Quick: name the best draft class in NHL history. If you’re a millennial, you might lean toward 2003, and you’d have a decent case. But most people will instantly answer 1979.
It’s tough to argue against what the ’79 talent pool gave the NHL 40 years ago. The class included five Hall of Famers: Ray Bourque, Mark Messier, Mike Gartner, Michel Goulet and Glenn Anderson, and could’ve netted a sixth, for all we know, had goaltender Pelle Lindbergh not died months after winning his first Vezina Trophy in 1985. The class netted 17 players who skated in 1,000 or more NHL games, seven 1,000-point scorers and eight 400-goal scorers.
The 1979 draft is the gold standard. It also holds some advantages over every other draft. Not only did the league lower the eligibility age from 20 to 18 that year, but the draft was also the first since the NHL/WHA merger. Any WHA players who were young enough to meet the requirements could be picked. The lowering of the draft age essentially put three years’ worth of picks into one draft class, and the WHA offered players who already had pro experience. Jim Gregory was the director of Central Scouting at the time and recalls GMs around the league being highly enthused about it – especially the possibility of picking WHA kids. “They were playing pro hockey already,” Gregory said.
According to Harry Sinden, who was GM of the Bruins, the consensus among front offices league-wide was that the WHA kids would fly off the board in succession at the top of the draft. Most teams ranked a smattering of them at the top of their cheat sheets. Blueliner Rob Ramage went first overall, Gartner went fourth, Rick Vaive fifth and Craig Hartsburg sixth, making four of the top six picks WHA players. Teams also weren’t too tempted by the lowered age rules. Five of the first six selections were 20-year-olds.
The WHA feeder system and bias toward older players were largely responsible for what, in hindsight, looks like a bunch of legendary players being stolen with later picks. Bourque, for instance, would go first or second overall now, but he was 18 on draft day in 1979. That was a big reason why he slipped to eighth. The Colorado Rockies wanted a defenseman but chose the older Ramage, who had a year of pro experience with the WHA’s Birmingham Bulls. The Bulls were a big feeder system of the 1979 class, producing Ramage, Vaive, Hartsburg and Goulet in Round 1.
Sinden was thrilled to get Bourque – though he almost didn’t, because his Bruins scouts were enamored with defenseman Keith Brown. The arguing continued right up until draft day at the table. Sinden had seen Bourque play a few games in a prospect tournament and was adamant he was the kid to take. “I finally said, ‘I’ve never seen Brown play, and I’ve seen Bourque play, so if you decide to take Brown, it better work, because I know how good Bourque is,’ ” said Sinden, though the point was rendered moot when Chicago grabbed Brown one pick before Boston’s turn.
The avoidance of the 18-year-olds early in the draft helped build the Edmonton Oilers dynasty, as they landed peach-fuzzers Messier and Anderson with picks 48 and 69 after taking 20-year-old blueline stalwart Kevin Lowe with the last pick of Round 1. They also, of course, owned an 18-year-old phenom named Wayne Gretzky. With the draft age lowered, Gretzky should’ve been eligible, but he didn’t want to end up with the Rockies, so he, the Oilers and the NHL struck a deal to honor his existing WHA contract with the Oilers in exchange for Edmonton being buried at the bottom of the draft order. That kind of stunt would cause outrage today, but the complaints were relatively minor at the time because there was simply less footage of Gretzky – and less hype. “I’m not 100-percent certain the word was all out on Gretzky yet at that age,” Sinden said. “Everybody had heard of him, but I don’t think everyone had a real good book on him at that point. For instance, if it had been Connor McDavid, where we see him so often on television, everybody saw him play around Ontario, there would be no question that if the same thing had arisen with McDavid, there would have been a lot of squawking as to why he wasn’t in the draft. But Gretzky didn’t quite have the name yet as compared to McDavid.”
Also making 1979 unique: at just six rounds and 126 players, it’s the smallest draft of the entry-draft era. That meant a number of good players went unselected, including Hall of Famer Dino Ciccarelli and dominant power forward Tim Kerr.
1979 Draft Revisionist History
Reordering the draft is a complicated exercise. Some decisions are easy, such as elevating the five Hall of Famers to the top of the first round. The rankings get trickier when it comes to projection. Paul Reinhart had a fine career including finishes of seventh and 12th in Norris Trophy voting, but he played just 11 years. Rob Ramage, who didn’t dominate as much as a No. 1 overall pick should, gets a higher rank because he played almost 400 more games than Reinhart across a very good if unspectacular career.
The toughest to rank was the late Pelle Lindbergh. He finished seventh in Vezina voting in 1982-83, won the award in 1984-85 and died in a car accident at 26 in November 1985. We couldn’t project out his career too much, but he was on a star trajectory, and we named him one of The Hockey News’ top 100 goalies of all-time last year, so he deserved to be on the list. “He came to the NHL, and even though he lasted three-and-a-half years, he was a top three-and-a-half-year guy,” said Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke, Lindbergh’s former teammate and the Flyers GM when Lindbergh died. “It’s an awful way of putting it. I don’t know how that projects into what his future would’ve been, but he was for his short life a great goalie. I don’t think that would’ve changed. If anything, he would’ve gotten better.” – Matt Larkin
1. Ray Bourque, D (8th overall by Boston)
2. Mark Messier, C (48th by Edmonton)
3. Mike Gartner, RW (4th overall by Washington)
4. Michel Goulet, LW (20th overall by Quebec)
5. Glenn Anderson, RW (69th by Edmonton)
6. Dale Hunter, C (41st by Quebec)
7. Guy Carbonneau, C (44th by Montreal)
8. Kevin Lowe, D (21st by Edmonton)
9. Mike Ramsey, D (11th by Buffalo)
10. Brad McCrimmon, D (15th by Boston)
11. Brian Propp, LW (14th by Philadelphia)
12. Neal Broten, C (42nd by Minnesota)
13. Rob Ramage, D (1st by Colorado)
14. Thomas Steen, C (103rd by Winnipeg)
15. Rick Vaive, RW (5th by Vancouver)
16. Paul Reinhart, D (12th by Atlanta)
17. Mats Naslund, LW (37th by Montreal)
18. Dave Christian, RW (40th by Winnipeg)
19. Craig Hartsburg, D (6th by Minnesota)
20. Mike Foligno, RW (3rd by Detroit)
21. Pelle Lindbergh, G (35th by Philadelphia)