Of all the things to be losing sleep over in this time of crisis, I never expected the task of selecting an all-time Montreal Canadiens roster to play a fictional Game 7 for the Stanley Cup would keep me from some precious ZZZs.
I blame Rory Boylen, Sportsnet.ca’s ambitious (and exasperatingly creative) NHL editor.
But I also have to thank him for taking me away from my kitchen for hours on end. Those extra COVID-19 stress calories must be avoided at all costs.
If I’m being completely honest, I quite enjoyed this assignment. To scour through over a century’s worth of (mostly) glorious Canadiens history and pluck out names to assemble a veritable dream team was nothing short of great fun.
It’s the cuts that kept me up at night. I mean, it’s not like I’m just snubbing players who merely had great careers; I’m benching Hall of Famers, multiple-Cup winners, individual-award winners, and players who have had their numbers retired by the Canadiens.
Before you shred me for it, please understand I was tasked with building a team in a traditional way, and not just slapping together an all-star team. That means making up lines an NHL coach would agree with, ordering them so they can be deployed in a logical fashion, and ensuring that one line is dedicated to shutting—and grinding—down the opposition’s best players.
It means playing players in their actual positions, and not just slotting someone in out of place because they’re great. And, in this team’s case, it means shafting at least three of the greatest goaltenders in the history of the NHL.
Rory, why did you make me do this? Geez.
By the way, while we’re in the process of rewriting history—or inventing some kind of parallel universe?—I’m still not over NHL fans voting the 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers as the greatest team of all time. Seriously.
The 1976-77 Canadiens lost a total of 12 games pre-season, regular season and post-season combined, and they steamrolled their way to a Stanley Cup in just 14 games. To suggest any NHL team was ever better than that is just wrong.
I digress. Sort of.
Because 10 of the players who made my Game-7-to-win-the-Cup roster played on that unrivalled’76-77 team, and that forced me to shun several players from other Canadiens dynasties (please accept my most sincerest apologies, Bernie ‘Boom Boom’ Geoffrion, Toe Blake, Howie Morenz, J.C. Tremblay and Bill Durnan).
I wasn’t kidding when I mentioned this cost me some sleep.
I really thought this through and realized the most important factors in winning a Game 7 had to govern the selection process: Chemistry, winning pedigree, and selflessness.
So, here are the people I chose and the reasons I chose them:
Guy Lafleur on the Montreal Canadiens’ bench waving to cheering fans including a 15-year-old Mario Lemieux. (Doug Ball/CP via Dave Stubbs and the Montreal Gazette)
First line: Steve Shutt, Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lafleur
Throw the regular-season numbers away for the purpose of this exercise, but if it were solely based on those, I’d be completely comfortable rolling this out as a top line against any line in history.
Lemaire and Lafleur rank second and fourth, respectively, in playoff points on the all-time Canadiens’ list. The first guy was as good a 200-foot player as the game’s ever seen, and the second was a generational talent who could snipe goals almost at will.
And then there’s Shutt, who’s one of three players in franchise history to have recorded more than a point per playoff game while having played in at least 50 of them (he had 98 points in 96 games).
By the way, Lafleur is one of the other two.
Oh, and the fact that these three played together for years (they won five Cups together) makes it even easier to justify.
Second line: Dickie Moore, Jean Beliveau, Maurice Richard
Down the middle, you have Beliveau, who’s the franchise leader in playoff points (176) and a 10-time Cup winner as a player.
Is that good?
I’m thinking the Rocket’s intensity and finishing abilities–no one scored more than his 82 goals in the playoffs, and he remains the most prolific regular-season scorer (544 goals)–is a nice fit on the right side of Le Gros Bill.
Richard once referred to Dickie Moore as the greatest left winger he ever played with, and Beliveau called him a “take no prisoners skater,” and considered him the greatest friend he ever had. It helps that Big Jean lined up with Moore, too.
So… Chemistry? Check.
And if you’re at all concerned about Moore’s pedigree, you shouldn’t be. He won the Art Ross Trophy twice—including once in a season that saw him play several games with a broken arm—and he ranks ninth in goals and 10th in points on Montreal’s all-time playoff list.
Third line: Frank Mahovlich, Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer
Imagine rolling out a line of three players voted into the 100 greatest in NHL history, and three players who won a combined 27 Cups, as your “third line.” As if these guys need a friendlier matchup.
The chemistry factor remains, with these three playing as a line for the Canadiens in the early 70s.
