Montreal Canadiens: The Most Overrated Franchise In NHL History?

 
The Montreal Forum 1955  / PD

The Montreal Forum 1955 / PD

The Montreal Canadiens.  Le Habitants.  Le Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge.  Le Grand Club.  Le Saint- Flanelle.

No matter the name, Montreal’s team sits atop the hockey world – and for good reason.  They’ve been in existence over a century and still their fan base remains loyal to the CH crest.  Montreal has 24 very good reasons why their club is the pinnacle of hockey royalty.  Through their doors have walked some of hockey’s elite players to ever touch skate to ice.  The names are staggering: Jean Beliveau, Maurice and Henri Richard, Howie Morenz, Yvan Cournoyer, Jacques Plante, Guy Lafleur, Patrick Roy, Serge Savard (the list goes on and on).

But are they really the greatest team ever or just a tad bit overrated?  Twenty-four Stanley Cups certainly speaks volumes in a case against the argument I’m about to make, however there is more to their cup wins than just having been dealt a swell hand for the better part of 104 years.

16.67% Chance

The Original Six teams carries with them an aura.  The Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, and Detroit Red Wings all did battle against each other for 40 years.  They were the only teams duking it out for hockey supremacy until the NHL expanded in 1967.

In a six-team league, the Montreal Canadiens – along with the other five teams – had a 16.67% chance at winning the Stanley Cup when the season began.  That’s a far greater chance at winning than the current 3% chance in today’s NHL.  During the years 1927-1967, the Montreal Canadiens won a total of 12 Stanley Cups.  They were able to snag half of their Stanley Cups by dominating a six team league.

I can hear some of you already, “But Shawn, each other team had the same chance at winning the cup.  Isn’t winning a Stanley Cup 30% of the time over 40 years impressive?”

No question it’s impressive.  What’s not impressive is dominating a 6-team league.  I should probably explain my argument further.

The Quebec Aces

jbeliveau18After 1946, the Canadiens hit a bit of a dry spell with Stanley Cups.  It had been a 7-year drought for the city that was so used to winning.  That was until the Quebec Aces caught the attention of Frank Selke.

The Aces were a team part of the Quebec Senior Hockey League (QSHL).  They had a budding star who, not only had tremendous skills, but was a big, 6’3″, 205 lb center with gamebreaking potential.  His name was Jean Beliveau, the leading scorer in the entire QSHL.

The Canadiens owned his rights and could call him up at any point.  Problem was, Beliveau did not want to play for Montreal and chose to stick with the Aces.

In his biography on Legends of Hockey:

“The Canadiens owned the rights to Beliveau, so he couldn’t play for another pro team unless Montreal traded him. Since the Aces were an amateur team, there was no conflict with his staying there. Finally, Montreal purchased the entire Quebec Senior Hockey League, turned it pro and added Jean Beliveau to their roster. Without much choice in the matter, Beliveau signed on with the Canadiens in 1953 for a then unheard-of $100,000 contract over five years.”

Sounds fair…

With Beliveau now a lock to play in the NHL, Montreal would go on to win five straight Stanley Cups from 1956 to 1960.  He was a cornerstone of their franchise for the better part of the 18 seasons and helped lead the team to 10 total cup wins.

“Come on, Reznik!  Just because the Canadiens had the cash and wherewithal to do so, you’re going to hate on them for using their resources to their advantage?”

I’m in school for business.  I know what it means to get the best return on investment, even if you have to shell out some cash for a greater payout.  But that isn’t the only thing Montreal had in their favor.

First Come, First Served

During the 1950s and early 1960s, teams had no way of drafting prospects so Montreal began scouting and stashing teenagers to add to their minor teams and Quebec league teams, creating arguably the greatest farm system any NHL team had to offer.

Then there was the infamous C form.  The C form was contract given out by 18-year old amateur players during the Original Six Era for sole negotiating rights to that player – an NHL contract I.O.U of sorts.  The Canadiens’ scouting staff would scour North America for the best young talent around.  If they found a player they liked, more often than not, a C form would be awarded.

To boot, Montreal had the upper hand with the 50-mile rule.  According to A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Hockey by Gerry Eskenazi it was said:

“…each NHL franchise had exclusive rights to players within its 50-mile territorial limits. So the Leafs and Canadiens could browse the neighbourhood rinks near Toronto and Montreal at their leisure, while the Rangers had a lock on the next great goalie from Hoboken.”

At that time, Quebec was churning out talent left and right and was a hockey mecca for development.  The team was able to essentially get first pick of the litter in regards to top French Canadian-born players, housed those players in their farm system, and signed those players to C forms at the ripe age of 18.  Swell, isn’t it?

