With everyone in the hockey world focused on the anniversary of the biggest trade in hockey history today, I got to thinking about the biggest trade in Montreal Canadiens history.
Sure, no trade has ever had a bigger impact than the one made on August 9th1988, when the Edmonton Oilers sent Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. Having said that, the Montreal Canadiens of the 1970’s would have looked a whole lot different without Guy Lafleur.
It was the spring of 1970 and the Montreal Canadiens had just watched their rival Boston Bruins parade with the Stanley Cup. The Canadiens had an impressive group of younsters, such as Serge Savard, Yvan Cournoyer, Jacques Lemaire, Pete Mahovlich and Rogie Vachon, who were all under 25. However, their best players of the time, Jean Beliveau and Henri Richard, were beginning to show their age.
Having missed the playoffs for the first time in 22 years, Canadiens General Manager Sam Pollock set his sights on one player to be the next great Canadien, and that was Guy Lafleur.
Lafleur had scored 103 goals and 170 points with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL during the 1969-70 season. The only problem with acquiring Lafleur, was that he was not eligible for the NHL draft until a year later in 1971. Knowing his team needed a future boost to soften the impending loss of Canadiens icon Jean Beliveau, but knowing the team would not fall to the cellar of the league and be given the opportunity to draft Lafleur, Pollock got creative.
The NHL had expanded in size from six teams to twelve for the 1967-68 season, and the new league members were having a tough time keeping up with the original six. The teams were split into two divisions, conveniently enough the original six in one division, and the expansion teams in another. Montreal’s 92 points in 1969-70 were not enough to make the playoffs in the original six division, but would have been enough to lead the expansion division.
The NHL’s six new teams were desperate to make up ground on the senior division. Noticing the short sightedness of his new brethren, Pollock went after the Oakland Seals 1971 first round pick. He was successful in luring it out of them, when he offered Montreal’s first round pick in 1970, (tenth overall) and prospect Ernie Hicke. Thinking two prospects would be better than one, the Seals were eager to make the deal, but would end up missing out on one of the greatest players of all time.
Owning the rights to the Seals 1971 first round pick, Pollock kept a close eye on their progress that season. Fearing that the Los Angeles Kings, and not the Seals, whose name had been changes to the California Golden Seals, would finish last in the standings and be awarded Lafleur as compensation, Pollock intervened in January, and improved the Kings chances of winning games in the second half of the season.
Pollock believed veteran scorer Ralph Backstrom, who was having a down season with Montreal, could regain his scoring touch if dealt to a team that would give him a more prominent role.
Pollock’s inkling would prove to be true, as after dealing Backstrom to the Kings, for a minimal return, he would score 27 points in 33 games, helping the Kings out of last place, and ensuring the Canadiens held the rights to the first overall selection. Having scored 130 goals in his final Junior season, the choice to select Lafleur became even easier for Pollock.
Guy would make the Canadiens roster immediately after being selected, his rookie year being the first in Montreal without Beliveau. Though it would take three mediocre seasons before Guy assumed the role as the Canadiens Quebec born superstar, he was worth the wait.
Lafleur would become a star in the 1974-75 season, finishing in the NHL’s top five in goals, assists and points. He would go on to do the same for the next five seasons, including three consecutive Art Ross Trophy’s as the league’s leading scorer from 1976-78. Lafleur would win the Lester B. Pearson Award each of those three seasons as well as the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP in 1977 and 1978. Most importantly, Lafleur would lead the Canadiens to four straight Stanley Cups, from 1976-79, and take home the Conn Smythe as Playoff MVP in 1977.
In 1976-77, a season in which Lafleur claimed the Hart, Art Ross, Lester B. and Conn Smythe Trophys, the Montreal Canadiens finished the year with a record of 60 wins, 8 losses and 12 ties. Their 132 regular season points are the most ever achieved in the history of the game, and this team is widely considered the best NHL team ever assembled. The heart of that team was Guy Lafleur.
The Lafleur deal may not have sent a seismic shift around the hockey world, like the one that was consummated on this day, 25 years ago. However, the dynasty that was the 1970’s Canadiens, and arguably the greatest team of all time, might never have been, if not for the trade that brought Guy to Montreal.