Serge “The Senator” Savard
Montreal Canadiens, 1983-1995
Adams Division Titles, 1984-1985, 1987-1989, 1991-1992
Playoff Appearances: 1984-1994
Stanley Cup Finals Appearances: 1986, 1989, 1993
Stanley Cup Victories: 1986, 1993
Since 1979 (after making 21 out of 29 possible appearances in the Stanley Cup finals) the Montreal Canadiens have only reached the Stanley Cup finals three times and Serge Savard was the man who managed the Habs through those three appearances.
When Canadiens no longer required the services of Irving Grundman there was considerable debate as to who should succeed Grundman as GM.
Habs historian D’Arcy Jenish writes that, “Molson Breweries had appointed Ronald Corey…to halt the slide that was occurring under Grundman. The new president had acted decisively by cleaning house. His next challenge was to find the right person to lead the Canadiens back to their accustomed place at or near the summit, and he received plenty of help from the French-language media.”
The Montreal newspaper La Presse polled its readers asking them who should be the next Canadiens GM. The poll results were fascinating: former Habs legends Jacques Lemaire and Serge Savard were the top two candidates in the eyes of the public.
Corey offered the job to Savard (who, in turn, hired Lemaire to be his first head coach thus launching Lemaire’s magnificent NHL coaching career).
Serge Savard was already NHL folklore when he assumed the general manager’s position in 1983.
He was one of the greatest defencemen to play the game during the late 1960s and 1970s; serving as 1/3 of the Big Three along with Larry Robinson and Guy Lapointe who made the lives of Montreal Canadiens goaltenders so much easier with their superb defensive play; helping the Habs win Stanley Cups in 1968, 1969, 1971, 1973, and 1976 to 1979.
He became the first blue-liner to win the Conn Smythe Trophy when the Habs won the 1969 Stanley Cup. He was a member of Team Canada during the immortal 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union
Savard’s puck-controlling skills inspired the late Danny Gallivan to coin the immortal phrase “the Savardian Spin-o-rama”.
When Montreal began to lose steam during the early 1980s Savard was traded to the Winnipeg Jets (now the Phoenix Coyotes) and finished his playing career there but his heart always remained in Montreal.
Serge made his presence felt immediately. In his first draft he claimed Claude Lemieux in the second round and in October 1983 acquired veteran center Bobby Smith from the Minnesota North Stars. Then, in 1984, he pulled off a brilliant coup: exchanging Rick Wamsley and three draft picks to St. Louis in exchange for two draft picks that became Shayne Corson and Stephane Richer; that same 1984 draft also saw the addition of Petr Svoboda and a young, raw goaltender from Quebec City who played for the Granby Bisons in the QMJHL named Patrick Roy. Roy became the bulwark of the Habs defence; guarding the pipes with a mystical flair and NHL goal-tending would never be the same again.
More great draft picks followed: Lyle Odelein in 1986; John LeClair and Eric Desjardins in 1987; and Saku Koivu in 1993.
Still, it took time for the team to turn around. The Habs suffered a losing season in Savard’s managerial debut (although they reached the conference finals in the 1984 playoffs).
It wasn’t until the 1986 playoffs that the Canadiens (under new coach Jean Perron) rediscovered their former playoff magic, going 15-5 in four rounds to win the Stanley Cup.
Montreal failed to repeat but they became stronger and stronger. In 1988 Serge Savard took a chance on a former Ottawa police detective named Pat Burns and named him head coach of the Canadiens (thus launching Burns’ stellar NHL coaching career). Burns rewarded Savard’s faith by leading the Habs to the 1989 Stanley Cup finals (only to lose to the Calgary Flames).
When Burns exhausted his possibilities in Montreal, Savard allowed him to leave to pursue other coaching challenges. He replaced Burns with Jacques Demers who salved the psychic wounds left in Burns’ wake. The Canadiens thrived under Demers and overcame intense challenges to win the 1993 Stanley Cup (the last one won by a Canadian NHL team).
It was Savard’s last hurrah. Two years later the team was in free-fall.
Savard was fired as general manager of the Montreal Canadiens in 1995. Savard pursued various business interests and was active in Montreal community affairs. He received decorations from Canada and his native Quebec. In 2006 his number was retired by the Canadiens.
But the Canadiens were not finished with him yet. When the Habs finished last in the Northeast Division in 2012, Habs owner Geoff Molson asked Savard to advise him in looking for a new GM to replace the hapless Pierre Gauthier. Savard’s counsel resulted in the hiring Marc Bergevin who in his rookie season managed the Canadiens to the Northeast Divisional title.
Where does Savard stand among his peers in the eyes of my rating system?
He was the fifth best general manager in the 1980s and the Second Expansion era of the NHL (1979-1991); the ninth best of the 1990s; and the 12th best general manager of the Third Expansion era of the NHL (1991-2001).
He was not a superstar but he was as solid a manager as he was a defenceman and he has the two Stanley Cup rings won as a manager to prove it.
(My next column will feature former Dallas and Montreal GM Bob Gainey.)