Carey Price, Denis Savard, Jonathan Drouin, Montreal Canadiens, NHL Entry Draft, Pierre-Luc Dubois

Montreal Canadiens: Drafting Is Not for Pleasing, It’s for Winning

The oldest franchise in the NHL doesn’t operate within the same rules as other teams; they have unwritten rules to contend with. First, the Montreal Canadiens’ head coach must speak French. Second, the Canadiens should do their best to draft French Canadians. Because most Quebecers are French-speaking, the organization is supposed to follow these two rules as if they were dogma.

Related: 10 NHL Teams With the Most Stanley Cups

However, a professional sports team’s ultimate goal is to win championships. The Canadiens might have won 24 Stanley Cups, but it’s been over thirty years since they added one to their account in 1993.

The 1980 Mistake: Snubbing Denis Savard

On Sept. 13, 1976, years before the 1980 NHL Draft, general manager Sam Pollock, concluded a deal with the Colorado Rockies. The Canadiens sent three players to Colorado, John Van Boxmeer, Ron Andruff, and Sean Shanahan for their first-round draft pick in 1980 and cash. They also included the possibility of swapping first-round picks, but they would have been crazy to do it since the first-round pick Colorado had surrendered became the draft’s first overall pick.

By then, Irving Grundman was at the helm. Three players were the most coveted in that draft: Doug Wickenheiser (Women’s National Team’s great Hayley Wickenheiser’s cousin), Dave Babych, and Denis Savard. After deliberations, the Canadiens picked Doug Wickenheiser because they feared Savard’s small stature would hinder his success.

Wickenheiser went on to be an incredible defenseman for the Canadiens. At the same time, Savard played 10 years with the Chicago Blackhawks before being traded to Montreal for a future Hall of Fame defenseman. Who was that defenseman? Chris Chelios, who played for 20 years and won two more Stanley Cups after leaving Montreal.

Savard (Serge) believes if the Canadiens had drafted Savard (Denis) over Wickenheiser, he never would have been appointed as the Canadiens’ general manager. A proud nationalist (while also being a federalist), the newly appointed Savard (Serge) wasted no time telling team president Ronald Corey how he felt about having locals on his roster:

[Translated from the original French] From the start of my meetings with Ronald Corey, I told him it was essential for the Canadiens to have a maximum of players who lived in Quebec, explains Serge. Reaching that objective soon became one of my priorities. It’s not only about the language. But a guy who spends the Summer in Montreal or elsewhere in the province hears about the Canadiens every day. It reminds him of the importance of the team in the community and it sharpens his sense of belonging (from “Serge Savard Canadiens jusqu’au bout”, Philippe Cantin, KO Éditions, 2019, p.276)

That’s why he traded Chelios for Denis Savard, whose production was declining. Still, the GM led the Canadiens to two Stanley Cups, and in 1993, the Canadiens’ victorious roster counted 14 players born in Quebec (17 suited up during the 1992-1993 season).

The 2009 Mistake: Drafting Louis Leblanc

In the 2008-2009 season, the Canadiens only had seven Quebecers on their roster. The 2009 NHL Draft was held at the Bell Centre in Montreal, and the organization wasn’t slotted to pick early; they had the 18th overall pick. In the weeks leading up to the draft, there were rumblings that the Habs would select Louis Leblanc from Pointe-Claire, Quebec. The Canadiens hadn’t picked a local kid in the first round since Eric Chouinard in 1998.

louis leblanc
(Kevin Hoffman-US PRESSWIRE)

In 2009, International Scouting Services ranked Leblanc 12th overall, the College Scouting Bureau 13th in North America, The Sports Network 22nd, and The Hockey News 29th. The Canadiens took him at 18 and regretted it for years, even though he had more success than Chouinard, playing 50 games in the NHL.

It’s Hard to Please Everyone

At the 2016 NHL Draft, there were rumors that the first Canadiens’ defenseman to win the Norris Trophy since Chelios, P.K. Subban, was going to be traded in a deal allowing Montreal to move up in the draft to pick Pierre-Luc Dubois, a Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, PQ native. The rumor divided Habs fans everywhere. Some didn’t want to see the offensive defenseman traded, especially not for an unproven player in the NHL, despite wherever he was from. As for the other half, they were proud nationalists who dreamt of having Dubois on the roster, even if the cost was the most offensively gifted defenseman the team had had since Andrei Markov.

Related: Subban-Weber Trade Revisited

In the end, Dubois was drafted third overall by the Blue Jackets, who knew the Canadiens were trying to make a move up to get their hands on him. I swear, when the Blue Jackets said Dubois’ name on the stage, a sigh of relief was heard across the Habs nation (yes, I am exaggerating, but only slightly). In any case, Subban would be moved shortly after that, on June 29, 2016.

Pierre-Luc Dubois, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, WHL, Team Canada, World Junior Championship
Pierre-Luc Dubois Before Being Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets. (Mike Sullivan/Cape Breton Screaming Eagles)

Since Leblanc, the Canadiens have drafted their share of Quebecers, but they are never high enough picks to please part of their fans and, let’s face it, the francophone media. At the 2011 Draft, in the fourth round, they picked left-winger Olivier Archambeault; at the 2012 Draft, they opted for Charles Hudon in the fifth round; then, in 2013, they chose Zachary Fucale in the second round and Jeremie Grégoire in the sixth round.

