The dearth of Quebec-born talent on the Montreal Canadiens has been a ongoing source of deep anxiety among certain segments of the Montreal media. Though deeper cultural anxieties heavily influence this general discourse, three empirical points add a certain justifiability to the chronic anxiety:
1) The Quebec-born presence on the Montreal Canadiens plunged dramatically in the first decade of this century. In terms of regular season man games, the Quebec-born presence on the team fell from 44% in 2002-2003 to 14% in 2009-2010.
2) League-wide, the Quebec-born presence has been declining steadily since expansion. In 1968-69, 21% of all regular season man games were played by Quebec-born players. By contrast, in 2009-2010, Quebec-born players only accounted for 7% of all regular season man games.
3) As documented recently by HabsWatch, the percentage of Quebec-born players drafted out of the QMJHL has been stagnant over the past two decades.
Add those three facts up, and it certainly paints a troubling picture for those who pine for a more ethnically homogeneous version of the Habs.
But looking at the historical trend line, we see that the Quebec-born presence on the Habs has oscillated wildly since expansion. Over the past 43 years, there have been periodics of dramatic increase and periods of dramatic decline in the Quebec-born presence on the Habs–this despite the steady NHL-wide declivity in Quebec-born representation. The fact that the Habs’ trend line bears very little resemblance to the league trend line suggests that managerial factors have played a significant role in determining how much Quebec-born talent suits up for Montreal Canadiens games.
In 1977-78, the final year of Sam Pollock’s term as general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, the Quebec-born presence on the team stood at 56%. The Quebec-born presence underwent a precipitous plunge during the Grundman and early Savard years, dropping to a low point of 24% in the Cup loss season of 1988-89. A rebound occurred in the later Savard years, with the Quebec-born contingent accounting for 51% of regular season man games in the 1992-93 Cup season. That share was slashed in half by the end of the 1990s, but under Andre Savard’s mandate it rose back up to a high of 44%. As mentioned above, it has been in free fall ever since.
So, the question is: given the systemic forces that have been acting since expansion to reduce the presence of Quebec-born talent in the NHL, how does a Montreal Canadiens general manager assemble a critical mass of such players on his team? (Leaving aside for the moment the more thorny question of whether he ought to assemble such a critical mass).
Let’s look at 3 examples, each of which represents a peak in the presence of Quebec-born talent on the team for a given era.
As mentioned earlier, the 1977-78 team had a Quebec-born contingent that accounted for 56% of regular season man games. Sam Pollock built this contingent using two methods: 1) pre-draft exclusive rights negotiation lists and C Forms, which netted him Hall of Famers like Jacques Lemaire, Yvan Cournoyer, and Serge Savard; 2) the NHL Amateur Draft, which netted him players like Guy Lafleur, Mario Tremblay, and Pierre Mondou.
From a man games perspective, Quebec-born talent constituted just over half of the hallowed 1992-93 Cup team. Serge Savard assembled this group largely through the draft. Two-thirds of the Quebec-born talent on that team came via the draft, including Patrick Roy, Guy Carbonneau, Eric Desjardins, and Stephan Lebeau. Supplementing the drafted core were three Quebec-born players acquired via trade: Denis Savard, J.J. Daigneault, and Vincent Damphousse.
Finally, there was a renaissance in the Quebec-born presence on the Habs in the early 2000s. Unlike the 1978 and 1993 contingents, trades and free agency brought in close to three-quarters of the Quebec-born talent on this team, including
players like Donald Audette, Joe Juneau, Stephane Quintal, and Yanic Perreault. In this case, the term talent is used in the generic, and not descriptive, sense.
At various times in past 43 years, managerial intervention has ensured a healthy Quebec-born presence on the Montreal Canadiens, despite overarching trends causing a diminishment in the share of Quebec-born talent league-wide. But the tactics have certainly changed over time. Entering the second decade of the 21st century, would it even be possible for the Habs to get back to a 30%-40% Quebec-born presence solely via bullet-proof drafting? Or would an activist management have to bring in sub-par Quebec-born players via free agency or trade? And if they did go that route, would certain segments of the media accept a performance trade off? After all, there aren’t many fond memories from 2002-2003 left in my mind.
Note: A sizable chunk of the data included in this analysis comes thanks to the great team at QuantHockey.com.