NHL Draft Stories: Happy Accidents

NHL Draft
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The NHL Draft is just under a few weeks away. The draft always provides plenty of drama and intrigue amongst fans and media. This has been true since its inception. While people tend to get excited about trades and prospects, there are other moments that leave people scratching their heads. For this edition, we take a look at two drafts where two teams had their sights set on a prospect only to have to settle for another one. Sometimes the one you want isn’t the one you need.

Happy Accidents

1979 NHL Draft(s)

The 1979 draft was the last draft the be held at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, behind closed doors. It was also the first draft since the NHL merged with the WHA absorbing the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, Hartford Whalers and Winnipeg Jets into the league. The league also lowered the minimum draft age to 19 from 20. This basically meant there were twice as many prospects to choose from. The Draft also included any underage players from the WHA teams not being merged into the NHL to be part of the draft as well. These eight players that already had professional experience was the major reason behind the NHL changing the name from the Amateur Draft to the Entry Draft.

NHL free agent frenzy

Prior to the Entry Draft, the NHL had a Dispersal Draft, a Reclaim Draft, as well as an Expansion Draft for WHA teams. Needless to say, there was a lot going on. After all the dust had settled in the Dispersal, Reclaim and Expansion Drafts, it was time for the first-ever NHL Entry Draft.

Don’t Fall In Love With a Player

The Boston Bruins were coming off a good season but a bitter loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Finals. Still, they were drafting eighth overall thanks to a trade with the Los Angeles Kings. For a team that was a game seven overtime loss away from the Stanley Cup Final, they were in a pretty good spot to add a quality player to help them get over the hump. The Bruins had their sights set on a ‘can’t miss’ defence prospect. Being stuck at eight meant the Bruins had to wait and hope.

The first scare came at number one overall. The Colorado Rockies held that pick and selected defenceman Rob Ramage from the WHA’s Birmingham Bulls. Hurdle number one cleared. The next five picks were forwards, which meant the Bruins had to hope the Chicago Black Hawks were interested in another player. The pick came in. Chicago called the name of… Keith Brown defenceman from the Portland Winter Hawks. The Bruins were crushed. General manager Harry Sinden has been targeting Brown as the ‘can’t miss’ prospect. Apparently, the Bruins scouting staff was so angry they were banging tables and throwing binders.

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Still, the Bruins had to compose themselves and still make a selection. After some debating, and (apparently) against their better judgement, they decided to draft their second-rated defenceman of the class. From the Verdun Eperviers of the QMJHL… Ray Bourque.

Settling For a Hall of Famer

As a solid two-way defenseman, Brown had a respectable career in the NHL. He played 876 games in the NHL over 16 years. He played the bulk of his career in Chicago before playing his final two years with the Florida Panthers. A very nice and solid career for the player the Bruins wanted. Nice, but not the career Bourque ended up with.

Bourque made an immediate impact with the Bruins as a rookie. he scored 17 goals and 60 points en route to winning the Calder Trophy. This was just the tip of the iceberg for Bourque. In his 23-year career, Bourque would be named a first-team All-Star 13 times and a second-team All-Star six times. He would win the Norris Trophy five times, one King Clancy and a Stanley Cup (with the Colorado Avalanche). He also helped the Bruins reach the Stanley Cup Final in 1988 and 1990.

Bourque is the Bruins all-time leader in games played (1,518), points (1,506) and assists (1,111). He also holds the NHL record for points (1,579), goals (410) and assists (1,169) by a defenceman. The Hall of Famer ranks fourth all-time for assists and 11th in career points in NHL history. In 2017, he was named one of the 100 greatest players in NHL history. Bourque was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004. Not bad for a player the Bruins settled for.

1981 NHL Draft

The 1981 NHL draft was the first year it open its doors to the public. Held at the Montreal Forum, the NHL allowed several thousand people to attend in person. Fans were allowed to watch the drama unfold live and in real time. The clear prize of the draft was Cornwall Royals centre, Dale Hawerchuk. There was no doubt he was going first overall, and he did to the Winnipeg Jets.

