Small trades with big results is a series that looks at trades throughout NHL history that seemed small or insignificant at the time but turned out to be much, much more. In this installment, we look at how Denis Savard ended up with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Small NHL Trades with Big Results: Denis Savard
Another byproduct of the WHA/NHL merger. The reclaim draft allowed WHA teams to protect up to two goalies and two skaters as priority selections. Meaning their NHL rights were voided and could not be selected. Still, some teams were looking to cut deals with teams owning player rights to protect as many players as possible. Chicago owned the NHL rights to Quebec Nordiques star Real Cloutier. Quebec wanted to keep Cloutier while also protecting other players as well.
The Quebec Nordiques send their 1980 first-round pick to Chicago to ensure they do not pick Real Cloutier in the reclaim draft. In an odd move by the Nordiques, they did not place Cloutier on their protected list. They chose to deal with Chicago to free up a protected slot for another player. The Nordiques chose to protect defencemen Paul Baxter and Garry Lariviere along with goalie Richard Brodeur.
Real Cloutier Junior
Real Cloutier was a phenom with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL. In his rookie year, he scored 39 goals and 99 points in 56 games. Quebec was the runaway winner of the league with 102 points and also win the Presidents Cup as playoff champions. Cloutier would score eight goals and 21 points in 15 games during the QMJHL playoffs. They would make the Memorial Cup final as well, but fall to the Toronto Marlboros. Cloutier struggled a bit in the Memorial Cup, only posting one assist in the four games.
In his second season, Cloutier showed his goal-scoring touch. He netted 93 goals and 216 points, good for third in QMJHL scoring. While the Remparts failed to repeat as regular-season champions, they did win their second consecutive Presidents cup. Cloutier would score an incredible 26 goals and 50 points in 16 playoff games. Again the Remparts would lose in the Memorial Cup final, this time to the Regina Pats. Cloutier posted four goals and eight points in the four games.
Real Cloutier WHA
Cloutier was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in the 1974 WHA draft. Despite the NHL making a temporary exemption to allow teenagers to play in the NHL, Cloutier signed with the Nordiques. Cloutier made an imidate impact, scoring 26 goals as a rookie and helping Quebec reach the AVCO Cup Finals. The following season, Cloutier exploded with 60 goals and 114 points. This would start a streak of four consecutive seasons of scoring at least 56 goals for Cloutier. In 1976-77, Cloutier would lead the WHA in scoring with 66 goals and 141 points. He also added 14 goals and 27 points in the playoffs to lead the Nordiques to an AVCO Cup championship. Cloutier had his best season in 1978-79 when he scored 75 goals.
Cloutier would win the Bill Hunter Trophy as the WHA leading scorer twice, in 1977 and 1979. At the time the WHA folded, Cloutier was the fourth-leading scorer in WHA history with 283 goals, 283 assists for 566 points in 369 games. His 283 goals placed him third all-time in WHA goal scoring.
Denis Savard (1980 first-round pick)
Denis Savard joined the Montreal Juniors of the QMJHL for the 1977-78 season. He made an immediate impact, scoring 37 goals and 116 points. He would share rookie of the year honours with Normand Rochefort. In the playoffs, Savard would score three goals and 20 points in 13 games en route to the QMJHL finals. The following year, Savard finished second in league scoring with 46 goals and 158 points. In his third season of junior, Savard would score 63 goals and 181 points. Savard won the Michel Briere Memorial Trophy as league MVP.
Heading into the 1980 NHL draft, Savard was considered a top prospect. The Montreal Canadiens held the first overall pick and the feeling was they would pick the local star. They picked Doug Wickenheiser instead and Savard fell to the Blackhawks (using Quebec’s pick) at third overall.
In his first season in the NHL, Cloutier continued his goal-scoring ways. He netted 42 goals and 89 points. Unfortunately for Quebec, the team was not so great. To be fair, all the WHA teams that merged into the NHL struggled. They all held top 10 picks in the draft. Unfortunately for Quebec, their selection belonged to Chicago.
The following season, Cloutier was slowed by injuries, appearing in only 34 games. Still, he would score 15 goals and 31 points as Quebec qualified for the playoffs. The team was led by new players Peter Stastny and his brother Anton Stastny. Injuries continued to plague Cloutier in the NHL. In 67 games in the 1981-82 season, Cloutier would score 37 goals and 97 points. Quebec would again make the playoffs and make a run to the Wales Conference Finals. Cloutier would score seven goals and 12 points in 16 games. In the 1982-83 season, Cloutier appeared in 68 games, but his numbers dipped to 28 goals and 67 points. Quebec would make the playoffs again but would lose in the Divisional Semi-Finals. Cloutier would not register any points.
After the season, the Nordiques traded Cloutier to the Buffalo Sabres. Cloutier would play for the Sabres for one year before retiring early in the 1984-85 season.
Denis Savard’s career with Chicago started with a bang. He set (at the time) Blackhawks records for rookie scoring with 75 points. In his second season, Savard jumped up to sixth in league scoring with 119 points. In the playoffs, Savard would lead the Blackhawks in scoring with 18 points (good for fifth in playoff scoring) on their run to the Campbell Conference Final. Savard continued getting better. In 1982-83 he would finish third in league scoring with 121 points. Chicago would make it back to the Campbell Conference Final but again, fail to progress to the Stanley Cup. Savard would again lead the ‘Hawks in playoff scoring with 17 points.
In his career, Savard would play in 1196 games split between Chicago, Montreal and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Savard would score 473 goals and 1096 points. He would be nominated for the Hart Trophy four times. Unfortunately for Savard, some guy named Wayne Gretzky was standing in his way. Savard was an exciting player who scored many highlight-reel goals throughout his career. Perhaps his biggest legacy was the Savardian Spin-O-Rama, where he would perform a 360-degree turn to get around a defender. He would score 30 or more goals in seven straight seasons between 1981-82 to 1987-88. Savard would win a Stanley Cup in 1993 as a member of the Canadiens. Savard retired from hockey in 1997. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000.
Big Things Can Have Small Beginnings
For someone who might look at this and think this wasn’t a small trade because of the first-round pick, it’s important to remember that a lot of teams did not value draft picks as they do now. Teams were more comfortable banking on an established player rather than take a chance on an unproven commodity. It was just the reality of the time.
The bigger issue was why the Nordiques felt it important to make this deal in the first place. While it’s completely understandable the Nordiques wanted to keep Cloutier, it’s still so curious they felt the need to do this deal. They could have protected Real Cloutier AND drafted Denis Savard. It’s amazing to think that the Nordiques could have had an offensive attack featuring Savard, the Stastny brothers and Michel Goulet. What is more baffling is the players they protected, Paul Baxter and Garry Lariviere were both gone from the team by 1981. Cloutier was gone by 1983, so in the end, the Nordiques move to keep Cloutier got them three NHL seasons.
Meanwhile, Denis Savard became one of the premier players in the NHL during the 1980s. His exciting brand of hockey and production made him one of the all-time greats. He has since been credited with sparking the Blackhawks revival of the 80s. With Savard, Chicago would play in five Campbells Conference Final between 1980-81 and 1989-90.
The WHA reclaim draft ended up having a major impact on two of the incoming WHA teams, but Quebec, unfortunately, came out on the short end of this move. 1979 was a significant year for teams making trades they would come regret, as you will see in the next edition.