In 1963, the NHL Draft was implemented to diminish the effect of C forms and allowed all teams a chance at Canadian talent without the 50-mile radius.  However, it wasn’t until the 1969 NHL Draft that the C form issue was completely eradicated:

“However, this process could not be changed overnight. In each of the drafts from 1963 to 1968 there were very few quality players available. This problem developed because most of the best young players had already signed the C form. This meant that the only players eligible for the draft were players who had not signed a C form. It wasn’t until 1969 that the draft became a true amateur draft as the C form faded into history.”

(source Aude/Wikimedia)

(source Aude/Wikimedia)

Overrated?

The Stanley Cup is the hardest championship to win in all of professional sports.  Players give tooth and nail (most of the times literally) to win the 35 pound trophy at all costs.  In order to win the most recognizable hardware in all of sports 24 times, you’re going to need a team made up of dynamic talents paired with grinders who take care of the dirty work.  Montreal had every aspect covered during the 60s and 70s.

They iced some of the greatest teams ever assembled and came away victorious on a consistent basis.  Their province cranked out excellent young players.  Their general managers were ahead of their time in building a farm system before any other team could catch up.  They made shrewd business decisions to bring in an eventual superstar and a great ambassador of the sport.

Is the Montreal Canadiens franchise the most overrated in NHL history?

No.

However, they did have a slight unfair advantage.

Follow Shawn Reznik on Twitter@ShawnTHW

Shawn Reznik

Shawn Reznik

Shawn started at The Hockey Writers in 2011 covering junior hockey/NCAA/European leagues for the site. In 2013, he became the Lead Writer for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Shawn Reznik

10 Comments

  1. You can dig dirt on every team that has dominated throughout the years. Fact is, they found a way to dominate. The needs fits the needs fellas

  2. Wait what?

    People are actually arguing against the fact that they had a monopoly until the ’69 season?

    Let that sink in and you get an idea of why this fan base is so derided.

    LOL this is more proof that you can trick yourself to believe anything if it makes you feel better. Imagine if a NY team had the right to hide all of those players, Habs fans would legitimize every cup they won…and rightly so. You can’t really call it a competitive league and say “oh we won X cups” until after the ’69 season. Really some point after that since the advantage was already in place and the young players were already in the system, but you have to start somewhere. Since then they have been moderately successful. Nothing close to what “24 Cups” would have the uneducated outsider think.

  3. Harry Armstrong says:

    Do you know who says that the Canadiens are the most overrated NHL team? Someone who’s favorite team never won the Stanley Cup 24 times.

  4. Pondering this further, I believe that the modern Canadiens (and their fans) are clinging to past successes to justify their identity and the way they feel they should be perceived.

    Modern sports are all about “what have you done for me lately”. Combined with a general semblance of parity and the increased level of difficulty of repeating as champion (much less establishing a dynasty), some teams have little choice but to point to past accomplishments.

    In the case of the Canadiens, there is an entire generation of fans who are too young to remember a championship season. Since 93, the team has been in a steady decline, with the ship only now showing signs of righting itself. If Daryl Reaugh (42nd overall to Edmonton) had slipped in the draft and the Canadiens drafted him instead of Roy, even my cobweb-filled noggin would have trouble remembering our last Stanley Cup win.

    To claim that the 27-67 Canadiens had an unfair advantage is to put too much emphasis on the 50-mile rule (and to a similar extent, the C-form contract). I don’t have the time required to dig into the hometowns of all the players who made up those championship squads (to see how many were obtained through the 5–mile rule), but when you look at the nationality of the NHL players during that era, the very large majority were Canadian, and neither the Leafs nor the Canadiens had exclusive dominion over the talent pool north of the 49th.

    The C-form contract was available to all teams, so it was incumbent on the scouts to find players worth developing, and on team ownership to offer a budget to have a stable full of prospects. If I had to hazard a guess, money might have been an issue for some teams. Perhaps Toronto and Montreal had some birdies whispering in their ears about talented players in far-flung regions of their respective provinces, but that, again, falls on the scouts to develop and expand their network of contacts, which sometimes requires money to do.

    The quality of a team’s scouting is tied to their subsequent on-ice success. Look at the Detroit Red Wings: since the mid-90s, they have been a team that has consistently found talented players that were overlooked by other teams. This is a team that hasn’t had to rebuild, simply reload. That is akin to what the Canadiens of the 27-67 era were doing.

