Former NHL defenseman Serge Lajeunesse may have been guilty by association, but not in the usual terms of that implication. There are many who consider the 1969-70 Montreal Junior Canadiens to be one of the greatest junior hockey teams of all time, and why not? Just look at the names comprised on that roster: Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, Josh Guevremont, Ian Turnbull, Paulin Bordeleau, Bobby Lalonde, Norm Gratton, Richard Lemieux, Michel Dion, Hartland Monahan, and last but not least, Lajeunesse. Each of these players would be NHLers. If an NHL team drafted anyone of them, the thought was that you couldn’t go wrong with the selection.
Hence, the Detroit Red Wings chose Lajeunesse with the 12th overall pick of the 1970 NHL Amateur Draft. He, like all of the aforementioned players, was thought to be a can’t-miss. Unfortunately, that ended up not really being the case. Although Lajeunesse may have been highly touted and grouped in with some true star-studded talent, he would end up falling short of expectations during his NHL career.
We take a look now at what brought him into the National Hockey League as such a high selection, how he performed during his brief stay, and thoughts on what might have been. Serge Lajeunesse is one of our forgotten first-rounders.
Being Selected by Detroit
Lajeunesse had two solid seasons in the Ontario Hockey Association with the Junior Canadiens. You would not consider him an offensive-defenseman per say, but he did finish second among Montreal defenders in scoring for the 1968-69 season, and then was third highest in 1969-70. Lajeunesse played 54 games in both seasons, and put together numbers of two goals and 20 assists the first year, followed by another pair of goals and 27 assists in his second. Both years would see Lajeunesse and the Junior Canadiens take the Memorial Cup as the top junior team in Canada.
At this point in time the Detroit Red Wings were in desperate need of help. After making it to the Stanley Cup Final in 1966, the “Winged Wheels” missed the playoffs entirely for the following three seasons. During the 1969-70 season they got back into the postseason, but suffered an opening round elimination when they were swept in four straight games by the Chicago Blackhawks.
To put it bluntly, the 1969-70 Red Wings were old. Gordie Howe was 41. Alex Delvecchio’s silver hair made him look even older, but he was still 37. Billy Dea was 36. Defensemen Gary Bergman, Carl Brewer and Bobby Baun were all at least 30 years old. The Red Wings needed a vast injection of youth on their team, and especially among their blueliners. This is what led them to selecting Lajeunesse to help get that youth movement going.
Was it a mistake to do so? Looking at the numbers, after being drafted Lajeunesse’s NHL career lasted 103 games. If you look at players who were selected after him, Bill Clement, Errol Thompson, Fred Barrett, Dan Bouchard, Mike Murphy, Bob Kelly, Yvon Lambert, Bob Stewart, Dan Maloney, Billy Smith, and Gilles Meloche all played in at least 500 career regular season games. Four of them won Stanley Cups as well. You be the judge.
Seasons With Detroit Left Something to Be Desired
The fullest NHL season that Lajeunesse would play was his rookie year of 1970-71. Suiting up for 62 games with the Red Wings, he would score a single goal and added three assists to go along with 55 penalty minutes. The goal Lajeunesse scored came during Detroit’s Feb. 28, 1971 4-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins and against goaltender Al Smith. Forward Bill Collins picked up the lone assist on the goal. This would be the only goal that Lajeunesse would score in his NHL career.
During the 1971-72 and 1972-73 seasons, Detroit certainly brought forth a good amount of youthful talent. Players (some of whom were stars) like Marcel Dionne, Mickey Redmond, Nick Libett, Guy Charron, Henry Boucha and Lajeunesse were all in their early-20s. The trouble was, despite being in good company, Lajeunesse was on the outside looking in. He played in all of seven games with the parent club Red Wings during the 1971-72 season, while splitting the rest of the year between their two minor affiliates, the Fort Worth Wings of the CHL and the Tidewater Wings of the AHL.
Happy 66th to former Wings 1st Rd pick Serge Lajeunesse who starred for AHL's Richmond but never caught on w/ Wings. pic.twitter.com/AnKool6gHP
— O-Pee-Chee Stars (@opeecheestars) June 11, 2016
It would get marginally better during the 1972-73 season, as Lajeunesse played 28 games with Detroit along with 39 games for the team’s renamed Virginia Red Wings of the AHL. He compiled a single assist during his 28-game stay with the big club. Young Red Wings defensemen like Ron Stackhouse and Thommie Bergman, and aged like a fine wine seasons from veteran Gary Bergman, left less opportunity for Lajeunesse.
More noteworthy, in each of his seasons with Detroit the team continued to miss the playoffs. Not getting what they had expected from their high draft selection, the Red Wings would part with Lajeunesse in May of 1973 when they traded him to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for 6-foot-4, 223-pound defenseman Rick Foley.
A Brief Stay in Philly
Lajeunesse would spend three seasons with the Flyers organization, and played all of six games with Philadelphia. What is perhaps most noteworthy about his time spent with the team was that one of those six games came during the 1973-74 NHL season, and the other five came during 1974-75. In both seasons the Flyers would win the Stanley Cup back-to-back. Lajeunesse however, barely getting a sniff of NHL action during that stretch, would not play in enough games or have enough of a role to get his named inscribed upon Lord Stanley’s chalice.
— PhillySportPast (@PhillySportPast) June 11, 2016
Still, what would be his finest professional season came during those years too. Playing for the Flyers AHL affiliate the Richmond Robins during the 1973-74 season, Lajeunesse actually led the team in goals with 28 from the back end, and finished tied for fifth overall in scoring with 45 points that year. His 28 goals were the highest for an AHL defenseman that season.
Lajeunesse’s final year of professional hockey came during the 1975-76 season. He spent the entire campaign with the Robins in the AHL, playing in just 57 of the team’s 76 games. Never catching on in the NHL, he would decide to call it a career and retired in 1976.
What Might Have Been
No one could ever question Lajeunesse’s toughness. In his first season of junior with Montreal he put up a whopping 172 penalty minutes in a mere 54 games. Despite being a modest 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, he played a very sandpaper style of hockey. In his 103 career NHL games, Lajeunesse had exactly 103 penalty minutes. The trouble is, 103 PIMS and only five career points (1G, 4A) is not acceptable for a first round draft selection.
Maybe if Lajeunesse had not been selected so high in the draft and did not fall under the guise of an elite talent coming from the fabled Junior Canadiens, perhaps he would have had less pressure to be a franchise cornerstone and could have caught on as a regular old fifth or sixth defenseman for a team.
What is also worth noting is that during the 1972 NHL Expansion Draft, when the league welcomed in the New York Islanders and the Atlanta Flames, the Red Wings kept Lajeunesse on their protected list. Had he been exposed, then perhaps it would have been a different ball game. A young defenseman with his robust style, still believed to be promising in 1972, might have had greater success with an expansion team as opposed to an “Original Six” club expecting immediate payout.
Oddly enough, Lajeunesse was not on a protected list during the 1974 NHL Expansion Draft, but neither the Kansas City Scouts nor the Washington Capitals opted to select him. Had he been, then perhaps his career could have had a bit of a resurgence.
Make no mistake however. Though he may have been forgotten, Serge Lajeunesse shall forever be a first round draft choice, and forever a two-time Memorial Cup champion. He also played over 100 NHL games, when many more never did. Those things are nothing to sniff at, and make Lajeunesse a player worth remembering.