgeon managed 77 assists in 104 regular season games for Montreal. His .7404 assists per game average was the second best number among all the Montreal Canadiens I looked at, behind only Guy Lafleur.
Turgeon was a great playmaker who never got a long enough chance to perform in Montreal.
Scott Gomez lead the league in assists in 2003-04 and was eighth in the league with 51 regular season assists during the 1999-2000 season. Play-making is the heart of his game.
He has come to Montreal like Denis Savard on the downside of his career. He has 164 games to his credit with Montreal so far and unless his play improves he may not add many to that total.
These three could make anyone's list of great passers in the NHL. Their lack of time and or a quality performance in Montreal keeps them off this list.
I have included Newsy Lalonde who only played 98 regular season games as a Canadien in the NHL though he did eke out 200 games when you included his NHA days. The difference here for me was that he played 13 seasons for the Montreal Canadiens.
Likewise Paul Haynes only played 220 games for Montreal. Frank Mahovlich got in a mere 263 games. I think if Denis Savard had put up better numbers in Montreal he would have made the list. Turgeon needed to play more in Montreal. Gomez isn't making the list unless he turns his career around.
GP: 314 A: 161 A/G: .513
Alexei Kovalev only played three seasons and a bit after Montreal acquired him in a dead-line deal from the New York Rangers the year before the lock-out. Kovalev subsequently resigned with the Canadiens.
His tenure was short in Montreal and not quiet. Yet Kovalev was one of the more talented players ever to play on a team with a long storied history of supremely talented players.
Alex Kovalev is the complete offensive package. He shoots, he passes, he stick handles, and dekes like few other players. On a team with little in the way of snipers he became one of the primary goal scorers while at the same time maintaining a presence as a skilled playmaker.
If he had arrived earlier in his career or played with a better supporting cast his impact may have been greater. The Canadiens still got quite a bit of quality play from the enigmatic Kovalev.
Despite the short time in Montreal, I still think he qualifies as one of the 25 best playmakers in Montreal Canadiens history.
GP: 98 A: 41 A/G: .418
Newsy Lalonde starred for the Montreal Canadiens from before the inception of the NHL. he was often called the original "Flying Frenchman."
He played in a league that didn't allow forward passes and only gave out an assist per goal and then only if the pass had been essential to the scoring of the goal.
In his five seasons in the NHL with Montreal he lead the league in assists once, and was second, sixth and 10th in the league in other years.
Lalonde played over a hundred games for the Canadiens in the old NHA (National Hockey Association) before the NHL was formed.
Known for goal scoring in an era when the assist was an after thought the talented and physical Lalonde was also one of the best assist men of his era.
GP: 346 A: 202 A/G: .584
Mark Recchi was another supremely talented forward who spent too short a time in a Montreal Canadiens uniform.
He was one of the best players in the lineup in Montreal every night. He lead the team in points during the 1997/98 season.
GP: 478 A: 189 A/G: .395
The nifty Czech center is a playmaker capable of moving the puck at high speed in tight corners.
His play making ability doesn't always receive the attention league wide that it should because he has mostly played on defense first Montreal Canadiens squads that boast little in the way of finishers. The quality pass doesn't really get noticed if there is no there to finish it off with a goal.
GP: 655 A:190 A/G: .290
Aurele Joliat, often called the Little Giant, was brought into Montreal in the deal that sent their first great star, Newsy Lalonde, out of town.
A great stick handler and playmaker, the tiny Joliat lead the Canadiens in assists for four years. He never lead the league in assists but he was among the top 10 in assists in eight different seasons.
Joliat teamed with all-time great Howie Morenz which certainly didn't hurt his opportunities to be a setup man. He was one of Montreal's all-time great setup men.
GP: 220 A: 133 A/G: .605
Paul Haynes was a skilled playmaker from a Montreal Canadiens era where they were less successful as a team. Like a similarly talented play maker Saku Koivu, Paul never won a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens.
