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PHT Time Machine: When Blues skipped NHL draft

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Throughout the summer we will be taking a look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back at the 1983 NHL draft … which was skipped entirely by the St. Louis Blues. 

In terms of the talent that was picked the 1983 NHL draft was your typical run-of-the-mill draft class.

A couple of Hall of Famers at the top (Steve Yzerman, Pat LaFontaine, and Cam Neely all went in the top-10; Dominik Hasek was a late-round steal), some really good front-line talent sprinkled throughout, and a few busts mixed in.

It was neither an historically great class, nor was it an historically bad class.

It just … kind of happened.

That does not mean it was not noteworthy for other reasons.

For one, the Minnesota North Stars made history by making Brian Lawton the first American-born player to be selected No. 1 overall. To this day he is still the only high school player with that honor.

Teams took a lot of late-round gambles on Soviet superstars, including the New Jersey Devils who selected Slava Fetisov, Alexander Chernykh, and Alexei Kasatonov.

Vladislav Tretiak (Montreal Canadiens) and Sergei Makarov (Calgary Flames) were also selected in this class.

And then there was perhaps the most notable — and bizarre — development in which one NHL team completely sat out the draft, making zero selections. It was the first and only time that has ever happened.

That team was the St. Louis Blues.

The Background

The Blues have been nothing if not consistent throughout their existence.

Always good enough to be somewhat relevant, but never truly great. In 51 seasons the franchise has missed the postseason just nine times. In their first three years in the league they played in the Stanley Cup Final and were the most successful of the NHL’s expansion teams to enter the league in 1967.

As the league continued to expand, however, the Blues started to slip a little and went from being a successful expansion team to just another mid-level, run-of-the-mill franchise that was mostly making the playoffs because of the league’s format where almost every team got a ticket to the dance. Between 1971 and 1983, for example, the Blues qualified for the playoffs nine times in 12 years, but managed a winning record in just two of those seasons.

It was during that 1983 season when things started to look bleak for the franchise’s long-term outlook in St. Louis.

In the middle of the season Ralston Purina, the team’s ownership group since 1977, released a statement saying it was looking to get out of the hockey business and was in the process of looking for a local buyer to keep the team in St. Louis but that no one had stepped forward.

As such, the group warned that if an agreement could be reached with an ownership group from Canada the team would be relocated to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a development that the NHL was vehemently opposed to (Yes, even before Gary Bettman the NHL was not willing to move teams from an American market to a small market Canadian town).

What followed was a seven-month saga that left the future of the Blues hanging in limbo as the city mounted a charge to keep the team in St. Louis. League president John Ziegler practically begged Ralston Purina to find a local buyer. Investors from Canada tried to purchase and relocate the team to Saskatoon, and Ralston Purina simply tried to find somebody — anybody — that would take the team off of its hands after admitting it had lost more than $1.5 million per season since purchasing the club.

Finally, in May, the NHL officially voted 15-3 against the sale and relocation of the Blues to Saskatoon (St. Louis, Montreal, and Calgary were the only three teams to vote in favor it) which sent the entire situation into chaos.

One week later Ralston Purina filed a $60 million lawsuit against the NHL arguing that the league violated antitrust laws. A week after that Ralston Purina announced that it had tendered the franchise to the NHL “to operate, to sell, or otherwise dispose of, in whatever manner the league desires.”

During this time Ralston Purina had completely shut down the Blues’ offices and dismissed almost all of the staff, including team president and general manager Emile Francis (who was also opposed to relocating to Saskatoon), letting him out of his contract so he could become the team president and general manager of the Hartford Whalers.

While all of this was happening, there was still actual hockey business to tend to, specifically the entry draft on June 8.

The Draft

As part of ownerships anger with the NHL over the rejected sale of the team, Ralston Purina informed the league the Blues would be boycotting the draft and sent zero representation to Montreal for the event.

Their draft table was empty and the team made zero selections, forfeiting all of them.

What impact did this have on the long-term outlook of the Blues? Well, even in hindsight that is difficult to assess because they did not even have a selection in the first two rounds.