The following year, they picked up Daniel Audette (son of former Habs Donald Audette) in the fifth round. Then, in 2015, Montreal acquired Simon Bourque in the sixth round. In 2016, there was nothing to appease those who wanted Dubois; they didn’t draft anyone from Quebec. Nobody either in 2017, but they returned to “La Belle province” in the sixth round of the 2018 Draft with Samuel Houde. In 2019, they only picked up a single Quebecer in the seventh round, Rafael Harvey-Pinard, and none in 2020.

However, in the 2021 draft, they selected three local players: William Trudeau in the fourth, Joshua Roy in the fifth, and Xavier Simoneau in the seventh round. In 2022, they picked Miguel Tourigny in the seventh round, and finally, in 2023, the sole Quebecer was Quentin Miller in the fourth round.

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Aside from Zach Fucale, who was picked in the second round, none of the picks were before the fifth round (aside from Miller in the fourth round last year). For some, Montreal was not picking “good enough” Quebecers. In the newspaper, le Soleil on May 14, 2021, Henri Marineau, in an open letter, lamented that “fact” and affirmed that those late picks were the reason the Canadiens’ sequence of 6,917 matches with a Quebecer in the line-up ended (from: “Ou sont les Québécois chez le Canadien?”, Le Soleil, May 14, 2021). So, not only must the organization pick up Quebecers, but they must also draft them in the early rounds, too?

I know we’ll be hearing and reading the same old stories in the run-up to the draft this year, and frankly, I’ve had enough of it. Now, before you call me “just another anglophone who doesn’t understand the French reality,” you should know that I was born and raised in Quebec, and my first language is French. Apologies to those who disagree, but I love sports. I used to play pretty much every one of them until I wrecked my knees, but that’s another story; my point is, though, I played sports to win. Professional athletes are no different; of course, they are mostly millionaires, but if there’s one thing you cannot buy, it’s a Stanley Cup. Oh, hello, Toronto Maple Leafs, I didn’t see you there! It’s bad enough that the Canadiens have to restrict their head coaching choice to those who speak French. If they have to do the same players-wise, where will it end?!?

Every team’s goal is to win. Heck, anyone who is over eight years old knows that it matters whether you win or lose, and it’s not about having fun. The Montreal Canadiens now have a Francophone general manager (Kent Hughes), a Francophone head coach (Martin St. Louis), and a Francophone co-director of scouting (Martin Lapointe). Can we trust that they are doing what is best for the organization? That doesn’t mean avoiding drafting Quebec-born players at any cost; it means if faced with two players of equal talent who play the same position, picking the Quebec-born player. Suppose the players are both equally talented, but one plays a position that is an organizational need. In that case, the organization should pick that player wherever they are from and whichever language they speak.

While the probability of making the NHL is not great for players drafted in a later round, there are exceptions. Brendan Gallagher was drafted 167th overall in the fifth round. Of course, he’s not from Quebec, but as discussed earlier, Joshua Roy was also taken in the fifth round, and he’s well on his way to making the NHL; he might even earn himself a regular spot on the roster if things go well at the next training camp. Better yet, look at Raphael Harvey-Pinard. He was drafted in the seventh and last round and has made the roster.

With all due respect to Canadiens’ former GM Savard, while living here may raise the athletes’ “sense of belonging,” it may also have adverse effects. What was true in the 1980s and 1990s might not be today. Back in 2013, Canadiens’ star goaltender Carey Price opened up to the media for once, saying:

“When you’re winning here there’s no better place to play. But when you’re not playing well here it’s definitely tough,” the 25-year-old Price said. “That’s one thing I miss, just being anonymous (…) It’s impossible.
“I don’t even go to the grocery store anymore. I hardly do anything anymore. I’m like a hobbit in a hole. I just don’t do anything anymore.”

The local market’s love affair with hockey and its Canadiens is as intense as it gets, and not everyone can thrive in that atmosphere. While Price never won the Stanley Cup, nobody can say he didn’t play well for the Canadiens, but he did it by leaving the province every summer. I don’t think anyone can blame him for that, feeling like you cannot do anything is never a good feeling, remember the pandemic? I can’t recall anyone who enjoyed being confined at home. Nowadays, the Canadiens’ players do not have the same life as they did in Savard’s days. Everyone has a cell phone these days, ready to take a picture of a player from the team or a video, and that must not be fun. Years ago, there were paparazzi; today, everyone is a paparazzi with pocket-sized cameras.

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens
Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Even players born in Quebec can find Montreal’s looking glass too much for them. Just think about Jonathan Drouin, who resurrected his career in Denver with the Colorado Avalanche away from the scrutiny he was under in Montreal. Stu Cowan reported another departed Quebecer’s words:

Danault said he enjoyed his six seasons with the Canadiens, but admitted he doesn’t miss the media spotlight and seeing himself on a constant loop on TV after doing interviews. He can go out for dinner with his wife in Los Angeles without being recognized. He does miss the vibe at the Bell Centre and the passion of Canadiens fans. (from: “Stu Cowan: Former Canadien Philip Danault Is Enjoying Life in L.A.”, The Gazette, December 10, 2022)

I’m a firm believer that everything that happens happens for a reason. Would Mario Lemieux have been that amazing if he had to play in Montreal? Would Patrick Roy have been as good without the pressure he was under with the Canadiens? We’ll never know, but I trust that, wherever the prospects are born in Quebec or French-speaking land after the next draft, they’ll find themselves where they were meant to be. From then on, it will be up to them to write their story and go wherever it may take them.

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