    They had the financial wherewithal to buy and control amateur teams and leagues to stock their talent pool (not entirely dissimilar to modern AHL/ECHL affiliations), but they didn’t do this in a vacuum; other teams had the same opportunities, and for whatever reason, they chose not to and that cost them potential championships.

    I would argue that the Canadiens of the pre-expansion era were the most shrewd team in the NHL, and that resulted in 12 championships over a 4 year period. The quality ownership and management of those teams continued into the 70s, resulting in 8 more Cups (in a shorter span of time).

    All that success, especially with homegrown talent, elevated the bar for fan expectations. Lore of the “Flying Frenchmen” carried on through the years, and left the modern Canadiens in a difficult position. The talent pool for the NHL had become global, but the fans still expected the team to pluck their heroes from their own back yard. 2 Cups in almost 35 years, and none in the last 20, is the unfortunate result. Scouting budgets were slashed, and the teams tasked with development of future stars were unable to do what was asked of them.

    Money buys championships, but rarely through free agency. A team has to spend its money wisely, through coaching, player development, and scouting. Skimp on those areas, and the results will be predictable.

    Therefore, the argument as to whether the Canadiens are the most overrated team in the NHL, especially considering the era in question, is, I believe, invalid. They invested their money wisely in talent identification and player development to build perennial championship contenders. If they truly had any kind of unfair advantage, they should have done better than a Cup every 3rd season on average.

  5. You leave out the fact that many players playing during the 6 team era had day jobs. Maurice Richard worked in a factory in the day before games. Yes, the percentage of winning was higher back then but the conditions were definately more difficult.

  6. The pre-expansion original 6 era isn’t as simple as 6 teams. Also, the way the cup was awarded changed a lot in the pre-expansion era. It’s a worthwhile read if you have time.

  7. Interesting piece. I don’t necessarily agree, but your points are definitely worth some consideration.

    I was not lucky enough to witness any of the pre-expansion Canadiens teams play (I was 2 days old when the Leafs last won a cup), but from all accounts of older hockey fans I’ve spoken with, they were amazingly skilled players. Definitely a force to contend with year in, year out.

    Where I believe that your “domination of a 6 team league” argument fails is that the other 5 teams were hardly slouches. Consider the talent level of non-NHL players in the various minor and semi-pro leagues. Johnny Bower, for example, played 13 years in the AHL before making the NHL. There was a lot of NHL-calibre talent not playing in the NHL.

    Furthermore, the C contract was a tool available to all teams at the time. Perhaps the 50-mile exclusivity rule gave Montreal and Toronto an advantage over Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and New York, where local talent was likely more plentiful, but there was nothing preventing those teams from deploying scouts to far-flung locations to discover talent. 50 miles from Montreal or Toronto leaves you with a heck of a lot of province left over. Scouting and a good farm system is the sign of a well-run organization that is focused on success.

    Additionally, I believe that the post-expansion Canadiens were possibly more dominant than the team that always had a 40-year run with a 16.67% chance of winning at the start of every year. The Canadiens have managed to win 10 cups in the post-expansion era, 8 of them in a 12-season span.

    “But expansion diluted the talent pool,” you will no doubt say. To some extent, yes, that has an effect, but the early expansion gave a chance to many NHL-calibre players who had been toiling in the minors a chance to show that they belonged. Plus, the NHL set it up so the original 6 beat up on each other during the playoffs of the early expansion years, so the Canadiens were hardly shooting fish in a barrel. The Flyers adopted a winning strategy that worked for 2 years. The Islanders followed the Canadiens dynasty with one of their own. So expansion wasn’t the cakewalk many would suggest for the original 6 teams. If that were true, how do you explain the poor showings of the Rangers, Red Wings, Blackhawks, and Maple Leafs in the post-expansion era?

    To suggest that the Canadiens are the most overrated franchise in NHL history because of the players they managed to acquire is wrong.

    By that rationale, the Yankees, for example, are the most overrated MLB team because they can outspend any other team.

    The Canadiens’ success is a direct result of wanting to win and using everything at their disposal to reach the Stanley Cup. Anything less is considered a failed season. That other teams don’t have the same mentality should not tarnish the reputation or the accomplishments of the Canadiens over the last 104 years.

  8. more proof that if you try hard enough you can make a case for the sky not being blue….you will be wrong but you can make a long actually in your case a very long case trying to disprove the obvious…personaly i think you have a serious case of hab envy it can be treated but requires you to get back in touch with reality…..

  9. I read the headline and was like “Oh no you didn’t!!” I was wrong, great article dude.

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