The 1982-83 Blues were nothing special (news of the teams attempt to relocate almost certainly was a distraction) and despite making the playoffs were dispatched in the first-round by the Chicago Blackhawks. This result would have given the Blues the No. 6 overall pick in the draft. The catch here is that pick was traded a year earlier at the 1983 draft (along with their 1982 first-round pick) to the Colorado Rockies (before their relocation to New Jersey) in exchange for defenseman Rob Ramage.

Most of the top players in the draft were already off the board by the time that pick was on the clock (LaFontaine went third overall to the New York Islanders, Yzerman went fourth to the Detroit Red Wings, Tom Barrasso went fifth to the Buffalo Sabres) but it still could have been a significant pick as it was used to select forward John MacLean, who would go on to be one of the most productive players from the class with 413 goals and 842 total points. Both numbers fourth best among all players in the class.

Neely was also still on the board, having been selected three picks later by the Vancouver Canucks.

The Blues also had no second-round pick that year (No. 27 overall) after having traded it to the Montreal Canadiens in March of 1982 for Guy Lapointe. The Canadiens eventually used that selection on Sergei Momesso.

It was the next 10 picks that were all forfeited as the Blues had no representation at the draft to speak for them and make a selection.

What did they potentially miss on?

Here is a quick rundown of the best players taken after their pick in each round.

Round 3: Brian Bradley, Marc Bergevin
Round 4: Bob Essensa, Darren Puppa, Esa Tikkanen
Round 5: Gary Galley
Round 6: Kevin Stevens (selected with the sixth pick in the third round, that should have been the Blues on the clock), Dave Lowry, Rick Tocchet
Round 7: Vladislav Tretiak (never played in the NHL, still notable name)
Round 8: Tommy Albelin, Pelle Eklund
Round 9: Brian Noonan
Round 10: Dominik Hasek
Round 11: Uwe Krupp
Round 12: Sergei Makarov

Would the Blues have actually selected any of those players under normal circumstances? Who knows, but their absence at least opened the door for other teams to perhaps snag a different player than they otherwise would have and there were still some pretty good (and even borderline great) players on the board at those picks.

The aftermath

One day after the draft, the NHL filed a $78 million countersuit against Ralston Purina alleging that they “willfully, wantonly, and maliciously collapsed its hockey operation” in an effort to force the NHL to approve the sale of the team.

Meanwhile, Ralston Purina was planning to sell off players and other assets (including equipment) belonging to the team unless the league accepted their offer to “tender” the team to the league.

At that point Ralston Purina considered itself out of the NHL.

From the June 10, 1983 St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

 

A few weeks later the other 17 NHL teams filed another suit against the Blues for maliciously folding the franchise in a suit that pretty much matched the NHL’s.

Later that month Harry Ornest, a California based businessman, stepped up his efforts to put together a group to purchase the team and keep it in St. Louis and was making progress on reaching a deal.

Finally, in July, the NHL approved the sale of the team to Ornest provided he was able to meet certain conditions by the end of the month, including the purchase of or the securing a long-term lease for the team’s arena (The Checkerdome). All of that happened and on July 27 Ornest reached an agreement to buy the team’s arena  for $5 million, satisfying all of the league’s conditions. With that settled, the NHL granted his group the franchise putting an end to the entire mess and keeping the Blues in St. Louis.

It was perhaps one of the most bizarre and convoluted ownership sagas in the history of the league and in the process produced an NHL first: A team skipping out on the entire draft.

More PHT Time Machine: Remembering the Jaromir Jagr Trade Nobody Won

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sissons, Predators agree to seven-year, $20 million deal

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We see long-term deals with high annual average values.

We see short-term deals with lower annual average values.

But rarely do we see long-term deals with low annual average values. Like less than $3 million low.

Yet, despite the rarity of such a pact, David Poile and the Nashville Predators have become some sort of trendsetters in getting plays to sign lengthy deals worth a pittance annually.