During his six seasons as a Montreal Canadien he lead the team in assists three times. He was second in the league in assists with 33 in 1938-39. At that point in his career he was feeding young scoring sensation Toe Blake with the puck.
Paul Haynes was a rarity in Montreal a specialist as a setup man.
GP: 402 A:237 A/G: .590
Chris Chelios spent his first seven seasons in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens and won a cup with them. An excellent puck mover and passer he had 55 assists in his first full season in Montreal to lead the team.
The 1988-89 season saw Chelios put 73 points and 58 assists in 80 regular season game and follow that up with 15 assists and 19 points in 21 playoff games as the Montreal Canadiens lost to the Calgary Flames in the Stanley Cup Finals that year.
Young Chris Chelios was a creative offensive force at the start of his career.
GP:505 A:310 A/G: .614
Bobby Smith spent six and a half seasons in Montreal. The play maker was there for Stanley Cup runs. he won the cup in Montreal after the 1985-86 season.
He teamed up with another skilled playmaker in Mats Naslund to generate a lot of offense for the Montreal Canadiens.
His .614 assists per game while he was in Montreal put him in among the best assist men in Montreal Canadiens history, just behind Elmer Lach and ahead of Vincent Damphousse.
GP:569 A: 292 A/G: .5132
Hector "Toe" Blake is best known as the hall of fame coach who lead the Canadiens to eight Stanley Cup championships in his 13 years as coach. That included an amazing five cups in a row from 1955-56 until 1959-60, the first five years he coached in the NHL.
As a player "Toe" Blake was more known for his goal scoring than his play making. The old lamplighter gained fame as a play maker once he was thrust on to a line with Elmer Lach and Maurice "Rocket" Richard back in 1943. Once you were teamed with the Rocket you started to become a setup man through necessity.
Toe lead the Canadiens in assists three times. He was among the top 10 in the league in assists for half of his 14 years in the league. During the 1944-45 season he helped Maurice Richard set the record for most goals in a season when the scored 50 in 50 games. Blake's 38 assists put third in the league in helpers. He, Elmer Lach and Maurice Richard were the entire first all-star team line that year.
Elmer Lach supplanted Blake as the premier set-up man on the team and on the Punch line but Blake was still an able contributor to both for the rest of his career.
GP: 654 A: 340 A/G: .520
Dickie Moore was a scorer who also was doggedly determined to dig the puck out of the corners and get it to his teammates.
He teamed for a time with the legendary Maurice "Rocket" Richard and his younger brother Henri "The Pocket Rocket" Richard.
He scored 41 goals and 96 points in 1958-59 to set the NHL record at the time for most points in a regular season. He lead the league with 55 assists that year.
Moore was the best player in the league for a very short period of time. Injuries seemed to limit how good he could be and for how long.
GP: 508 A:280 A/G: .551
Bert Olmstead started his NHL career as a Chicago Blackhawk. He joined the Montreal Canadiens during the 1950-51 season and never looked back.
When he joined the team he was replacing the legendary Toe Blake on the Punch line. He soon was leading Montreal in assists surpassing legendary setup man Elmer Lach.
He played on a line with Jean Beliveau and Bernie Geoffrion for most of his time in Montreal. Olmstead was the tenacious winger who would dig the puck out of the corner and get it to his linemates so they could score.
More a mucker than a finesse player the rough-and-tumble, Olmstead was one of the great setup men in Canadien history. Bert was not so much the master of the pretty play as he was of the effective play.
GP: 460 A: 161 A/G: .350
The Mitchell Meteor was the first great star of the NHL, let alone the Montreal Canadiens. In an era when only one assist was given on a goal and then only for making a "key" play that lead to the goal Howie Morenz was still known as a play maker as well as a goal scorer.
Morenz was named as the best ice hockeyplayer of the first half of the 20th century in a 1950 Canadian Press poll. Morenz was ranked 15th on the Hockey News' 1998 list of the top 100 NHL players of all time.
