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PHT Time Machine: NHL expansion teams build Montreal dynasty

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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 to when a bunch of expansion teams unintentionally helped build one of the NHL’s great dynasties in Montreal.

You may think of the present day Montreal Canadiens as a dysfunctional mess of a franchise without much in the way of a long-term plan, producing a consistently disappointing on-ice product.

This, of course, was not always the case as the 24 Stanley Cup banners hanging in their rafters illustrate. You don’t get that many championships by being dumb.

Many of those championships are the direct result of a long-term plan by former long-time general manager Sam Pollock that was not only ahead of its time, but feasted on the — let’s say — ignorance of the teams around him.

This is the story of how a bunch of expansion teams helped the Montreal Canadiens build one of the NHL’s greatest dynasties.

The Background

Throughout 1960s the NHL went through several changes that would forever change the look of the league.

Among those changes…

  • The amateur draft: Starting in 1963 the NHL introduced the amateur draft as a means of giving every team equal opportunity to land young, star players. Prior to the draft NHL teams would “sponsor” junior teams and players, limiting which teams they could play for once they were ready to turn pro.
  • Expansion: Then in 1967 the league doubled in size going from six teams to 12 with the additions of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota North Stars, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, and Oakland Seals.

The Montreal Canadiens would use these two changes to their advantage to help build one of the greatest teams ever assembled.

Here is how they did it.

The Plan And The Trades

Let’s just start with this: Pollock had a long-term vision for the Canadiens and was often times thinking multiple years in advance. While the rest of the league was playing candy land, he was playing an elaborate game of chess.

Starting in 1968 Pollock began executing a plan that would see him stockpile as many future draft picks — specifically first-round picks — as he could, with those picks usually coming from one of the new expansion teams that were simply trying to make a name for themselves and land some established players. They were not only trying to get established veterans, they also probably did not fully understand the value of draft picks.

Between 1968 and 1973 Pollock traded veteran talent off of the Canadiens roster and acquired 14 future first-round draft picks from other NHL teams, often times multiple years in advance.

A quick run down of those trades:

  • May 21, 1968: Traded Norm Ferguson and Stan Fuller to Oakland for Wally Boyer, Alain Caron, Oakland’s 1968 first-round pick and its 1970 first-round pick.
  • June 10, 1968: Traded Danny Grant, Claude Larose to Minnesota for Minnesota’s 1972 first-round pick and 1973 first-round pick.
  • June 11, 1968: Traded Gerry Desjardins to Los Angeles for Los Angeles’ 1969 and 1972 first-round draft picks.
  • June 12, 1968: Traded the rights to Carol Vadnais in the waiver draft to Oakland for Oakland’s 1973 first-round pick and its 1973 second-round pick.
  • May 22, 1970: Traded its own 1970 first-round pick and Ernie Hicke to Oakland in for Oakland’s 1971 first-round pick.
  • August 22, 1972: Traded Terry Harper to Los Angeles for Los Angeles’ second-round pick in 1974, its first-round pick in 1975, its third-round pick in 1975, and its first-round pick in 1976.
  • May 15, 1973: The Canadiens used the first-round pick it had acquired from Oakland in 1968 (the No. 2 overall pick) to trade back two different times, accumulating future first-round picks from Atlanta/Calgary in 1977 and St. Louis in 1975 as part of the trades.  On this same day they also traded the first-round pick acquired from Minnesota in 1968 to the Vancouver Canucks for Vancouver’s 1974 first-round pick.
  • May 29, 1973: Traded Bob J. Murcoch and Randy Rota to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for the Kings’ first-round pick in 1974. On the same day he traded Chuck Arnason to Atlanta/Calgary for the Flames’ first-round pick in 1974.

As mentioned above, that is 14 future first-round draft picks. How unique was this strategy at the time? Just consider that during the same time period between 1968 and 1973 the rest of the teams in the NHL only traded for four future first-round draft picks, and three of those trades were made by the Boston Bruins.

Nobody else in the league was looking this far ahead or valued draft picks this highly.