Colton Sissons becomes the second in the past three years to sign on with the Predators long-term at a small AVV. Sissons new deal, avoiding arbitration, is a seven-year contract worth $20 million — an AAV of $2.85 million.

“Colton will be an important part of our team for the next seven seasons, and we are happy he has made a long-term commitment to our organization and the city the Nashville,” Poile said. “He’s a heart and soul player who is versatile and can fill many important roles on our team, including on the penalty kill and power play. His offensive production has increased each season, and he remains an integral part of our defensive structure down the middle of the ice. Colton is also an up-and-coming leader in our organization, which is something we value strongly.”

Poile seems to have no issue signing depth guys to lengthy deals. In 2016, he signed Calle Jarnkork to a six-year deal worth $12 million. In fact, he’s the only general manager to pull of such moves.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Both players have chosen security over maximizing earning potential.

Sissons, 25, had a career-year last season, scoring 15 goals and 30 points in 75 games.

His AAV is in the ballpark of what was projected. Evolving Wild’s model had him making $2.65 million. What wasn’t foreseen is that term.

EW’s model projected a three-year contract for Sissons with a 30.2 percent probability of coming to fruition. But what percentage of chance did EW give a seven-year contract? 0.4 percent.

Anything is possible, kids.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Morning Skate: Hard cap hurt; Iginla talked Lucic into Flames move?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The hard salary cap is hurting the NHL’s brand. (Broad Street Hockey)

• With his name removed from the list, he’s the top 10 untradeable contracts after the Milan Lucic trade. (The Hockey News)

• Flames’ trade for Milan Lucic is inexplicable. (Yahoo Sports)

• The seven best free-agent deals signed in the NHL this summer. (Daily Hive)

• Ranking every NHL team by weight… a hefty ask. (Vancouver Courier)

• The Flames can blame (partly?) a franchise legend for helping sell Calgary to no-movement-clause Milan Lucic. (Sportsnet)

• Is there too much offense from the defense in today’s NHL? (TSN.ca)

• Stanley Cup-winning teams with the most Hall of Famers. (Featurd)

• The King always gets his way. (NHL.com)

• Part 1 of a look at the false sense of parity in the NHL. (Last Word on Hockey)

John Tavares is both healthy again and still upset his Maple Leafs got bounced by the Bruins in Round 1. (NHL.com)

• The best and worst moves from each Eastern Conference general manager. (The Score)

• What would an NHL team made up only of players from New York/New Jersey look like? (The Athletic)

• A look back on the Martin St. Louis trade and its impact. (Raw Charge)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Will coaching change be enough to give Ducks’ goalies some help?

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Since becoming the Anaheim Ducks’ starter, John Gibson has become one of the best goalies in the NHL.

For the first part of the 2018-19 season he was almost single-handedly carrying the team and helping to keep it at least somewhat competitive. He was not only in the Vezina Trophy discussion, but as long as the Ducks were winning he was a legitimate MVP contender. But for as good as Gibson performed, the entire thing was a house of cards that was always on the verge of an ugly collapse.

The Ducks couldn’t score, they couldn’t defend, they forced Gibson to take on a ridiculous workload in terms of shots and scoring chances against.

Eventually, everything fell apart.

Once Gibson started to wear down and could no longer steal games on a nightly basis, the team turned into one of the worst in the league despite having a top-10 goaltending duo. That is a shocking accomplishment because teams that get the level of goaltending the Ducks received from the Gibson-Ryan Miller duo usually make the playoffs.

How bad was it for the Ducks? They were one of only three teams in the top-15 in save percentage this past season that did not make the playoffs.

The only other teams in the top-15 that missed were the Montreal Canadiens, who were just two points back in a far better and more competitive Eastern Conference, and the Arizona Coyotes who were four points back in the Western Conference and the first team on the outside looking in.

The Ducks not only missed, they were 10 points short with FIVE teams between them and a playoff spot. Again, almost impossibly bad.

It is a testament to just how bad the rest of the team performed in front of the goalies, and it continued a disturbing trend from the 2018 playoffs when the Ducks looked completely overmatched against the San Jose Sharks in a four-game sweep. It was clear the team was badly flawed and was falling behind in a faster, more skilled NHL.