My thanks to the incomparable Mitch Melnick for imparting me with the knowledge that Cournoyer, a lefty, never played the left wing. In my mind, he had to be on this team, and his inclusion on the right wing knocked Geoffrion out of the mix (again, so sorry, Boom Boom.)
Sidebar: Has there ever been three players with better nicknames on the same line? The Big M, Pocket Rocket, and the Roadrunner—again, as a third line?!?!?!?
Fourth line: Bob Gainey, Guy Carbonneau, Mario Tremblay
This is where the selflessness factor must be applied. None of these three players would need to be convinced to take less ice-time or sacrifice on the penalty kill for the benefit of the team.
Also, just the thought of having to play against these three muckers would have an opposing top-liner diving head-first into an ice-bath.
Start with Gainey—the player the NHL created an award for. The Peterborough, Ont., native won the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward in each of the first four years it was handed out.
It was just a few years later that Carbonneau lined up as Gainey’s centre. You know, Carbonneau, the three-time Selke winner who eventually (famously) asked Canadiens head coach Jacques Demers to cover Wayne Gretzky in the 1993 Stanley Cup Final after Gretzky scored a goal and three assists in a Game 1 for the Los Angeles Kings.
He was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame and it probably had something to do with him holding the Great One to just one goal and two assists over the remaining four games of the series.
As for Mario Tremblay, he’ll likely be viewed as the most controversial pick on this team.
But he was tough as nails, and he could score. He compiled over 1000 penalty minutes and 584 points in 852 regular-season games, and had 20 goals and 49 points in 101 playoff games. I thought he was better suited for this role than someone like Morenz.
First pairing: Larry Robinson, Serge Savard
Two pillars of ‘The Big 3’. A combination of size and skill that’s practically unrivalled in the history of defence pairings. And we’re talking about two guys who played as a pair for years.
Second pairing: Doug Harvey, Guy Lapointe
Before Bobby Orr won eight consecutive Norris Trophies as the league’s best defenceman, Doug Harvey won seven of them in eight years from 1954-62.
And that guy I’m putting next to him? He was the third member of ‘The Big 3’, a rover-type who shot left and was more than comfortable playing the right side.
Lapointe also scored 572 points in 777 regular-season games and added 68 points in 112 playoff games, which makes him the second-highest scoring defenceman in Canadiens history in both categories.
Third pairing: Andrei Markov, Chris Chelios
Markov is the only player on this team to have not won a Cup, so his inclusion will attract some criticism.
But, can you imagine him alongside the awesome force that was Chris Chelios? It’s a dream pairing. An elite puck-mover (Markov ranks second in Canadiens history in assists with 453) next to one of the nastiest, most all-around players in the history of the NHL.
The luxury of just using Markov as a power-play specialist, cycling Chelios through on different pairings, or just being able to roll them out together makes perfect sense for a winner-take-all scenario.
Ken Dryden won six Stanley Cups in eight seasons with the Montreal Canadiens. (Walter Iooss Jr./Getty)
Starting goalie: Ken Dryden
Arguably no goaltender in Canadiens history was more accustomed to playing behind a great team like this than Dryden. Not that he couldn’t win a series or a big game all on his own (his debut in a series win over a Boston Bruins team that set an NHL record with 57 wins in the 1970-71 season stands out as an example).
This was the hardest decision of all, but I’m comfortable with it because not only did Dryden win six Cups in eight years, he won a higher percentage of his playoff games than any other goaltender in Canadiens history—going 80-32 in 112 games.
The clincher? Dryden was a perfect 3-0 in Game 7s.
Backup goalie: Jacques Plante
Not that the merits of Plante need to be spelled out, but he backstopped the Canadiens to five consecutive Cup wins from 1956-60.
The wildest thing about that? He only played in two Game 7s over his entire career, which says much about how good those Canadiens teams were.
The fact that Plante had a 1-1 record in them made it palatable to put him behind Dryden.
And if you’re wondering why Patrick Roy isn’t in either position, it’s because once I decided Dryden was the man to play behind a veritable dream team, there was no chance I’d ask Patrick to sit on the bench. We all know he’d have never done that.
Roy was arguably the greatest goaltender to ever play for the Canadiens. There’s no chance they’d have won their last two Stanley Cups with anyone else in their net. He’s also tied with Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Brodeur for the most Game 7 wins of all time (six).
But Roy also lost seven Game 7s over the course of his career, versus Dryden losing zero.
Head coach: Scotty Bowman
Assistants: Toe Blake, Dick Irvin Sr.