Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The End of the Line

On Monday, the Canadiens sent qualifying offers to their best pending free agents. Guys like Alexei Emelin, Lars Eller and P.K.Subban will be re-signed, without question. While those deals are in various stages of the works, some guys with dreams of joining them in Montreal have been quietly informed they won't receive offers and will, instead, seek their hockey fortunes elsewhere. The average Habs fan wouldn't recognize most of those guys' names, as they toiled in Hamilton for their entire time with the organization. Mark Mitera and Danny Masse probably have made very little impression on those whose hockey world does not extend beyond the Bell Centre.

Among those sent off to find a new hockey home is Olivier Fortier. He's never been a star. He's a hard-working, average-sized centre known for his solid defensive play. He was the Canadiens' third-round pick in the 2007 draft, when they also acquired Subban, Max Pacioretty and the much-lamented Ryan McDonagh. Unfortunately for him, however, his 17 goals in more than 100 AHL games has proven that he'll likely never be more than a heart-and-soul defensive scrub at the NHL level.

While his personal story is sad because it's surely the end of a dream for him, it's also a little sad for the Canadiens' organization as well. Fortier, you see, was the last player link to the great '70s dynasty. A few years ago, when I blogged occasionally for Habs Inside/Out, I wrote a piece detailing Fortier's connection to the '70s. Here it is:

"I was thinking the other day about the old cliche that a hockey team is like a family. That's actually true, in more ways than just the trite. Like a family, a hockey team has a genealogy. One player starts his career with a team, then is traded for another, and a line of inheritance is established. And as in any family, those members living in the modern generation like to think their ancestors did great things, and that, perhaps, they carry some of that greatness in their own veins. As I was thinking about that, I came across a bit on the Canadiens' website detailing how one current Hab's hockey bloodlines go back to the '70s Cup teams. It made me wonder, what's left of the last great dynasty the Habs experienced? Is there any vestige of the great '70s teams left on the ice in the organization today? I couldn't resist digging into the records to find out. 

There wasn't much variation on the roster between 1976 and 1979. You don't mess with success, after all. So, looking at the 1979 roster, it's obvious many of the greatest players' hockey bloodlines stop right there. Ken Dryden, Yvan Cournoyer and Jacques Lemaire retired after that fourth straight Cup, and none of them were ever traded or waived. From that roster, Pierre Mondou, Rejean Houle, Bob Gainey and Mario Tremblay also retired as Habs, never having played for another team. Guy Lafleur retired, then signed as a free agent a couple of years later. Two others, Serge Savard and Yvon Lambert were claimed by other teams on waivers in the '80s, with no return to the Habs. Another, Larry Robinson, left the team as a free agent, again, with no compensation for the Habs. Cam Connor, who played on the '79 team, was released following that season. It's when you get into the players who were traded that things get interesting.

Most of the trades didn't turn into anything lasting. Steve Shutt was traded to LA for a tenth-rounder who went straight to Europe. Doug Risebrough went to Calgary for two draft picks, Todd Francis and Graeme Bonar, neither of whom had an NHL career or returned any assets to the team. Gilles Lupien was traded to Pittsburgh for a third-rounder who never made the NHL.  

Other trades did spin out their legacies a little longer, and the players acquired helped the Habs while they were there. Pat Hughes brought back Denis Herron, but Herron went for a draft pick (Rocky Dundas) who left the Habs as a free agent. Mark Napier was traded for Bobby Smith, although Smith was traded nine years later for a draft pick who didn't play in the NHL. Brian Engblom, Rod Langway and Doug Jarvis went to Washington in exchange for Rick Green and Ryan Walter. Walter stuck around until free agency called him to Vancouver, and Green eventually went in a deal for a fifth-rounder who didn't make it. Tough guy Rick Chartraw went to LA for a second-rounder that became Claude Lemieux, who, in turn was traded for Sylvain Turgeon. Not a bad return for a tough utility guy like Chartraw, even if Turgeon did leave in the expansion draft in 1992. 

Then you have the blockbusters. The bloodlines of those travel on, like the most prolific members of any family. The biggest Habs trade with its roots in the seventies was undoubtedly the Patrick Roy deal. Bunny Larocque was a great backup goaltender to Ken Dryden during the dynasty years, but turned out to be not what the team needed after Dryden retired. In 1981, he was traded for defenceman Robert Picard, who was then traded for Winnipeg's third-round pick in the 1984 draft. That pick, of course, turned out to be Roy. And we know what happend in December, 1995. Roy was traded for Andrei Kovalenko, Martin Rucinsky and Jocelyn Thibault. None of those players lasted long with the Habs, though. Kovalenko was traded the next year for Scott Thornton, who was traded for Juha Lind, who left for Europe in 2001. Rucinsky was traded in '01 for Donald Audette and Shaun Van Allen, both of whom eventually left the Habs as free agents. Thibault lasted almost three years before he was traded for Jeff Hackett, Eric Weinrich and Alain Nesreddine. Hackett later became Niklas Sundstrom, who left for Europe, and a draft pick that went to LA in the deal for Cristobal Huet and Radek Bonk, who have now both left the Canadiens as free agents. Weinrich was traded for Patrick Traverse (Reverse, for those who remember his gaffes well) and then Traverse went for career minor-leaguer Mathieu Biron who's now in Europe. Sad to say, there's not one player left in the Habs family from the Patrick Roy trade.

