Réjean Houle was the first overall draft pick in 1969. In a professional career that would span 14 seasons, the right-winger would win five Stanley Cups, all with the Canadiens. Houle was also one of the first marquee players to play in the World Hockey Association when he signed for the Quebec Nordiques in 1973. In 849 career professional games, Houle scored 665 points -- definitely a solidly respectable career. After retirement, Houle began to work in an executive role with Molson, one of Canada’s two big breweries. Molson was also the owner of the Montreal Canadiens, and Houle eventually shifted over into an executive role with them. And that’s when his legacy began to be tarnished.
Ronald Corey served as president of the Montreal Canadiens from 1982 until 1999. While the Habs won two Stanley Cups in this period, his tenure is seen as controversial for some of his hiring and firing decisions. The most controversial occurred four games into the 1995-96 season when Corey fired general manager Serge Savard and head coach Jacques Demers and replaced them with Réjean Houle and Mario Tremblay, respectively. Neither Houle nor Tremblay had any management experience; they were simply loyal Canadiens employees who Corey presumably felt he could easily control. And to be fair to Corey, Serge Savard had no experience when he hired him as GM and they won two cups under his watch. Would Houle’s reign be as successful? Sadly, it would not. Houle would go down as one of the worst general managers in history. What did he do that was so bad? Well, keep on reading and you’ll find out.
15 Trading For Trevor Linden
This trade was actually rather atypical of Houle’s tenure as GM. One of Houle’s biggest (and repeated) mistakes was to trade older players as soon as they demonstrated even just a slight dip in form. And these older players would always inevitably go on to have several more great seasons, making Houle look like an idiot. Perhaps in 1999, Houle thought he could reverse this trend by trading away his team’s first round draft pick for an aging Trevor Linden. Linden had already been having regular injury troubles and only ever played 107 games as a Hab, scoring 66 points -- not what you would like in return for a first round pick. The pick ended up being the 10th overall choice, and with it the Isles selected Branislav Mezei. So, nobody won that trade.
14 Drafting Ron Hainsey 13th Overall
Maybe the reason that Houle felt comfortable trading away his first round pick for Trevor Linden is because he had utterly no confidence in his ability to draft good players. The 2000 Draft would be Houle’s last in charge and, sadly enough, American defenseman Ron Hainsey was probably Houle’s best first round pick. Why is Hainsey Houle’s best first round pick? Well, because Hainsey has actually proven to be a capable NHL player. And yes, that alone makes him the best. Hainsey has played 835 NHL games and scored 236 points through to the 2015-16 season.
Even so, he wasn’t a great 13th overall pick, especially when you consider Brooks Orpik, Justin Williams, and Niklas Kronwall were all selected later in the round. What’s worse is that the Habs had two picks to make that round, and Houle’s other pick was even worse. That's some foreshadowing for you.
13 Trading Jean-Jacques Daigneault
Nobody would ever confuse Jean-Jacques Daigneault with a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman. And after Houle traded him away for goalie Pat Jablonski, it wasn’t as if there was a massive J.J. Daigneault-sized hole in the Habs lineup. But at the time of the trade, November 1995, the Habs' weakest position was on defense, so trading away a solid third-pairing D-man for a backup goalie was ill-considered. The Daigneault trade was actually the first move that Houle made as GM, having only been on the job for 17 days. The Daigneault trade would set the tone for Houle’s tenure, although, most of his trades would be much worse.
As for Jablonski, he actually played more games for the Habs than he should have because a month later, Houle would trade away his starting goalie, but more on that later.
12 Trading Pat Jablonski
The only thing that could make the Daigneault trade worse was if Houle traded away Jablonski for nothing. And that’s exactly what he did. The American goaltender only ever played 40 games in a Habs sweater, and 128 total NHL regular season games (and four in the playoffs) in his career. That’s 132 NHL games more than Steve Cheredaryk would ever play. And that’s who Houle traded his backup goalie for in 1997. The Canadian defenseman was never an NHL player, so it seems odd that Houle would trade anybody for him, let alone his backup goalie.
The move was especially frustrating considering that the Habs starting goalie, Jocelyn Thibault (remember that name) as not all that convincing. Thibault’s backup for the remainder of the season would be a young and unproven José Theodore.
11 Trading Scott Thornton
In January of 2000, Réjean Houle traded away forward Scott Thornton to the Dallas Stars for Juha Lind. Lind was a Finnish forward who was drafted by the Stars back when they were still in Minnesota, in 1992, so he wasn’t really young. Furthermore, in all that time with the Stars organization, he only had played a handful games. After only a year with the Habs, Lind would leave the NHL and move back to Europe. So he was, essentially, a nothing player.
Scott Thornton, on the other hand, was more or less a regular for the Habs and would go on to play in seven more NHL seasons. Upon his retirement, Thornton had played 941 NHL games and had scored 285 points, far more than Lind ever did.