Part of the reason the Canadiens were able to make all of these trades for future picks was due to the fact their team was already loaded with talent, and there was always the risk that the WHA could poach some of that talent away from them.

One of the most intriguing trends in all of those moves is the number of future first-round picks Montreal received from the Oakland/California franchise.

Between 1968 and 1970 the Seals were run by Frank Selke Jr., a former long-time employee of the Canadiens. Of the 16 trades he made while in charge of the Seals, six of them involved the Canadiens, far more than any other team in the league at that time.

Those trades involved Montreal collecting five first-round draft picks from the Seals, including four future picks years down the road. Montreal was the only team he traded any draft pick to. If you are a conspiracy theorist that track record of trades is, at the very least, eye-opening given Selke’s history working for the Canadiens.

The Kings were the other team that seemed to have no problem trading future assets to Montreal.

The long-term results would prove to be disastrous for those teams and forever change the NHL.

The Aftermath

Not all of those future draft picks amounted to anything of significance, but the ones that did were certainly impactful.

So what did Montreal get out of those picks?

A future scoring champion and MVP: The trade that worked out the best was May 22, 1970 trade that saw Montreal get Oakland’s 1971 first-round pick. The Seals finished the 1970-71 season with the NHL’s worst record, meaning that draft pick would be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. The top prospect that entered the NHL that year was Guy Lafleur. Lafleur would go on to be one of the NHL’s best players, win three scoring titles, and be one of the key building blocks for the Canadiens’ run of five Stanley Cups throughout the 1970s, including the four-peat between 1976 and 1979.

The 1970 first-round pick that Oakland received in return was used to select Chris Oddleifson, who would never play a game for the team. Instead he was traded to Boston for Ivan Boldirev who would have two okay seasons with the team before being traded to Chicago. Hicke, the other asset acquired for that pick, also had two decent seasons before being lost in the 1972 expansion draft.

It is also worth nothing that along with getting Lafleur with the top pick in 1971, the Canadiens also used a second-round pick that they had acquired a year earlier from the Kings (in exchange for Dick Duff) to select Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson.

Robinson and Lafleur were two of the best players of all-time.

The game’s best shutdown forward: May 15, 1973 was also a big day for Pollock and the Canadiens when they used the No. 2 pick (acquired five years earlier, also from Selke Jr.) to move back to No. 8 thanks to a pair of trades with Atlanta and St. Louis. Along with acquiring the future draft picks in 1975 and 1977 they used the No. 8 overall pick to select Bob Gainey, who would go on to be one of the best defensive forwards of all time, winning four Selke Trophies as well as a Conn Smythe award as playoff MVP.

The initial return on the trades and the pick already had Montreal looking ahead to maybe use its future picks to trade up for Mark Howe (never happened) and how good Gainey already was defensively.

From the Montreal Gazette:

Gainey won five Stanley Cups with the Canadiens (including four in the 1970s) and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992.

This sequence of trades also landed them Mark Napier (No. 10 overall in 1977, one of the picks acquired from Atlanta in the trade for the No. 2 overall pick in 1973) who would go on to play six years in Montreal, including as a member of the 1979 Stanley Cup winning team.

Another Hall of Famer: The Canadiens used the No. 4 overall pick in 1972, acquired as part of the 1968 trade that sent Gerry Desjardins to Los Angeles, to select Steve Shutt. Shutt would go on to play 14 seasons with the Canadiens, scoring 424 goals, including a league-best 60 during the 1976-77 season. He won five Stanley Cups with the Canadiens in the 1970s and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1993.

Another four-time champion The 1973 trade that saw Montreal trade Murdoch and Rota, two marginal NHLers, to the Kings for their 1974 first-round pick resulted in the Canadiens selecting Mario Tremblay, who would go on to score 258 goals in 12 years with the team before suffering a career-ending injury 1986. He was a part of all four Stanley Cup winning teams between 1976 and 1979.

On a team level, the Canadiens were the most dominant team of the decade.

Between 1971 and 1980 their 508 wins were the most of any team in the NHL, and were one of just two teams (Boston being the other) to win at least 425 games and one of only three (Boston and Philadelphia) to win more than 400.

