The NHL Draft is always good for a story or two.
Whether it be talking about one of the all-time greats (2003), one of the all-time worst (1999) or controversial first overall picks (Eric Lindros to Quebec), there is never a shortage of talking points when it comes to teams putting their future eggs in the baskets of 18-year-olds.
One of the most interesting stories, hands down, comes from the most famous franchise in the history of the sport. It was 1970 and heading into the 1971 amateur draft, the Montreal Canadiens were doing everything in their power to secure the first overall pick. Why? Oh, it only had to do with a local boy destroying the competition in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League by the name of Guy Lafleur.
The 6’0” center was dominating, scoring an incredible 130 goals in 62 games for the Quebec Remparts during the 1970-71 season, finishing the year with 209 points. His two year totals in the Q read like this: 118 games, 233 goals, 146 assists and 379 points. Simply astounding.
Montreal general manager Sam Pollock was hell bent on acquiring the first pick. So he persuaded California Golden Seals owner Charlie Finley to trade the Seals’ 1971 first-round pick and Francois Lacombe to the Canadiens in exchange for Montreal’s 1970 first-round pick and veteran Ernie Hicke. The plan was working swimmingly for the Canadiens, with the Seals floating near the bottom of the league.
But late in the year, the Los Angeles Kings were sitting in last. In danger of losing out on the first pick, Pollock took action. He traded aging veteran Ralph Backstrom to the Kings for a pair of players. Backstrom helped lift the Kings out of the basement and the Seals finished last, giving the Canadiens the first overall pick.
Of course, come draft time, things had changed a bit. A new contender for first overall emerged in the form of Marcel Dionne. Pollock hemmed and hawed over who to take, ultimately sticking with Lafleur. The decision would turn out alright for both parties, with the Habs winning five Cups under Lafleur, including four straight from 1975-1979. For Lafleur, he would enter the Hockey Hall of Fame thanks to his 560 goals and 1,353 points.
Hindsight being what it is, the Habs would have been alright either way. As good as “Le Demon Blond” was for Montreal, Dionne had the more impressive individual career. His 731 goals and 1,771 points place him near the tippy-top of the career leaders and Dionne would wind up as the underrated superstar of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s for the Los Angeles Kings.
With shrewd moves like that, it’s little wonder the Canadiens dominated the way they did for so long. Then again, it’s easy to dominate when the competition is unintentionally helping you out.
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