June 16, 2007

NHL Entry Draft History: 1979

The 1979 NHL Entry Draft is widely considered to be the best and deepest draft in NHL history. It's no wonder why. Take a look at these first rounders:

1. Rob Ramage - 1044 games played, 2 Stanley Cups
3. Mike Foligno - 1018 games played, 355 career goals
4. Mike Gartner - 1432 games played, 708 career goals
5. Rick Vaive - 876 games played, 441 career goals
6. Craig Hartsburg - 570 careers games in injury shortened tenure
7. Keith Brown - 876 career games
8. Ray Bourque - 1532 career games, 1 Stanley Cup, 5 Norris trophies, 19 All Star teams, Hockey Hall of Fame
9. Laurie Boschman - 1009 games played
10. Tom McCarthy - 460 games played in injury shortened tenure
11. Mike Ramsey - 1070 games played
12. Paul Reinhart - 648 career games played in injury shortened tenure.
13. Doug Sulliman - 631 games played
14. Brian Propp - 1016 games played, 425 career goals
15. Brad McCrimmon - 1222 games played
16. Jay Wells - 1098 games played
17. Duane Sutter - 731 games played
20. Michel Goulet - 1089 games played, 548 career goals, Hockey Hall of Fame
21. Kevin Lowe - 1254 games played, 6 Stanley Cups

When a first round can produce 11 1000+ games played players out of 21 selections, that's amazing. Even more amazing: this draft produced 6 more 1000+ games players:

40. Dave Christian, 41. Dale Hunter, 42. Neal Broten, 44. Guy Carbonneau, 48. Mark Messier, 69. Glenn Anderson.

And several players close to 1000 games, including 27. Brent Ashton (998 gp), 30. Mark Hardy (915 gp), 66. John Ogrodnick (928 gp), 103. Thomas Steen (950 gp), 112. Doug Crossman (914 GP) and 120 Mike Krushelnyski (897 gp).

Of the 126 players selected, an astonishing 103 (over 81%) played in the NHL. Other notable players include Tomas Jonsson, Lindy Ruff, Pelle Lindbergh, Mats Naslund, Tim Hunter, Rick Wamsley, Keith Crowder, Rollie Melanson, Jim Peplinski, Ray Neufeld, Anton Stastny, Dirk Graham, Alan Haworth and Tim Watters.

So why was this draft so prolific? It was essentially two drafts in one. For the first time since 1974, the NHL allowed the drafting of underage players. This draft also included the influx of underage players from the WHA, which had merged with the NHL in the spring of 1979. In its final season, the WHA had signed numerous teenagers, and their development had been accelerated by their opportunity to enter pro hockey so early. The NHL never had a chance to draft these players.

Three players posed problems for this draft: Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier played in the WHA as 17 year olds and would normally have been too young to enter the NHL in 1979. Tom McCarthy was a junior player whose birthday was just shy of the draft date, which would have forced him to wait one more year. McCarthy threatened legal action.

In Gretzky's case, the NHL avoided a draft dilemma by letting Edmonton retain his rights from its WHA franchise. Although why the NHL would rape the WHA teams like they did but allow them to keep the crown jewel is something I never understood.

Messier, however, was coming from a defunct WHA team (Cincinnati) and had to join a new one in the NHL. The NHL made 18 year old Messier eligible for this draft, and all 18 year olds would be made eligible the following year, with the provision that if they could not make the jump to the NHL immediately then they would be returned to their junior clubs.

The NHL solved the McCarthy legal threat by holding the draft in August, just after McCarthy's birthday, in order to make him eligible.

The late draft date, the latest in NHL draft history, forced the NHL to hold a small draft of just 126 players. This created free agent opportunities for other junior players. In all, 31 prospects were signed as free agents, including Dino Ciccarelli, Tim Kerr, J-F Sauve, Ron Flockhart and Dave Pichette.

On the interesting side, Minnesota used pick 111 to draft Brian Gualazzi. Gualazzi never played in the NHL and later attended Dalhousie University to become a crown attorney in his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. While playing junior hockey for the Soo Greyhounds, Gualazzi unsuspectingly made a big impact on hockey history when he refused to give up his jersey number 9 to a 16 year old rookie, forcing the rookie to switch from his cherished number. That rookie? #99 Wayne Gretzky.

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