Montreal Canadiens First Overall Pick History

Montreal Canadiens Draft
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The Montreal Canadiens won the NHL Draft Lottery and secured the first overall pick. It’s hopefully the first step in re-building the proud franchise back to the top of the hockey world. It is going to be the first time in 42 years that the Canadiens hold the first overall pick. Still, when examining the Montreal Canadiens draft history, picking first overall can yield mixed results.

Montreal Canadiens Drafting First Overall

The NHL Draft is littered with first overall picks that have not quite panned out, for several reasons. Still, it is the best opportunity for a struggling team to give their fans hope for the future. In the right situations, it can turn a team completely around.

In the history of the NHL Draft, the Montreal Canadiens have held the first overall pick four times before. With all the excitement right now surrounding the Habs holding the current number one overall pick, let’s take a look at how they faired with the other first overall picks they have had in their history.

NHL Draft History

The NHL established the first amateur draft in 1963 to assign unaffiliated juniors age players to teams. Prior to the draft, teams would sponsor amateur teams and players pre-empting other NHL teams from acquiring new young talent. It also limited the amateur player’s prospects of playing in the NHL to only the team that sponsored them. The draft was devised as a way of phasing out the sponsorship practice to help more evenly disperse amateur players throughout the league. Still, players that had already signed a sponsorship deal with teams were ineligible for the draft so it would take a few years for the draft to become what the league wanted. It also meant that a lot of the early drafts were not stocked with high-end prospects.

To determine the order of the draft, NHL president Clarence Campbell that the order would for from worst to best in the standings.

Dispelling Some Myths

The Montreal Canadiens had an agreement with the NHL allowing them to pick the two best un-sponsored Quebec players. The agreement was called the territorial rights clause. The clause was put into effect in 1936. Many people have pointed to this as the major reason for the Habs’ early success. This is just a myth, however. The territorial rights clause gave the Habs their pick of two Quebec-born players each year. There was one, very important caveat; no players already sponsored by other clubs could be selected. So the Habs could take their pick of players that no other teams had wanted.

The territorial rights clause was used from 1936 until 1947. No player the Habs picked ever played in the NHL. It was brought back in 1963 with the establishment of the NHL Draft and was discontinued in 1969. The same rules would apply as before, no sponsored players could be selected by the Habs even as the league was trying to phase out the sponsorship practice.

In all the years the Habs used these territorial rights, only three players ever played in the NHL. Goaltender Michel Plasse and forwards Marc Tardif and Rejean Houle. For the sake of this article, players selected by the Habs in the draft as part of the territorial rights will be excluded.

1963 NHL Draft

In the first-ever draft, the Montreal Canadiens had the first overall pick. While the league was just starting to phase out the sponsorship method, the talent pool was not what it could have been in these early drafts. With the pick, the Habs selected center Garry Monahan. Monahan never really developed as the Habs hoped. The Habs were patient, but Monahan was traded to the Detroit Red Wings in June 1969. Monahan bounced around the league some with stints with the Los Angeles Kings, Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks before leaving the NHL in 1979.

Missing on a pick is never fun, but when the pick right after you is a good one, it’s even more disappointing. The Red Wings selected Pete Mahovlich with the second overall pick. Although, in an ironic twist, the Habs acquired Mahovlich from the Red Wings in that 1969 trade that sent Monahan to Detroit. Mahovlich went on the be a key member of Canadiens cup winning teams in 1971, 73, 76 and 77.

1968 NHL Draft

The Habs again, for all intents and purposes held the first overall pick. To be fair they used the territorial rights clause for the first two picks as well so they, in fact, held the first three picks. Still, if there was no territorial rights clause, the Habs still would have had the first overall pick. They used the pick to select defenceman Jim Pritchard. It was another miss for the Habs. Pritchard never played a game in the NHL. His only game action as a professional came in two games with the Chicago Cougars of the WHA in 1975.

1971 NHL Draft

The Habs acquired the first overall pick in a trade with the California Golden Seals. Habs general manager Sam Pollock worked some ‘trader Sam’ magic to ensure the pick (acquired the previous off-season) was first overall. It was a plan Pollock has hatched to pick the next great French Canadian superstar for the Canadiens. With the first overall pick in the 1971 NHL Draft, the Habs selected Guy Lafleur.

Lafleur was as advertised. While it took him a few years to find his footing, Lafleur would develop into the best player in the NHL. In his career, Lafleur would win five Stanley Cups, two Hart Trophies, three Art Ross trophies, three Lester B. Pearson awards, the 1977 Conn Smth, and was named a first-team all-star six times. He holds the Habs records for career points (1.246) and points in a season (136). At the time, he was the fastest player to reach 1,000 points in his career (in 720 games). Lafleur was also the first player to score at least 50 goals and 100 points in six consecutive seasons. His number 10 was retired by the Montreal Canadiens and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988. Guy Lafleur was the generational talent teams hope to select with the first overall pick.

1980 NHL Draft

The 1980 NHL Draft is a point of contention amongst Montreal Canadiens fans. The Habs held the first overall pick and there was a bit of a debate about who they should pick. The debate was between Doug Wickenheiser and Denis Savard.

Wickenheiser was the projected top pick amongst scouts across the board. He was a big center that was coming off a season in which he led the WHL in scoring (170 points), was named the league MVP and captained the Regina Pats to a WHL championship and Memorial Cup. Savard was a smaller skilled center out of the QMJHL. Savard was dominant during his junior career with the Montreal Juniors. He posted 115, 158 and 181 points in his three years in junior. He was named league MVP in 1979-80 as well. Savard was also a local kid that the fans were very invested in. The question about Savard was the QMJHL was not a strong league so scouts wondered how inflated his point totals were.

In a decision that angered many fans, the Habs went with Doug Wickenheiser with the number one pick. It wouldn’t be a contentious moment for fans if things worked out as planned. Unfortunately for Wickenheiser, he was never able to live up to his status as the first overall pick. When Wickenheiser struggled to acclimatize to the NHL game, he drew the ire of fans and the media. The Habs for their part grew impatient with Wickenheiser and they traded to the St. Louis Blues during the 1983-84 season.

Savard to his credit had an illustrious career that ended with his enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000. People in Montreal still talk about how the Habs blew it in this draft.

Lots at Stake

There you have it. The four Montreal Canadiens first overall picks in the NHL Draft. Three strikeouts and one grand slam. Although to be fair, most of the prospects available in those early drafts were, to put it mildly, not very good. Very few teams had much drafting success until the 70’s so it’s easy to understand why those picks didn’t pan out.

Still, looking back and one thing remains certain about drafting first overall, it’s not an exact science. Right now, the consensus top pick is Shane Wright from the Kingston Frontinacs. He looks to have all the tools to succeed at the NHL level but that is the uncertainty of the NHL Draft. Even a sure thing might not work out.

It is still an exciting time for Habs fans. The future has never seemed brighter. While the confidence that a player selected first overall will be the cornerstone player desired, everyone has that little feeling of worry about if it goes wrong. The Habs do have some recent history with high draft picks not working out. In 2012 and 2019 they picked third overall and neither player is still with the club. Both have struggled to find consistency at the NHL level. Here’s to hoping the new Habs regime gets it right and puts the team back on a path to glory.


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