Monday, October 5, 2020

Remembering five of history’s weirdest draft classes

The NHL draft starts tomorrow, and I can’t tell you what’s going to happen, because Cory Pronman already did. But I can make two predictions with confidence: Every team is going to tell us that they’re thrilled with their 2020 draft class, and the whole thing is going to be weird.

The weirdness will come from the setting, as the league ditches the big everyone-in-one-building draft floor (for obvious reasons) and shifts to a virtual setup. And the teams will say they love their draft classes because teams always do that. The next GM who walks out of a draft saying “Man, we messed up, these guys are a bunch of bums” will be the first, and also my new hero.

So today, let’s get ready for a weird draft full of great classes by mashing those two concepts together into one: Weird draft classes from NHL history. We’ll revisit five times that a team went into a draft and came out with something that, in hindsight, was kind of remarkable.

There aren’t the best classes ever, or the worst, or the most important. It’s just five interesting stories to kill some time on a Monday before your team drafts a new franchise player and/or screws up everything forever. Let’s remember some NHL draft oddities.

1977 Montreal Canadians, aka In Crease Increase

Imagine you’re a scout for the 1977 Montreal Canadiens. You’ve just come off what might very well have been the greatest season in NHL history, a 60-8-12 masterpiece that ended with your second of what will turn out to be four straight Cups. You have the best coach ever (Scotty Bowman), the best GM ever (Sam Pollock), and an absolutely stacked lineup. Oh, and your goaltender is Ken Dryden, who was just a first-team all-star for the third time in four years. And he’s only 29.

What’s your draft plan? Apparently, it’s “draft all the goalies”, because the 1977 Canadiens took seven of them.

Seven! In one draft. I’m all for having a strategy and sticking to it, but that seems extreme.

It’s not quite as crazy as it might seem to modern eyes – remember, this was back when the draft could go on forever. The Canadiens used 27 picks that year, stretching out to a 15th round, so it’s not like they only took goalies. But still… seven? When you only have one net, which is currently occupied by a legend in his prime? (And in case you’re wondering, their backup goalie was Bunny Larocque, who’d led the league in GAA that season.)

So how’d they do with all those goalies? Not great. Their first goalie pick, fourth-rounder Robert Holland, only played two NHL seasons, neither with the Canadiens. They did a little better with seventh-rounder Richard Sevigny, who was a part-time starter in Montreal for five seasons in the 80s. Mark Holden played eight NHL games. And the other four goalies they took never made the big leagues at all.

It was all part of a decidedly mixed bag for that 1977 Habs draft. They found a future Hall-of-Famer at the end of the second round in Rod Langway. But they also spent a third-round pick on Moe Robinson, the younger brother of Larry, who lasted one game. And they used the 10th overall pick on Mark Napier, passing on a fellow right-winger who was a hometown kid from Montreal. Some guy named Mike Bossy.

1983 Detroit Red Wings, aka Toughen Up

The most famous Red Wings draft of all time came in 1989. That was the year they found two Hall-of-Famers who’d form the core of a Cup team (Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Federov), plus two more 1,000-game NHLers (Mike Sillinger and Dallas Drake), plus Soviet star Vladimir Konstantinov in the 11th round. Not bad. But not my favorite Wings draft.

No, that would be 1983. It’s a draft every Detroit fan remembers fondly, because it saw the Wings land Steve Yzerman with the fourth overall pick. That took a bit of luck – the North Stars spent the first overall pick on Brian Lawton and the Whalers took Sylvain Turgeon, leaving both Yzerman and Pat LaFontaine on the board for the Sabres and Wings at three and four. That’s the draft, though. You do your homework, and hope a franchise player drops to your pick.

And what do you do when it all breaks right and you get that franchise player? Well, if it’s 1983 and you play in the Norris Division, you make sure you protect him. And you do that by drafting three of the most legendary tough guys in hockey history.

The Wings got started in round three, grabbing big winger Bob Probert from the Soo Greyhounds. Probie would go on to become the NHL’s all-time heavyweight champ, but the Wings apparently figured he could use some backup, so they used a fifth-round pick on Saskatoon Blades’ wrecking ball Joey Kocur. And just to make sure nobody got any ideas when both those guys were in the box, the Wings added some insurance in the 10th round, taking Stu “The Grim Reaper” Grimson from the Regina Pats.

To be clear, none of those guys were one-dimensional enforcers coming out of junior. (Probert in particular was really good, with 72 points in 44 games for the Hounds.) And as it turned out, Grimson never signed and went back in the 1985 draft, where he was taken by the Flames. He’d eventually end up in Detroit for a few years in the mid-90s, but by that point Kocur was winning Cups in New York and Probert was on his way to Chicago.

So no, Yzerman never got to suit up for a game knowing all three guys were behind him, although I’m guessing that the Bruise Brothers provided enough protection on their own. But the effort was there. To this day, only 44 players in NHL history have racked up more than 2,100 PIM over their careers, and at the rate the game is going that list might not grow. It’s an exclusive club. And three of them were picked by the same team in the same draft.

1993 Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, aka This Guy Looks Familiar

This was the first draft in Anaheim franchise history. And they got off to a strong start, managing to pick the leading scorer in the draft.

Any Ducks fan knows how the team spent its first ever draft pick. The Ducks had the fourth overall pick, and after watching Alexandre Daigle, Chris Pronger and Chris Gratton go off the board, they grabbed the reigning Hobey Baker Award winner. That would be Paul Kariya, and while his career was shortened by injuries, he was easily the best forward in the draft, and his 989 points in 989 games was the most by any player taken that day.

But he’s not the leading scorer I was referring to.

Kariya was the leading scorer from the 1993 draft. But I said the Ducks took the leading scorer in the draft. Which they did.

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