After the Montreal Canadiens thrilling game 7 victory over the Washington Capitals, and with the puck set to drop on their second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, I thought I would take a look back at the storied history of the Canadiens franchise – more specifically the greatest Canadiens of all time.
Now, while the current Canadiens roster contains some great players, it is pretty unlikely that any of them are going to eventually crack the list of the top 10 Montreal Canadiens (though if Jaroslav Halak keeps playing the way he did in the first round he might get some votes). That being said, with a history as long and as rich in tradition as the Habs’ is, only the game’s biggest superstars would have a chance of displacing the legends that have played for this 100+ year old franchise. With so many greats to choose from it was hard to narrow the list down to just 10, but after much agonizing I think I’ve got it sorted. Here are my picks for the top 10 best Montreal Canadiens players of all time:
10 – Larry Robinson
The man known as “Big Bird” was a force for the Canadiens in the 1970’s and 1980’s. During the 70’s he was part of “The Big Three”, a defensive trio that included Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe. Together, they stymied the offense of opposing teams, and were nearly as effective generating offense as they were on the defensive side of the puck. During his time with the Habs Robinson captured 6 Stanley Cup rings, earned 2 Norris Trophies, and helped his Canadiens make the playoffs in each and every one of his 17 seasons with the club.
9 – Henri Richard
When you have more Stanley Cup rings as a player than anyone else in hockey history you certainly can’t be denied a spot on some random blogger’s list of the greatest Habs of all time. The “Pocket Rocket” may have lived under the enormous shadow of his brother, Maurice, but he was a crucial cog in the powerful Canadiens teams of the 60’s, 60’s and 70’s. Not only was he a proven winner, but he put up some pretty impressive personal stats during his 20 year career. In all he suited up for 1,256 games in his NHL career, all with the Montreal Canadiens, and the 1,046 points he put up over that span gave him 81 more than his more famous brother.
8 – Patrick Roy
Had Patrick Roy played his entire career with the Montreal Canadiens, and not left town following a bitter confrontation with former Habs’ bench boss, Mario Tremblay, there is little doubt he would rank a lot higher on this list. However, though many Habs fans will never forgive Roy for departing the way he did, there is no denying the incredible contribution he made to the franchise during his time there. In 1986 as a rookie he put on a brilliant display of goaltending belying his youth and inexperience. Roy took a mediocre team and put it on his back, taking them all the way to glory, earning his first Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
In 1993 he repeated the feat, turning in maybe the most impressive string of clutch goaltending in NHL history as he helped the Habs win a record-setting 10 straight overtime games that year, en route to his second Stanley Cup, and a 2nd Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. Roy would go on to earn two more cups and another Conn Smythe in his career. Unfortunately for Habs fans those achievements came when Roy was a member of the Colorado Avalanche.
7 – Howie Morenz
One of the NHL’s first bona fide superstars, Howie Morenz was known as “The Stratford Streak” for his blazing skating speed. Though he also spent short stints as a member of both the Chicago Blackhawks and the New York Rangers, he spent the bulk of his career as a Montreal Canadien, and helped the team win 3 Stanley Cups, scoring the Stanley Cup winning goal in two of those seasons. One of the game’s deadliest scorers, Morenz netted a whopping 40 goals in just 44 games in the 1929-30 season. During his career he captured a pair of Art Ross Trophies as the NHL’s leading scorer, and was a three time recipient of the Hart Trophy. Sadly, Morenz died in hospital of a heart attack at the age of only 34 after suffering a devastating leg injury in a 1937 game against Chicago.
6 – Jacques Plante
I might take some heat for this placement, and with good reason. Jacques Plante won 5 straight Vezina Trophies in the late 50’s, helping his Canadiens – arguably the greatest Habs squad ever assembled – win a record 5 straight Stanley Cups over the same period. In 1962 he captured another Vezina, along with the Hart Trophy – a rare feat for goaltenders. He also revolutionized the goaltending position when he defied coach Toe Blake and donned a mask to finish a game after breaking his nose. He was not the first goalie to wear a mask in an NHL game, but he popularized it, and changed “the face” of NHL goaltenders forever.
5 – Jean Beliveau
It speaks to the wealth of legendary talent the Canadiens have enjoyed over the years that this former superstar can only crack the #5 spot on the list of all time Habs greats. Beliveau ranks second all time in scoring amongst Montreal Canadiens players, with 1,219 points in just 1,125 career points. He holds the NHL record for total Stanley Cups, having won 10 as a player, and adding 7 more as a Canadiens’ executive. He is known as perhaps the classiest player to ever suit up for an NHL game, and during his storied career won an Art Ross Trophy, 2 Hart Trophies, and appeared in the NHL All-Star Game a staggering 14 times.
4 – Ken Dryden
Though placing Dryden ahead of Plante might raise some eyebrows among longtime Canadiens fans, I believe the choice is justified. Dryden only played 8 short seasons with the club, but during that time his numbers are so dominant as to defy belief. In 1971 he helped the club hoist the Stanley Cup, putting on one of the greatest displays of goaltending of the modern era. This accomplishment came before he was a rookie, as Dryden had only played 6 regular season games before taking the reins during their playoff run. In the seasons to come his achievements would pile up quickly. He helped the Habs win 5 more Stanley Cups, earning himself 5 Vezina Trophies along the way. In 397 career games, Dryden only lost 57 of them! That, more than any other stat, in my mind, cements his place as the greatest Habs goalie of all time.
3 – Doug Harvey
Though Bobby Orr is the #1 choice on any rational hockey fan’s list of the greatest NHL defensemen of all time, Doug Harvey is more often than not the man in the runner-up position. Harvey, like Dryden, helped his club win 6 Stanley Cups during his tenure there, and his 7 Norris Trophies as the NHL’s best defenseman are second all-time to Orr’s 8. Harvey’s impact on the game is undeniable, and his penchant for rushing the puck, and joining in the offensive attack paved the way for great offensive defensemen like Orr, Potvin, Coffey and Bourque.
2 – Guy Lafleur
Few players in the history of the sport were as exciting as “The Flower”. One of the most enduring images in hockey is the sight of Lafleur rushing down the wing, blonde hair flying before unleashing a devastating slapshot. Over his Hall of Fame career he won 3 Art Ross Trophies, a pair of Hart Trophies, and a Conn Smythe, and helped the Habs hoist the Stanley Cup 5 times in the 1970’s. Though he spent the twilight of his career with the Quebec Nordiques and New York Rangers, Lafleur will always be known as a Hab. Perhaps the most popular Canadiens player of all time, Lafleur is also the franchise’s most prolific point-getter as well, his 1,246 career points a team record that is unlikely to be touched in the foreseeable future.
1 – Maurice “The Rocket” Richard
As great as Harvey and Lafleur were, in my mind there is only one logical choice for the #1 spot on the list of the top 10 best Montreal Canadiens of all time. The Rocket is the ultimate Canadien, and looking at old pictures and seeing the fiery glint in his eye, you can see beyond the shadow of a doubt just what an intense competitor he was. He was the first player in NHL history to score 50 goals, accomplishing the feat in just 50 games – an accomplishment unmatched for nearly 4 decades. Over his time with the Habs he won 9 Stanley Cups, and his 544 career goals were an NHL record at the time of his retirement. Yes, there have been many legendary Canadiens in the century of the club’s existence, but none but Richard can lay claim to the title of “Greatest Montreal Canadien of All Time”.