During most of his career Morenz played in an NHL where the forward pass was illegal for everyone but goalies. It's hard to evaluate a playmaker from an era when the individual end-to-end rush was de rigueur for an offensive player.
Still Morenz tied the existing NHL record for assists in 1927-28 with 18 when he became the first NHL player to score 50 points in a season.
Howie Morenz lead the league in assists that year. He lead his team in assists for five seasons. He was third in the league in assists twice in a season, fourth once, fifth once, and sixth and seventh once.
Howie Morenz was one of the great talents in hockey and a playmaker from an era when the statistical evidence of that ability is thin on the ground.
GP: 263 A:181 A/G: .688
Frank Mahovlich was one of the great talents of his time in the NHL. A contemporary of Bobby Hull and a line mate of Gordie Howe in Detroit, he was often considered the third best active NHL player during much of his career.
A smooth skating sniper Mahovlich was more of a goal scorer than a setup man for the majority of his career. He scored 48 goals in a season as a 23 year in 1960-61 with the Toronto Maple Leafs and 49 with the Detroit Red Wings in 1968-69.
Frank came to Montreal as a 33-year-old and had the best statistical seasons of his career. The talented veteran put up career best assist totals as he lead the team three times with 53, 55 and 49 assists.
During his short stay in Montreal, he became a team leader and his offensive prowess allowed him to be a team leader at what was and is an advanced age for an NHL player.
His assist per game total during his short stay was the third best ever among Montreal Canadiens players who have played at least 100 regular season games for the organization.
His .688 was behind only Guy Lafleur's .757 and Pierre Turgeon's .740 assists per game. The fact that he only played 263 games in Montreal keeps him from being higher on this list.
GP: 1202 A: 686 A/G: .571
Larry Robinson was one of the greatest offensive defensemen of all time. A quarterback on the power play, he was a great play maker for the Canadiens. His outlet pass from his own zone to streaking forwards at center ice was legendary.
Larry Robinson scored the fourth most assists of any Montreal Canadien. He had four seasons with more than fifty assists and another four with 45 assists or more.
He lead the 1977-78 Stanley Cup winning Montreal Canadiens with 21 points and 17 assists and won the Conn Smythe trophy as the MVP of that year's playoffs.
GP: 519 A :314 A/G: .605
Vincent Damphousse was another talented play maker who thrived in one of Montreal's less successful era's. He did win a cup with them his first year; 1992-93.
He was the team leader in assists four times in his career though he never was top in assists in any season in the NHL. Damphousse had over 50 assists in a season four times in Montreal.
GP: 643 A: 322 A/G: .501
Bobby Rousseau joined the Montreal Canadiens as a 20-year-old back in 1960. The next year he scored 21 goals and 45 points in his first full campaign.
He joined Montreal at the end of an era when they had just won five Stanley Cups in a row. He was just in time for what is sometimes called the Quiet Dynasty. He was a member of four Stanley Cup winning teams in five seasons from 1965 to 1969.
The timid playmaker was seldom a fan favourite in Montreal, but his talent was unmistakable. He tied for the league lead in assists with 48 during the 1965-66 season. He tied with hall of famers Stan Mikita and Jean Beliveau.
He lead the Canadiens in assists the next two years and was fourth and fifth in the league those two seasons. His 35 assists in 1964-65 had him second on the Canadiens behind Claude Provost and eighth in the league.
Rousseau was a goal scorer, a stick handler and passer extraordinaire. He killed penalties and played the power play where his creativity was a boon. He made a top quality offensive contribution on a team that lacked a league leading super star but seemed to succeed through depth of talent.
The one big knock on Rousseau seemed to be that he disliked the rough going. If anything that probably helped him be a better playmaker.
GP: 853 A: 469 A/G: .550
Jacques Lemaire was one of the most universally competent forwards ever to pull on the bleu, blanc et rouge of the Canadiens.
