It wasn’t too long ago that I was a big believer that the Montreal Canadiens 1999 draft was hands down the worst in franchise history.
Now, I see that I am wrong.
See, 1999 was bad, no doubt. They had 11 draft picks, none in the first round. They chose Alexander Buturlin (second round, 39th overall), Matt Carkner (second round, 58th overall), Chris Dyment (fourth round, 97th overall), Evan Lindsay (fourth round, 107th overall, Dusty Jamieson (fifth round, 136th overall), Marc-Andre Thinel (fifth round, 145th overall), Matt Shasby (fifth round, 150th overall), Sean Dixon (sixth round, 167th overall), Vadim Tarasov (seventh round, 196th overall), Mikko Hyytua (eighth round, 225th overall and Jerome Marois (ninth round, 253rd overall).
Not exactly a bounty of talent. Only one of those players ever played in the NHL. That would be Matt Carkner, who played one game with the San Jose Sharks, and 161 (and counting) with the Ottawa Senators.
Like I said, I used to believe that was the worst ever draft for the Habs. But when you look deeper, you can’t really blame them. First overall pick Patrik Stefan has been the biggest first overall bust of the past 25 years. After the Sedin twins went second and third, there wasn’t any other superstars.
Only six players total from that draft year has ever played in an all-star game (the Sedins, Nick Boyton, Martin Havlat, Ryan Miller and Henrik Zetterberg). By comparison, the 2000 draft had six all-stars from the first round alone.
So yeah, not a great bunch of talent. It’s hard to fault the Habs on that front when there wasn’t a lot to choose from.
So that got me thinking: what was the worst draft ever for the Habs?
There were plenty to choose from. The Canadiens were horrible with drafting in the 1990s. Their first round picks were Turner Stevenson (1990), Brent Bilodeau (1991), David Wilkie (1992), Saku Koivu (1993), Brad Brown (1994), Terry Ryan (1995), Matt Higgins (1996), Jason Ward (1997) and Eric Chouinard (1998).
Wow, that’s some bad drafting. With the exception of Koivu, none of those players ever made an impact with the Habs.
But no, the worst draft ever for the Habs is a more recent one. It’s one that produced more serviceable players than any of the 1990s, but it is one the Habs blew time and time again.
I’m talking about 2003, the draft that gave us Andrei Kostitsyn, Maxim Lapierre, Ryan O’Byrne and Jaroslav Halak.
Yup, that’s the year that should go down as the worst all time. In many of the picks, the players chosen in the few picks after the Habs chose have gone one to have glorious careers. Or, at the very least, serviceable careers. Twenty-two (22!) players from that draft have played in at least one all-star game. At least six have scored 40 goals in a season. Many of them have been key components in Stanley Cup victories.
None of the players chosen by the Canadiens that year have done any of those things.
Here is a pick-by-pick breakdown:
Andrei Kostitsyn: Chosen 10th overall, Kostitsyn has gone to the Alexei Kovalev school of effort. He looks great on some shifts, and then takes games off. He can throw a wicked check, but seems to struggle in big games.
This Sports Illustrated mock draft at the time had the Canadiens selecting Zach Parise. An updated mock draft from SI had the Habs choosing Ryan Getzlaf. (I’ve been trying to find a TSN mock draft from back then, but no luck. If anyone has a link to one, I’d love to see it.).
In case you are curious, here were some of the better first round picks after the Habs chose Kostitsyn: Jeff Carter at 11th, Dustin Brown at 13th, Brent Seabrook at 14th, Parise at 17th, Getzlaf at 19th, Ryan Kesler at 23rd, Mike Richards at 24th and Corey Perry at 28th. (Fun side note #1: The Devils got that Parise at that pick when they traded their 22nd pick and the 68th pick for 17th overall. The Oilers used those two picks on Marc-Antoine Pouliot and Jean-Francois Jacques.)
It’s sad when you think about what could have been.
Cory Urquhart: Drafted in the second round at 40th overall, Urquhart never played a game in the NHL. Say, who was taken at 45th that year? Could that be Patrice Bergeron? The same Patrice Bergeron who was born in Quebec, is great defensively, wins all sorts of faceoffs, and went 5-for-8 in shootouts this year? You know, pretty much every thing the Habs need right now?
Chosen 49th overall that year was future
WWE enforcer Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber.
But hey, at least Urquhart played 54 games for the Hamilton Bulldogs. Over four seasons. Because he had trouble cracking an AHL lineup. Let’s just move on to the next pick, shall we? It’s getting depressing.
Maxim Lapierre: Full disclosure. I liked Lapierre. Sure, he could have toned down his yapping a bit, but I think teams need an agitator. He worked hard, and at one point, some fans were saying he should be the captain of the Habs. Then it seemed like it went to his head, and he wasn’t the same player.