The drama was not surrounding Hawerchuk or the first pick, it was surrounding the Whalers, the Washington Capitals and a U.S. High School phenom. This phenom was coveted by Whalers and everyone knew it.

Don’t Tip Your Hand

Bob Carpenter was taking the American high school hockey scene by storm. Playing for St. Johns Prep in Danvers, Mass., Carpenter’s production gained national attention. He was the subject of a 1981 Sports Illustrated cover story. The hype around him was huge. He was set to be the highest-drafted US-born draft pick and only the second US-born player to be drafted in the first round.

The Whalers held the fourth overall pick. They also did not hide the fact they wanted to bring in the New England native to help the struggling team on the ice as well as at the box office. They were confident that Carpenter would be available to them at four. The three teams ahead of the Whalers were the Jets, Kings and Colorado Rockies and Hartford believed none of these teams wanted Carpenter. Everything seemed to be lining up perfectly for the Whalers. The Jets picked Hawerchuk, the Kings picked Doug Smith. Now Colorado was on the clock. The Rockies called for time. Not an uncommon practice for teams still debating prospects or even discussing trades. Eventually, it was announced Colorado had made a trade.

The thing about letting it be known who you want is if another team also covets that player, they know they have to make a move to get an earlier pick. When the Whalers heard the trade involved the Rockies swapping first-round picks with the Capitals, the Whalers got nervous. The Capitals were picking fifth overall and happened to be seated right next to the Whalers during the draft, so they had a pretty good idea who the Whalers wanted. You know what’s coming next, the Capitals used the pick to select Carpenter.

Keep Composed

The Whalers were crushed. They sat in stunned silence at their table once the pick was made. So was Bob Carpenter Sr. who was at the draft and stormed out in protest. It seemed that all the stars were aligning to keep the New England kid in New England and revitalize the Whalers. That was until the nosey Capitals got in the way.

Still, the Whalers had a pick to make. They had to regain their composure and focus on the task at hand. That they did by picking a center from the Soo Greyhounds of the OHL, Ron Francis.

The Phenom

Carpenter had such high expectations, it was almost inevitable for him to fall short. He made the leap to the NHL directly from high school, joining the Capitals for the 1981-82 season. He performed well with the Capitals scoring 32 goals and 67 points in his rookie year. In 1984-85 he became the first-ever American-born player to score 50 goals (he notched 53) in the NHL. Despite the promising start, constant clashes with his coach Brian Murray saw Carpenter traded to the New York Rangers in 1986-87. It was a tumultuous year as the Rangers then traded him to the Kings just 28 games later.

During the 1988-89 season, Carpenter was traded again, this time to the Bruins. While Carpenter was a solid player, he had transitioned his game to more of a defensive style. He played four seasons in Boston which included a trip to the 1990 Stanley Cup Final. After another year in Washington, Carpenter joined the New Jersey Devils in 1993-94. He would play his final seven seasons in the ‘swamp’, including winning the 1995 Stanley Cup.

Carpenter played 1,178 games scoring 320 goals, 408 assists and 728 points in his career. Carpenter had a very good career but was unable to live up to the hype he received as a high school player.

The Franchise

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The player the Whalers had to settle for ended up being the one they should have picked in the first place. The Whalers hoped that Carpenter was going to be their franchise player but it was Francis who was the real franchise player. In his rookie season, Francis scored 25 goals and 68 points. From there, Francis went on the become the Whalers/Hurricanes career leader in goals (382), assists (793), points (1,175) and games played (1,186). He defiantly earned his nickname, ‘Ronny Franchise’.

Francis would play for Hartford for nine seasons before being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 1991 trade deadline. He stayed in Pittsburgh for nine years before signing with the Carolina Hurricanes (the relocated Whalers franchise). Francis retired after the 2004 season after joining the Toronto Maple Leafs at the trade deadline.

He would win two Stanley Cups (with the Penguins), three Lady Byng Trophies and a Selke Trophy. Francis is currently second all-time in the NHL for assists (1,249),  fourth all-time in games played (1,731), fifth all-time in points (1,798) and 28th all-time in goals (549). Francis was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007.