They also won six Stanley Cups, including the four in a row between 1976 and 1979.

Probably none of it happens with Lafleur, Robinson, Gainey, Shutt, and Tremblay, a core of players that were only acquired due to long-term outlook and plan of Pollock, and the lack of foresight by some of the NHL’s newest expansion teams.

(Stick tap to NHL Trade Tracker for much of the trade information)

More PHT Time Machine:
Remembering the Jaromir Jagr Trade Nobody Won
When the Blues skipped the NHL draft

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.

Capitals re-sign Vrana for two years, $6.7 million

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took care of his biggest remaining offseason task on Tuesday afternoon when he re-signed restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract.

The deal will pay Vrana $6.7 million and carry an average annual salary cap hit of $3.35 million per season.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” said MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vrana was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014 and has already shown top-line potential in the NHL. He took a huge step forward in his development during the 2018-19 season, scoring 24 goals to go with 23 assists while also posting strong underlying numbers. He is one of the Capitals’ best young players and quickly starting to become one of their core players moving forward.

It is obviously a bridge contract that will keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires following the 2020-21 season. If he continues on his current path he would be in line for a significant long-term contract that summer.

With Vrana signed the Capitals have under $1 million in salary cap space remaining. They still have to work out new contracts with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. Both players filed for salary arbitration. Djoos’ hearing is scheduled for July 22, while Stephenson has his scheduled for August 1. If the Capitals want to keep both on the NHL roster on opening night they may have to make another minor move at some point before the start of the regular season.

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.

Donato gets two-year, $3.8 million extension from Wild

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Ryan Donato took advantage of a bigger opportunity with the Minnesota Wild and earned himself a raise on Tuesday.

The Wild announced that they have extended the 23-year-old Donato with a two-year, $3.8 million contract. That $1.9 million annual salary will be a bump from the $925,000 he made during the 2018-19 NHL season.

Following a February trade that sent Charlie Coyle to the Boston Bruins, Donato saw his ice time rise over three minutes under Bruce Boudreau and that resulted in four goals and 16 points in 22 games with Minnesota. Unable to carve out his own role in Boston, Donato struggled offensively with six goals and nine points in 34 games before moving.

“I definitely learned the business side of it, for sure,” Donato said in April. “One thing I learned, in Boston and here, it’s a game of ups and downs. More than college, more than any level, there’s a lot of ups and downs. It’s been an emotional roller coaster the whole year, but definitely over the last couple months it’s settled down quite a bit.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Donato, who was a restricted free agent and will remain one when his contract expires after the 2020-21 season, continued his production in the American Hockey League’s notching 11 points in 14 games between the end of the Iowa Wild’s regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s all about opportunity in this league,” Donato said. “If I can get myself into scoring positions playing with the high-end veteran players we have here, that have been known to find guys in scoring positions, then I’m a guy that can bury it.”

The Wild have high hopes for next season as they expect to be a playoff team coming out of what will be a very, very competitive Central Division. General manager Paul Fenton added Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello to boost the team’s offense which finished fourth-worst in the NHL in goals per game (2.56). Donato will be expected to be a key contributor.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Trade: Blackhawks send Anisimov to Senators for Zack Smith

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Artem Anisimov‘s name has been floating in trade speculation for more than a year now, and on Tuesday afternoon the Chicago Blackhawks finally moved him.

The Blackhawks announced they have traded Anisimov to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for forward Zack Smith. It is a one-for-one deal that will probably make a bigger impact on both team’s financial situations than on the ice.

Both players are 31 years old, have two years remaining on their current contracts, and are coming off of somewhat similar seasons in terms of their performance. Anisimov scored 15 goals and 37 points in 78 games for the Blackhawks this past season, while Smith had nine goals and 28 points in 70 games for the Senators.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

So what is important here for both teams? Money, obviously.

For the Blackhawks, the Anisimov-for-Smith swap saves them a little more than $1 million against the salary cap as they go from Anisimov’s $4.5 salary cap hit to Smith’s $3.25 number. For a team that is consistently pressed against the cap and still has a ton of big-money players, every little bit of extra space helps. Especially as they have to work out new deals for Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome over the next year.

