A look at the Montreal Canadiens’ All-Decade team for the 1980s
This is part of a series detailing the all-decade team for every NHL franchise for the 1980s. The all-time teams were compiled using a mix of skill, longevity and statistics; it is not necessarily the best, most memorably or most talented players. Instead, this is the list of players by each position who had the best numbers over a prolonged period (i.e. at least three full seasons between 1980-81 and 1989-90) during the regular season. A complete list is available here.
Team: Montreal Canadiens (1980-81 to 1989-90)
429-260-111, .606 WIN PCT, 3,145 GF vs. 2,509 GA, +636 Diff, 10/10 Playoff Appearances, 1 Stanley Cup
Montreal was a powerhouse during the 1980s. Despite the 80s being largely dominated by the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders, the Canadiens had two appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals (both against the Calgary Flames), winning once (in 1986). The Habs were above .500 all but one season (’83-84), and they recorded 90+ points eight times (including four 100+ point seasons). In addition to their two finals appearances, they also made it to the semi-finals on two other occasions. In fact they made it to at least the second round for seven consecutive seasons (1984 to 1990). The Canadiens’ 60.6% win percentage was second only to the Oilers for the decade, and they were one of just six teams to win 400+ games over ten seasons. It should come as no surprise that defense was the driving force behind Montreal’s success, it is what they were known for: their 3.14 goals-against average was #1 in the league, well ahead of #2 Boston (3.30). Montreal was no slouch on offense either, with a 3.93 goals-per-game average ranking 6th for the decade. The resulting +636 goal differential was 2nd behind only Edmonton, and significantly ahead of #3 Philadelphia (+503). They were a strong team throughout the decade, and one that could dominate at both ends of the ice.
Left Wing: Mats Naslund (617 GP, 243-369-612, +120, 107 PIM, 34 GWG)
Honourable Mention to Bob Gainey
Mats Naslund is a highly-skilled forward who, for whatever reason, doesn’t get much respect when considering either hockey in the 1980s or Montreal Canadiens forwards. In my opinion, he was the best Montreal Canadiens left winger of the past 30 years, not just the 1980s. Gainey was one of the best defensive forwards of all time, and he could also chip in offensively (five seasons of 17+ goals, four seasons of 39+ points), but Naslund was a key driver of their offense. He had a career year with 110 points in the Canadiens’ cup-winning season of 1986, and in nearly every other season he was a point-per-game threat. He scored at least 21 goals every season, including two 40-goal seasons. He scored 70+ points six times, including 80+ four times. He was a gifted playmaker too, recording 50+ assists in four consecutive seasons. He was defensively responsible, with a positive +/- rating in nine of ten seasons (he was +11 or better seven times). He was a threat on the power play too, scoring 9+ PPG four times (including 19 in ’85-86). A terrifically talented player who exemplified the quick, skilled and clean game that the Canadiens were so well known for during their glory years. He also scored 34 game-winning goals, 14% of his goals during the decade.
Centre: Bobby Smith (505 GP, 172-310-482, +34, 430 PIM, 27 GWG)
Honourable Mention to Guy Carbonneau
Similar to the Gainey-Naslund comparison, Carbonneau was a solid two-way forward who chipped in offensively: in eight full seasons, he scored 50+ points five times and 20+ goals four times, in addition to posting a +14 or better rating six times. But Smith was their #1 centre, and with good reason: he was big and he was talented. Acquired from Minnesota for a relative pittance, Smith provided Montreal with a solid talent in the middle for seven seasons. He had three average seasons and four solid big ones, but those four big ones were fantastic. Four seasons of 27-32 goals and 75+ points, including a high of 93 in ’87-88. He also chipped in on the power play rather consistently, typically scoring 5-8 PPG. He also had 195+ shots on goal four times. The man was clutch, too: 27 of his goals were game-winners, 16% of his total.