Lemaire was destined to become the center of one of the greatest lines in hockey history with Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt. All three were goal scorers while Lemaire and Lafleur handled most of the play making and Lemaire was the defensively responsible forward who back checked.
He won eight cups in his 12 years in the league.
GP: 792 A: 450 A/G: .568
Saku Koivu had the misfortune to be one of the Montreal Canadiens best players through one of their least successful eras. Montreal won only four playoff series in the 13 seasons he spent with the club.
His 450 assists are sixth most all time in Montreal Canadiens' history. Injury more than any other factor limited Koivu's playing time and ability to produce consistently at a high level.
The tiny Finnish forward was a fearless competitor. Never a huge goal scorer he lead the team in assists five times.
GP: 617 A: 369 A/G: .598
Mats Naslund spent eight years in Montreal as a tiny but durable play making winger. His best season came in 1985-86 when he lead the team with 67 assists and 110 points. The Canadiens then went on to win the Stanley Cup that year while Naslund again lead them in total scoring.
The dynamic Naslund was speedy and hard to hit and didn't suffer from the injury woes that diminished Saku Koivu's NHL career.
GP: 890 A: 371 A/G: .417
Doug Harvey was a NHL legend, not just a Montreal Canadiens legend.
One of the earliest great offensive defenseman he was known for his last minute passes and plays out of his own zone. The playmaker quarterbacked one of the greatest power plays of all time with Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion on the other point and Jean Beliveau, Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Bert Olmstead up front.
Harvey played in a more conservative offensive era but was always considered one of the great passers of his time. He was among the top 10 assist men in the league four times in his career finished second in 1954-55. He only lead the team in assists once but he was always among the teams best assist men from 1950 until 1961.
GP: 1256 A: 688 A/G: .548
Henri Richard was nicknamed the "Pocket Rocket" and spent most of his career trying to live up to the reputation of his big brother the real "Rocket" Richard.
Henri joined the NHL more than a decade after his brother had scored 50 goals in 50 games back in the 1944-45 season. Henri was 19 and playing on a Montreal Canadien team that still featured his 34-year-old big brother Maurice.
Henri was another tiny player who was told he was too small to play in the NHL, in this case by his junior coach Montreal Canadien legend Elmer Lach.
Henri was fast and a great stickhandler and passer. A determined forechecker he was also a great man in the faceoff circle. Like Jacques Lemaire he was defensively as well as offensively skilled.
Henri Richard lead the entire NHL in assists twice and Montreal three times. He was among the top 10 assist men in the league on seven occasions.
Richard has the third most assists in team history while playing in the most games in Canadien history and playing on the most Stanley Cup winning teams by anyone,ever (11).
GP: 581 A: 346 A/G: .596
Peter Mahovlich was another Montreal Canadien passer who lived in the shadow of his elder, more talented brother. Only with a brother as talented as Frank Mahvovlich, "The Big M", could you see a man like Peter, 6'5" and 210 lbs when he played, being stuck with the nick name "The Little M".
Like Henri Richard, Peter Mahovlich broke into the league a decade after his more talented older brother had established himself as one of the great players in the game.
Peter was a stick-handler and playmaker who was hard to match in Montreal Canadiens' history. He was best known in Canada for a short handed one on one goal he scored against the Russians in game two of the 1972 Summit Series.
Peter wasn't the speedy, seamless skater his brother was but he was a skilled distributor of the puck. He had a relentless style and was a great stick-handler. His size and reach helped him get the puck and keep it.
Mostly a checker early in his career his offensive abilities became more clear when Frank Mahovlich joined the Canadiens in 1971.
Peter became the center on the Canadiens number line with Steve Shutt and Guy Lafleur. It was during the 1974-75 season that Mahovlich set the single season record for assists by a Montreal Canadien with 82. He was third in the league that year. Next season his 71 was the second best assist total in the NHL.