He was selected 61st overall, still in the second round. But I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a guy behind him who actually became a leader, right? There was? David Backes was chosen 62nd?
Great. All Backes has done is be a captain, score at least 30 goals twice, play on an Olympic team, and play a tough, gritty style. He’s scored more goals in the last two years then Lapierre has in his career. (Fun side note #2: The Blues got this pick by trading Cory Stillman to Tampa Bay for it).
By the way, if that wasn’t bad enough, Jimmy Howard was chosen at 64th overall. I keep getting more depressed.
Ryan O’Byrne: Oh boy, we’re on to the third round picks. O’Bryne went 79th overall, and was traded years later for Michaël Bournival. No one of consequence was taken in the next few picks after this one. (Fun side note #3: For anyone paying attention, it was earlier in this season that Michel Therrien was fired as a Habs coach. Why does this not make me feel better going into this year’s draft?)
Corey Locke: I’ll admit, as someone living in Ottawa, I was excited by this pick. We got him at 113th? Fourth round? He scored 63 goals in 66 games in junior with the Ottawa 67’s. I couldn’t believe he fell this far. He went on to play one game for the Habs, three with the Rangers and five with the Sens. So I guess the scouts knew something I didn’t.
Anyways, no one of consequence was taken soon after. Paul Bissonnette was selected eight picks after. It might have been worth it to have him on the team for several reasons: 1) As an enforcer, we wouldn’t have had to pay and then buy-out Georges Laraque; 2) he would have brought size to the team and 3) it would have been amusing to see him use his Twitter account done half in French.
(Not-so-fun side note #4: The Devils traded Mike Danton and the 101st pick to the Blues for the 93rd pick. Those players did nothing of consequence, but Danton was arrested a year later for trying to hire a hitman to kill his agent, David Frost.)
I’m going to speed things up here a bit:
The Habs took Danny Stewart in the fourth round at 123rd, Christopher Heino-Lindberg in the sixth round at 177th, Mark Flood in the sixth round at 188th and Oskari Korpikari in the seventh round at 217th. No one of consequence was taken in the several picks after each of these players, but these players taken by the Habs were no one of consequence either.
(Fun side note #5: This draft was Bob Gainey’s first as general manager of the Habs, and superscout Trevor Timmins’ first as Habs head scout.)
Jimmy Bonneau: You can get steals in the eighth round. Chosen at 241st overall, Bonneau wasn’t one of them. But the Blackhawks did get one four picks later with former power forward and current power defenceman Dustin Byfuglien.
(Fun side note #6: In case you haven’t been paying attention, the last six Habs picks have played exactly one game total for the Canadiens in eight seasons).
Jaroslav Halak: The last pick for the Habs of the draft. Chosen all the way at 271st in the ninth round, Halak is probably the best player in this draft the Habs chose in terms of impact on the team. He led them to the semi-finals a few years ago, and was great as a backup. Unfortunately, the Habs couldn’t keep Halak and Carey Price, so they let Halak go.
(Fun side note #7: Halak’s partner-in-crime in St. Louis, Brian Elliott was chosen in this same draft, and actually later. Elliott was taken 291st overall, and was the second-last player selected).
So re-read this list again. Instead of Kostitsyn, Urquhart and Lapierre, the Habs could have selected Parise, Bergeron and Backes. Or Getzlaf, Weber and Howard.
Yes, I know what the detractors will say. Drafting isn’t an exact science. Or, It’s hard to predict how 18-year-olds will turn out. But here’s the thing: How many times do you think Nashville fans revisit this draft and say “You know, I wish we had taken Andrei Kostitsyn instead of Ryan Suter.” Or Stars fans wishing they had Cory Urquhart instead of Loui Eriksson.
There’s not a single pick there (with maybe the exception of Halak) where Habs fans can say, “Yes, we got the best player available.”
Here’s the thing: Some think the 2003 draft class is the greatest of all-time. According to this National Post article, 14 players from this draft played in the 2010 Olympic gold medal game, and five players from this list are now NHL captains (Getzlaf, Eric Staal, Weber, Backes and Brown), with Richards being a former captain. Many more are alternate captains.
Nine of the first-round players have already won a Stanley Cup. An additional five players have been to the finals. That’s 14 players from that first round that have already been to the Cup finals. And that’s just one round!
In a year that has seen so many draft picks turn into superstars, team leaders and Stanley Cup champions, it’s a shame the Habs missed out on all of it.
At the end of the 2002-03 season, the Habs had missed the playoffs, had only Saku Koivu get more than 50 points, had only one player score more than 25 goals, and had a weak farm team.
The Canadiens had the opportunity to reshape this franchise at the time, and pretty much blew every single pick. That’s horrible, and that’s why 2003 has to be the worst draft in Habs history.