Right Wing: Stephane Richer (337 GP, 167-138-305, +64, 309 PIM, 30 GWG)
Honourable Mention to Mark Napier
I also want to give a shout-out to Guy Lafleur and Mario Tremblay; their stats during the 1980s were solid, but simply not good enough to eclipse Richer (or Napier). Napier came the closest to unseating Richer, but ultimately his shorter tenure (just over three seasons) let to him being dropped down to honourable mention (although he did score 35-40 goals and 67-81 points, in addition to a stellar +103 rating in 237 games). Richer took a few seasons to find his stride, before exploding for 50 goals and 78 points in ’87-88. While his production dropped off the next season, he rebounded for 51 goals and 91 points in ’89-90. While Richer was inconsistent, his talent cannot be denied. He was the first Canadiens player to score 50 goals in eight years when he did it. And since Richer did it twice in two seasons, no Habs forward has even done it once (23 years and counting as of the end of the ’12-13 season). On top of that he was positive for +/- every year, and an impressive 18% of his goals were game-winners (30). So while others were more consistent, Richer reached some great heights that haven’t been touched since.
Defense: Larry Robinson (632 GP, 103-361-464, +275, 329 PIM, 12 GWG)
Never mind just the 1980s, Larry Robinson is (in my opinion) one of the greatest defensemen of the modern era. In nine seasons for Montreal during the 1980s, he played 70+ games seven times. He had six seasons of 12+ goals, eight seasons of 33+ assists, and five 50+ point seasons (including a high of 82 in their cup-winning season of ’85-86). He only once… once… had a +/- rating below +23. Let that sink in; he was +23 or better eight times in nine years. That’s amazing. Considering the Habs were +636 for the decade, he was on the ice for nearly half of that positive difference. Incredible. He was a clean player, never recording more than 44 penalty minutes in a single season. In addition to typically potting 5-7 powerplay goals a season, 12% of his goals were game-winners. Easily the best Montreal defender of the decade.
Defense: Chris Chelios (390 GP, 72-235-307, +79, 771 PIM, 14 GWG)
Honourable Mention to Petr Svoboda
It’s a shame Chris Chelios didn’t get to spend more time in a Canadiens uniform, because they missed out on the prime of his career, where (for Chicago) he was one of the best defenseman of the 1990s. But they got six seasons from Chelios, and he was incredible. He never scored less than 30 points. In fact, he scored between 61-73 points three times. He also had 8 or more goals in each season, three times hitting double-digits (and once potting 20 goals). He was +11 or better four times, and was only negative once (-5 in ’86-87). He scored 24 powerplay goals during a three-year stretch. And in a two-year period from’87-88 to ’88-89, 11 of his 35 goals were game winning goals. In all, 19% of his goals for Montreal during the 1980s were game-winners. It’s unfortunate that the Canadiens dealt him to Chicago for a past-his-prime Denis Savard, because Chelios was just about to hit his stride as a Hall-of-Fame defenseman. But at least they got a few productive seasons from him, and he got a Stanley Cup ring out of it. Honourable mention goes to Petr Svoboda: he put in six seasons of quality service, four times hitting 29+ points and never posting less than a +14 rating (+148 overall and 182 points in 416 games).
Goalie: Patrick Roy (241 GP, 133-67-29, 12 SO, 2.82 GAA, 0.907 PCT)
*NOTE: Save Percentage is from ’87-88 to ’89-90 only
Honourable Mention to Brian Hayward
As with Edmonton, Montreal’s organizational depth is spoken to in the number of Honourable Mentions (i.e. players who likely could have made the best-of list with another franchise). Hayward was one such player. Although he never played the majority of games for the Canadiens in a given season, he played between 29-39 games each year for four seasons at the end of the 1980s. A record of 71-48-0 with a 2.96 GAA and .889 PCT gets him a mention, especially during the fire wagon era of the 1980s. But Patrick Roy stands out. The starting goaltender for the last five seasons of the 1980s, Roy guided Montreal to the Stanley Cup in 1986 and a rematch against the Calgary Flames in the 1989 finals. He never had a losing record, and he was a sickening 33-5-6 in ’88-89. In an era of all-out offense, his goals-against average was comfortably under three (2.82), and his save percentage (for the years it was tracked) was above 90%. He also recorded an impressive 12 shutouts. Roy was quite possibly the best goaltender of the 1980s, with Grant Fuhr and Mike Liut arguably his only real competition.