Guy Lapointe is another story, though. Lapointe, a stellar member of the '70s Big Three on the Habs blueline, was traded in 1982 for St.Louis' second round draft pick the following year. That pick became Sergio Momesso. In 1988, Momesso was traded for Darrell May, who never made the NHL, Jocelyn Lemieux, who was later traded for a go-nowhere third rounder, and a yet another St.Louis second-round pick in 1989. That second-round pick was none other than the Stanley Cup champion, great guy and scapegoat defenceman we all know and love...Patrice Brisebois. The only current member of the Canadiens who can claim a hockey pedigree dating back the '70s dynasty is the Breezer. But Brisebois is likely to retire a Hab now, thus ending the legacy of the dynasty...except for one last hope.

Pete Mahovlich was acquired by the Habs in 1969 for the 1963 first-overall pick, Garry Monahan. Mahovlich played on the first two Cups of the four straight in the seventies. Then, in 1978, he was traded for Pierre Larouche. Larouche scored fifty goals for the Canadiens in 1979-80, so when he went to Hartford the following year, he brought a nice return of draft picks. One of those picks became Peter Svoboda. Another was traded in a package to St.Louis for '84 picks that became Shayne Corson and Stephane Richer. All three of Svoboda, Corson and Richer were good contributors to the Canadiens in their time in Montreal.

Svoboda was later traded for Kevin Haller, who helped win the '93 Cup, then was traded for Yves Racine who was claimed on waivers in '96. Shayne Corson was traded for Vincent Damphousse in '92. Damphouse, in his turn, was traded for a pair of draft picks, one who went straight to Europe, and one that became Marcel Hossa. Hossa wasn't his brother by any stretch and ended up in New York for Garth Murray, who's now Phoenix property. Stephane Richer, the troubled goal-scoring virtuoso, couldn't find consistency in Montreal, and he was eventually dealt to New Jersey for Rollie Melanson and Kirk Muller. Montreal was Melanson's last playing stop. But Muller won a Cup in '93 and later became captain before being traded to New York in '95 for Pierre Turgeon and Vladimir Malakhov. When Turgeon was traded the following year, none of the meagre return translated into any assets for the Habs' future. Malakhov, on the other hand, in 2001 went to Jersey for Sheldon Souray, Josh DeWolf and a draft pick. Of course, Souray left as a free agent and DeWolf didn't pan out. But the draft pick went to Washington in 2001 as part of a deal for Richard Zednik. Five years later, Zednik went back to Washington for a third-round draft pick in 2007.

That pick turned out to be Olivier Fortier. Fortier's a solid two-way centre currently in his last year of junior with the Rimouski Oceanic in the Q. Last year, he won the Guy Carbonneau Trophy as the best defensive forward in his league. The odds of him winning a regular spot in the NHL are still pretty long, as they are for any good junior player who's not a blue-chip star. But the nineteen-year-old carries a special legacy. He's the last player in the Habs' system who can trace his hockey bloodlines to the last great dynasty the team may ever have. In geneological terms, if the Habs are a family, then Patrice Brisebois is the patriarch...and Olivier Fortier the only heir."

Of course, Brisebois did retire a Hab and has now been hired to help develop young players within the Canadiens organization. Fortier, though, the last player directly related to the great '70s dynasty, has now been cut loose. That's kind of sad, for a team that prides itself on its proud history. Whatever happens to Olivier Fortier now, we wish him the best. He comes from a good family.


Number31 said...

It's too bad for Fortier. Injuries basically killed his development. Otherwise I always called him "QuebecPleks".

I'm more upset Conboy didn't get a qualifying offer. Especially when Engqvist just buggered off to the KHL :/

Anonymous said...

Great read!

V said...

Really liking your writing lately JT. There's a spring back in your step. Is it the shadow of the Gauthier/Martin years lifting?

Articles like this are very grounding because they remind us of the human side of the business.

Much appreciated.

pedro said...

I read your article 3 times,I can read it another time and still miss something.The amount of research you spent putting this "The end of the line" blog is remarkable.I agree with V.That your writings seem to have more of a "spring back in your step"approach.As always very informative. Thanks again JT.