Saturday, 24 March 2012

Guaranteeing Last

It's hard to imagine any team trying to help another team finish dead last in the NHL standings, but the 1971 Montreal Canadiens could have been found guilty of that very move. There was one player who stood head and shoulders above his peers in junior hockey that season, and that was the man to the left - Guy Lafleur of the Quebec Remparts. Everyone knows that "the Flower" was a legendary Montreal Canadiens player, but he could have ended up as a California Golden Seal had a few things not worked as they did. The first was a seemingly innocent trade, but the rest involved Montreal dispersing talent to the also-rans in 1971 to help them out. Could this happen today? Probably not with the way the talent is distributed, but it was interesting to see how the Canadiens almost guaranteed themselves the drafting of Guy Lafleur.

On May 22, 1970, Canadiens' GM Sam Pollock orchestrated a deal with the California Golden Seals to obtain their first-round draft pick. Pollock, having seen Guy Lafleur play as a junior player, gambled on the Seals being terrible and potentially finishing at the bottom of the standings in the 1970-71 season. Pollock dealt Montreal's first-round pick and winger Ernie Hicke to the Seals for California's first-round pick, a bundle of cash, and defenceman Francois Lacombe. While eyebrows were raised on this deal, it wouldn't become apparent as to what Montreal's motives were until the season was underway.

It was clear as the season began that the Boston Bruins were the team to beat. The Bruins set all sorts of records in the '70-71 season, and they simply had too much firepower for teams to keep up as they captured the East Division crown with 121 points. The New York Rangers, powered by 109 points, finished second, and the Montreal Canadiens, with 97 points, finished third.

January 13 saw the Habs make a trade that brought an aging veteran to their team to add some scoring punch. The Canadiens traded Mickey Redmond, Guy Charron, and Bill Collins to Detroit for Frank Mahovlich. While the Canadiens gave up some very good players in the three men they dealt, they did get some decent scoring punch back. The benefit, however, would be that Detroit got a boost on a very weak roster that saw them jump ahead of the California Golden Seals in the overall standings. Would it be enough to keep the Wings out of the cellar, though?

The Canadiens saw stars Ralph Backstrom and John Ferguson "retire" mid-season as head coach Claude Ruel's reign over the team turned into a dictatorship. When Ruel resigned as head coach, Al MacNeil took over and both players returned to the Canadiens' dressing room. However, by this time, the season was in ruins as the Canadiens were far behind Boston. The best that the Habs could hope for was a favorable playoff match-up if they were to compete for the Stanley Cup. But GM Sam Pollock also had an eye on the standings.

At the same time as the Canadiens were slumping, so were the Golden Seals. Ralph Backstrom, one of the best two-way players of his time, had tired of playing behind Jean BĂ©liveau and Henri Richard, and had asked Pollock for a trade earlier in the season. Pollock had watched the Seals play poorly to that point, but suddenly the Los Angeles Kings had hit a cold streak where they began plummeting in the standings. Pollock solved two problems in one by sending Backstrom to the Kings in exchange for Gord Labossiere and Ray Fortin on January 26, 1971.

Labossiere's stay in Montreal was all of a few hours as Montreal traded the scoring threat to the Minnesota North Stars for Rey Comeau. While this trade was again puzzling as it seemed that the Canadiens gave away sniper Labossiere for literally nothing, Sam Pollock saw more than that. With Minnesota still having a number of games left against the Seals, this move could have been labelled as a "precautionary move" in the hopes that Labossiere would light up the Seals. Indeed, he did as his first game against the Seals saw him score three goals in a 7-1 victory.

Backstrom, on the other hand, made an immediate impact in Los Angeles as he recorded 27 points in 33 games for the Kings, and helped the Kings get back on-track as they snapped the losing streak. Los Angeles would miss the playoffs, but would finish the season with 63 points, tied with Buffalo and better than Pittsburgh, Vancouver, Detroit, and California.

Labossiere helped the Minnesota North Stars to fourth-place in the West Division and a playoff spot with 72 points. Detroit, meanwhile, missed the playoffs as they finished with 55 points on the season to finish last in the NHL's East Division. Would that be enough points to have the Golden Seals finish last?

After January 13 when the Habs made the trade with Detroit, the Golden Seals posted a record of 8-26-3. The combined records of Montreal, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Minnesota against the Seals after the January 13 trade was 9-3-0. Ironically, these four teams were a combined 9-3-0 before the trades as well. So what does that mean?

Well, technically, nothing. But consider this:

  • Detroit went 9-22-7 in their games since January 13, but were 2-0-0 against California.
  • Los Angeles went 14-20-5 in their games since January 13, but were 2-1-0 against California.
  • Minnesota went 14-15-8 in their games since January 13, but were 2-1-0 against California.
All three teams were headed for the cellar before the trades. While their seasons ended poorly according to their records after the trades - all finished below .500 - the important records of note show each of the three teams with a winning record against California! Could Montreal have played a role in that with their timely trades?

That's up for you to decide, but had Montreal not made that swap on May 22, 1970, the Golden Seals could have had the Golden Flower playing for them, and that could have changed the entire landscape for the NHL.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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