The problem for the Ducks right now is that so far this offseason the team has remained mostly the same.

They bought out the remainder of Corey Perry‘s contract, will be without Ryan Kesler, and have really not done anything else to change a roster that has not been anywhere near good enough the past two seasons.

That means it is going to be another sink-or-swim season for the Ducks based on how far the goaltending duo of Gibson and Miller can carry them.

It is a tough situation because the Ducks have made an absolutely massive commitment to Gibson as he enters the first year of an eight-year, $51.2 million contract.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is a huge investment in a goalie, and for the time being, the Ducks have not really done anything to support him. Even if you have the best goalie in the league — or just one of the best — it is nearly impossible to win based only on that. Great goalies can help, they can mask a lot of flaws, and they can even carry a mediocre or bad team to the playoffs if they have a historically great season (think Carey Price during the 2014-15 season). But that still puts a ton of pressure on the goalie, and it is nearly impossible to ride that all the way to a championship.

There is, however, one small cause for optimism.

A lot of the Ducks’ problems defensively last season seemed to be based around their system and structure in the early part of the season under then-coach Randy Carlyle.

Under Carlyle the Ducks were one of the worst teams in the league when it came to suppressing shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances during 5-on-5 play.

They were 29th or worse when it came to shots on goal against, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, and 26th in total shot attempts against. This is something that always happened with Carlyle coached teams and they would always go as far as their goaltending could take them. In recent years, Gibson masked a lot of those flaws by playing at an elite level and helped get the Ducks in the playoffs. He was able to do it for half of a season this year before finally playing like a mortal instead of a goaltending deity.

But after Carlyle was replaced by general manager Bob Murray, the Ducks showed some massive improvement defensively, shaving multiple shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances per 60 minutes off of their totals.

They went from 26th to seventh in shots on goal against, from 29th to 19th in shot attempts, from 30th to 17th in scoring chances against, and from 29th to 17th in high-danger scoring chances against.

Still not great, but definitely better. Much better. So much better that even though Gibson’s overall performance regressed, the Ducks still managed to win games and collect points at a significantly better rate than they did earlier in the season. They were 14-11-1 from Feb. 10 until the end of the season under Murray.

That is a 91.3 point pace over 82 games. That would have been a playoff point total in the Western Conference this past season.

Under Carlyle, it was a 74.6 point pace. That would have been one of the four worst records in the league.

Coaching changes are very rarely a cure-all. It is still a talent-driven league, and if you do not have talent you are probably not going to win very much. But there are always exceptions and outliers, and sometimes a coaching change is a necessity and can help dramatically improve a team.

New Ducks coach Dallas Eakins has an incredibly short NHL head coaching resume so we don’t have much to go by when it comes to what he will do What we do have to go by came in Edmonton where it has become abundantly clear over the past 15 years that the problems go far beyond the head coach (because they have all failed there). The Ducks are still short on talent at forward and defense, but it should still be able to perform better than it did a year ago. And with a goalie as dominant as Gibson can be (with a great backup behind him) there is no excuse for them to be as far out of the playoff picture as they were.

The Ducks don’t need to be the 1995 Devils defensively to compete.

They just need to not be the worst shot suppression team in the league.

If Eakins can figure out a way to build on the momentum the Ducks showed over the final two months of the 2018-19 season, they might actually have a fighting chance.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Calgary Flames set with arena plans to replace Saddledome

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a tentative agreement for a new arena to replace the Saddledome.

The city, NHL team and the Calgary Stampede have agreed in principle to terms. The Stampede, a rodeo exhibition, owns the land.

The deal was to be presented to the City Council on Monday and then put to a vote. Calgary citizens would then have a week to voice their opinion before a council vote next week to ratify the deal.

The Saddledome is almost 36 years old. The cost of the event center is $550 million to $600 million. It is to have a seating capacity of about 20,000 for sports and would be the heart of a larger revitalized commercial and residential district.