Ari Grief The Hockey Writers
Top 10 All-Time Underrated Habs
This article was originally published in September, 2013.
Some players get all the acclaim. Others go about their business in the shadows, preferring to let the P.K. Subbans of the world grab the spotlight. You know — the kind of guys who we rarely see fans wearing their name/numbers on a jersey. And most of them are fine with that. But don’t tell me Tomas Plekanec wouldn’t mind being named to the All-Star team — if anything, just to give the guy an iota of respect he rightly deserves across the league.
The Jacques Beauchamp Trophy was created by the Canadiens in 1981-82 for exactly that: to recognize those players who are just outside the limelight; the fourth star so to speak. Those players who have an unmistakable impact on the game and whose absence on the ice is noticed by teammates and fans alike. Last year, Brandon Prust won it. Makes sense right? Some of the players on this list have won the award too. I wouldn’t label Prust as underrated though. If anything, his impact last year may have been overstated. We’ll see how he fares this season.
It should be noted that the following list is MY list and as such, it doesn’t include Habs players who probably deserve recognition here but who laced ‘em up prior to my hockey awakening. Someone like Claude Provost (1955-1970), who holds the dubious “record” of being the player that won the most Stanley Cups (9 times!) but is not a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. I’m only including players who I saw play (1976-present). So by all means, let me know who else you think belongs here.
Underrated Habs #10: Jeff Hackett (G)
Hackett manned the pipes for the Canadiens in the time I consider to be Montreal’s “dead zone”– that period between the Patrick Roy debacle and the emergence of José Theodore. Hackett was a solid performer and even stole the show occasionally on some pretty average Canadiens teams – and he was always a straight shooter in the room.
Underrated Habs #9: Mark Napier (RW)
Napier was one of those guys who kind of found himself in the right place at the right time, playing with two of the NHL’s top offensive threats of all time: Guy Lafleur and Wayne Gretzky. He won cups with both. The guy was a reliable offensive threat on his own though, potting two 40 goal seasons in a row for the Habs (’82 & ’83). So he had value when he was shipped to the Minnesota North Stars along with Keith Acton for Bobby Smith. The emergence of another small forward in Mats Naslund probably made him expendable.
Underrated Habs #8: Josh Gorges (D)
We’ve seen Josh Gorges’ emergence from quiet, know-his-place kind of player to blueline stalwart and emerging leader for the Canadiens. People say Subban benefited the most from veteran Hal Gill’s leadership and experience but actually it was Gorges. In some ways, he’s the anti-Subban. He won the Jacques Beauchamp Trophy in 2012 after coming back from knee surgery (although he struggled at times that season, like many of his teammates).
Gorges is rumoured to be high on the list as the next team Captain and it would be completely warranted. He also represents arguably former GM Bob Gainey’s best trade, acquired with the pick that turned into Max Pacioretty for Craig Rivet. I’m a bit surprised – and disappointed frankly – the Canadian National Olympic brass didn’t consider him for the 2014 team. He’s a great stay-at-home dman which that team will need to win gold. There’s still time.
Underrated Habs #7: Cristobal Huet (G)
What? Another goalie? Wait a second, I thought you said fans didn’t wear these players’ jerseys!? Sure, Huet was popular. He was on the radar. Doesn’t matter. Cristo Huet is the goalie in my mind associated with the resurging Habs, the goalie who gave fans hope that the franchise had finally turned the corner and was heading in the right direction. His solid play gave the team brass the chutzpah to get rid of fan favourite Theodore (besides the fact that both Price and Halak were in the system at that point), and his no-nonsense, easy demeanor and workman-like attitude perfectly sums up this list. He played his way on to the All-Star team in 2007. He didn’t want to leave Montreal, but his reward was a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 (even if he wasn’t the starter).
Underrated Habs #6: Ryan Walter (C)
Walter came over to the Canadiens with Rick Green (who also could have been on this list) in a trade with the Washington Capitals for Rod Langway, Brian Engblom and Craig Laughlin — remember him!? Langway became a HOFer for the Caps, but Walter was no chump either. In his last year in Washington he scored 38 goals and then a very respectable 29 in his first year with the Habs. His production tailed off as his role evolved to being a tough, reliable, hardworking player who was excellent in the playoff circle and who wasn’t afraid to sit in the crease and wreak havoc on opposing goalies. A lot of his goals during that time were deflections. Gee, we could use a Ryan Walter right now!!