The Senators, meanwhile, had a different set of problems.

They were still sitting under the league’s salary floor before the trade and are now finally above it.

Anisimov’s contract not only gets them over the floor, but because the Blackhawks have already paid Anisimov’s signing bonus for this season the Senators actually owe him less in terms of actual salary, which is also probably an important factor for a team that is seemingly always in a cost-cutting and money-saving mode.

The Blackhawks have been extremely busy this offseason making multiple changes to their roster after a second straight non-playoff season. Along with acquiring Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan in trades to try and upgrade their defense, they also signed goalie Robin Lehner in free agency and brought back veteran forward Andrew Shaw.

This past week they traded former first-round pick defender Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander.

Related: Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

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.

Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

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When it comes to the NHL’s restricted free agent market this summer most of the attention has been directed at forwards Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen, and Sebastian Aho. They are the stars, the big point-producers, and in the case of Aho, the rare player that actually received — and signed — an offer sheet from another team, only to have the Carolina Hurricanes quickly move to match it. For now, though, let’s shift the focus to the blue line where there are a few more big contracts still to be settled this summer with Jacob Trouba, Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski, and Ivan Provorov all waiting on new deals from their respective teams.

The two most intriguing players out of this group are Columbus’ Werenski and Boston’s McAvoy because they are already playing at an elite level among NHL defenders.

Just how good have they been?

Both are coming off of their age 21 seasons and have already demonstrated an ability to play at a top-pairing level on playoff caliber teams.

Since the start of the 2007-08 season there have only been four defenders that have hit all of the following marks through their age 21 season:

  • At least 100 games played
  • Averaged at least .50 points per game
  • And had a Corsi Percentage (shot-attempt differential) of greater than 52 percent at that point in their careers.

Those players have been Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, Werenski, and McAvoy.

That is it.

Pretty elite company.

Based on that, it seems at least somewhat reasonable to look at the contracts Karlsson and Doughty received at the same point in their careers when they were coming off of their entry-level deals.

They were massive.

Karlsson signed a seven-year, $45.5 million deal with the Ottawa Senators, while Doughty signed an eight-year, $56 million contract. At the time, those contracts were worth around 10 percent of the league’s salary cap. A similarly constructed contract under today’s cap would come out to an annual cap hit of around $8 million dollars, which would be among the five highest paid defenders in the league.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Are Werenski and McAvoy worth similar contracts right now? They just might be.

The argument against it would be that while the overall performances are in the same ballpark, there are still some significant differences at play. Karlsson, for example, was coming off of a Norris Trophy winning season when he signed his long-term deal in Ottawa and was already on track to being one of the best offensive defensemen ever (he was already up to .68 points per game!). Doughty, meanwhile, was a significantly better defensive player than the other three and had already been a finalist for the Norris Trophy.

Neither Werenski or McAvoy has reached that level yet, while Werenski also sees a pretty significant drop in his performance when he is not paired next to Seth Jones, which could be a concern depending on how much value you put into such a comparison. It’s also worth pointing out that Jones sees a similar drop when he is not paired next to Werenski, and that the two are absolutely dominant when they are together.

But do those points outweigh the production and impact that Werenski and McAvoy have made, and the potential that they still possess in future years?

What they have already accomplished from a performance standpoint is almost unheard of for defenders of their age in this era of the league. It is also rare for any player of any level of experience.

Over the past three years only 15 other defenders have topped the 0.50 points per game and a 52 percent Corsi mark. On average, those players make $7 million per season under the cap, while only three of them — Roman Josi, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Erik Gustafsson — make less than $5 million per year. Josi is also due for a huge raise over the next year that will almost certainly move him into the $7-plus million range as well.

Bottom line is that the Blue Jackets and Bruins have top-pairing defenders on their hands that still have their best days in the NHL ahead of them. There is every reason to believe they are on track to be consistent All-Star level players and signing them to big deals right now, this summer, will probably turn out to be worth every penny.

Related: Bruins face salary cap juggling act with McAvoy, Carlo

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.