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.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.