Underrated Habs #8: Guy Lapointe (D)
When I was a kid growing up, it was always Guy Lapointe’s fault when something went wrong. At least that’s what my brothers said. Well someone needed to be blamed. It’s not easy for a guy to get any respect playing in the shadows of two future HOF rearguards in Robinson and Savard. Lapointe was part of the team’s “Big Three” during their 1970’s dynasty. Ultimately he too was inducted into the Hall of Fame, but it’s my impression he never really received the same kind of respect Robinson and Savard garnered. He’s also the only player on this list who played on the ’72 Summit Series team.
Like #1 on this list, Lapointe played much bigger than his 6ft. frame indicates. He bodychecked with the best of them, yet was also an offensive threat with his booming slapshot. Believe it or not, Lapointed scored over 20 goals in a season three times, with 28 being his high water mark in the ’74-’75 season, a franchise record. Let’s see Subban top that.
Underrated Habs #4: Mike McPhee (LW)
The guy with the ever-present ‘stache, Mike McPhee perfectly represents his era’s version of the power forward. He could skate, make plays, pick the top shelf and punch you out — sometimes all at the same time. McPhee won the Jacques Beauchamp trophy three times which pretty much says it all. He probably would’ve scored more had he not been paired with the offensively-challenged Brian Skrudland, but he did see powerplay time on occasion and eventually played with Russ Courtnall (who was all offence, but counter-balanced by Guy Carbonneau). McPhee made that sweet pass to Skrudland in the ’86 finals for his record fastest goal in OT. Man, this never gets old:
Underrated Habs #3: Doug Jarvis (C)
Jarvis woulda coulda received more recognition if it weren’t for his somewhat more talented and physical linemate, Bob Gainey. Gainey was such a good two-way player, the league created the Frank J. Selke Trophy in 1978 for best defensive forward just to give the guy whom the Russians called “the best hockey player in the world” some recognition. But Jarvis didn’t complain. It wasn’t his way anyhow. He won four cups with the Habs and ultimately went on to become the league’s all-time ironman when he dethroned St. Louis’ Gary Unger, playing a record 964 games in a row. He also won the Masterton (1987) and Selke (1984) trophies – so the guy has received some love. But you probably didn’t know he won these awards, and that’s the point.
Underrated Habs #2: Tomas Plekanec (C)
Plekanec knows he’s good.
That’s why he’s always the first to admit when he can do better. I always feel bad for Pleks when he’s busted in the media for not scoring, because he does so many other things so well that it’s unfair for his game to be judged on scoring alone. But the guy is one of the league’s best two-way forwards. He kills penalties; he picks the top shelf; he takes faceoffs; he plays the powerplay. His problem is that he’s playing in the Pavel Datsyuk/Patrice Bergeron/Jonathan Toews era. Otherwise he’d get a lot more due. But you can be sure his name is on opposing teams’ white boards pre-game when preparing to play against the Canadiens.
Underrated Habs #1: Craig Ludwig (D)
Craig Ludwig? Number 1! Are you crazy!? But that’s the point. That’s why he tops this list. He won the Beauchamp Trophy on three separate occasions. Ludwig was to the Canadiens’ blueline in the ‘80’s like Guy Lapointe was to the team in the ‘70’s — without the goals. Ludwig scoring was like Hal Gill scoring — not often! The guy is the gold standard – in my view – of someone who shuts up, does his job day in and day out, doesn’t complain, goes home and stays out of the way.
At just a bit over 6 feet, Ludwig played much bigger than his size, and his bruising hip checks à la Larry Robinson made wingers think twice about entering the Canadiens’ zone during that era. He looked like he was sleeping out there, but you didn’t want to get him mad — he’d drop the gloves in a heartbeat. The stay-at-home defenceman cleared the net in front like a manic housekeeper allowing Patrick Roy to see the puck so he could be well… Patrick Roy. Ludwig also blocked shots in a way that would make even John Tortorella proud. Ludwig won the cup with the Habs in ’86 and with the Gainey-helmed Stars in ’99. I see Jarred Tinordi as a player in the Craig Ludwig mold, only better. The Canadiens can only hope.
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