His .596 assists per game average was tenth among the players I finally ran averages on, in between Mats Naslund .598 and Chris Chelios .590. During two seasons 1974-75 and 1975-76 he was possibly the best playmaker in Montreal Canadiens history.
GP: 664 A: 408 A/G: .615
Elmer Lach joined the Montreal Canadiens during WWII as a 23 year old. Soon enough he took over the role of playmaker on the Punch line. Where Toe Blake had shouldered the burden of getting the puck to Maurice Richard now it was Lach who became responsible for dishing the puck to Toe and the Rocket.
Lach had 40 assists in a season where he played 45 of the 50 scheduled regular season games back in 1942-43 and he finished fifth in the league in assists. The next year with an assist a game in 48 games he was second in the league. The next two years he lead the NHL in assists while two of the best finishers in the game made sure his passes weren't wasted.
The year the Rocket scored his 50 goals in 50 games it was Lach who lead the league with 54 assists in 50 games and 80 points to lead the league in both categories. Elmer Lach was the NHL's MVP the year Richard became the first player to score a goal a game for an entire regular season.
Elmer Lach all told lead the league in assists in three years and was in the top five in assists for seven of his 14 NHL seasons. Elmer lead the team in assists six times and when he didn't it was often due to injury. he missed 29 of 60 games in 1946-47 and 24 of 60 in 1948-49.
GP: 961 A:728 A/G: .758
Guy Lafleur joined the Montreal Canadiens just as legend Jean Beliveau was retiring. Huge expectations in Montreal were crushing in his early years.
He scored 29 goals and 64 points as a rookie in 1971-72 and that probably was enough to keep the fans and media in Montreal at bay. However when he had 21 goals and 56 points in his third season and was often playing on a checking line–the knives were being sharpened.
Luckily for Lafleur and Montreal, he finally blossomed as an offensive star in his fourth season. He went on a six-year run where he scored at least 50 goals and at least 119 points in each season. Lafleur was the first NHL player ever to do that.
Pigeon holed as a sniper Lafleur has the most assists in Montreal Canadiens history and the best assist per game played ratio as well. A quick skater and stickhandler, he had a great pass back once he had the defenders focused on him. Line-mates like Jacques Lemaire, Steve Shutt and Pete Mahovlich were always happy to put away the passes he gave them.
Lafleur's 80 assists in 1976-77 lead the NHL and are second only to Pete Mahovlich's 82, all-time in Montreal. He lead the team in assists seven times, the most times by any Canadien, ever.
When he was good he was very,very good. During his six great years he lead the league in assists once, was second twice, third twice and fifth once.
Guy Lafleur, despite his reputation and ability as a goal scorer, was also almost the best playmaker in Montreal Canadiens history.
GP: 1125 A: 712 A/G: .633
Jean Beliveau is one of the most beloved Montreal Canadiens players.
"Le Gros Bil" as he was called had a reputation as a playmaker in the same way Lafleur had one as a goal scorer. Beliveau was however also a sniper with a devastating wrist shot who lead the league in goal scoring twice and his team six times in 20 years. He was a complete offensive player.
He was a strong skater and great stickhandler. He could keep the puck away from opponents with his skill and size and go through them with power or finesse. This attracted a wide variety of attention to him and left him free to set up team mates with pin point passes.
Jean Beliveau played with some of the world's best goal scorers. Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion and Maurice "the Rocket" Richard are the two most spectacular examples.
Throughout his career Beliveau was always a great setup man. He lead the league in assist twice, in 1960-61 while helping Bernie Geoffrion score 50 goals in 64 games to equal the Rockets' record for most goals in an NHL regular season.
Beliveau lead the Canadiens in assists five times. He was a top 10 NHL assist man in 11 of his 20 seasons. That's more impressive when you realize his first two years in Montreal he played five games.
Jean Beliveau was the greatest playmaker in Montreal Canadiens history.