10 Drafting Jason Ward 11th Overall
Jason Ward scored his first NHL goal in his first NHL game on his very first NHL shot, and it was all downhill from there. As the 11th overall pick, Ward was the highest draft choice Réjean Houle ever made. And boy, what a waste. The Habs drafted Ward in 1997 in a draft class that included the likes of Marian Hossa, Scott Hannan, and Brenden Morrow, all of whom were selected after Jason Ward.
Ward would go on to play in 336 NHL regular season games (the last of which was in the 2008-09 season) and record 81 career points. He would only ever play in parts of four seasons for the Habs, with his most games in the "bleu, blanc, et rouge" coming in 2003-04 (53). The Canadian winger was just another faceless name in a string of underachievers drafted during Houle’s tenure.
9 Trading Vincent Damphousse
Vincent Damphousse was one of several aging Montreal Canadiens that Houle saw fit to jettison far too soon. Damphousse was in his seventh season with the Habs when Houle traded him to San Jose in March of 1999. Damphousse was only 31 at the time, had led the team in scoring multiple years, and was even the team’s captain (trading away his captain had become something of a hallmark for Houle). Damphousse would go on to be a key player for the Sharks, never registering fewer than 40 points in a season.
That being said, the return Houle got was not awful; a 1999 first round pick, a 2001 second round pick (Kiel McLeod), and 1999 fifth round pick (Marc-Andre Thinel). It was not awful until you realize that Houle would be making most of those draft choices. And with that 1999 first round pick, Houle selected...
8 Drafting Marcel Hossa
By 2000, perhaps Houle had become so frustrated with his draft failures that he hit upon a new strategy. Why bother to do all that research and listen to all those scouts (if he ever did either) when you can just pick a player with a good name?
Presumably, Houle was already feeling like a fool for having selected Jason Ward in 1997 when he could have had Marian Hossa, so when he saw Marian’s younger brother, Marcel, still available for the 16th overall pick, he just snapped him up. Marcel would be Houle's second and worst pick of that year's first round. Marcel didn’t have Marian’s skill, speed, or, anything, really, beyond the same last name. Marcel would play 237 NHL regular season games and record 61 points, and only 59 games for the Habs, scoring a paltry 19 points.
7 Trading Valeri Bure
What is it with Houle and bad moves involving the younger brothers of famous hockey stars? In February of 1998, Réjean Houle traded Russian winger Valeri Bure (Pavel’s younger brother) and a 1998 fourth round pick (Shaun Sutter) to Calgary for Jonas Höglund and Zarley Zalapski. Bure was only 23 at the time and would go on to have career years with the Flames, never scoring fewer than 50 points in a season for them. Höglund, on the other hand, only ever played 102 games for the Habs, scoring a mere 29 points. Höglund signed with the Leafs as free agent in 1999 and would be far more productive for them. As for Zarley Zalapski, Houle presumably just traded for him because he thought his name was funny.
6 Drafting Eric Chouinard
In the 1998 NHL Draft, Houle selected Eric Chouinard with the 16th overall pick. Guess how that panned out. Like all of Houle’s first round choices, this one sucked. Chouinard was one of many players who put up big numbers in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, only to find life much more difficult in the NHL. Chouinard only ever played in 90 career NHL regular season games, scoring 22 points. He only played 13 of those games with the Habs, scoring a whopping four points in the process. Instead of choosing Chouinard, maybe Houle should have opted for Robyn Regehr, Simon Gagne, or Scott Gomez.
Why did Houle pick Eric Chouinard 16th overall? Who knows, but seeing as how Houle appears to have a weird preoccupation with names, perhaps when the Senators picked goaltender Mathieu Chouinard 15th overall, Houle panicked and just blurted out the last name he heard, “Chouinard,” and the Habs got stuck with Eric.
5 The Tucker/Richer Trade
Early in 1998, Houle traded Stéphane Richer, Darcy Tucker, and David Wilkie to Tampa Bay for Patrick Poulin, Igor Ulanov, and Mick Vukota. This trade was bad principally because of the loss of Tucker. Tucker was only 22 at the time and showed some promise the previous season, scoring 20 points. Tucker would basically double his output in Tampa, but the Lightning also didn’t really know what they had when they traded him to Toronto, where he became a fan favorite and the heart of the team.
Habs fans were also upset at the time at losing Richer, a sentimental favorite. Richer was a star for the Habs in the ‘80s and had only returned to Montreal the previous season. While Poulin and Ulanov would both go on to play multiple seasons for the Habs, they never made much of an impact.
4 Drafting Matt Higgins
Matt Higgins was Houle’s first-ever draft choice and Matt Higgins was Houle’s worst ever draft choice. So look on the bright side; Houle only got better with this picks, right? Higgins would play 57 regular season games in his NHL career, all with the Habs, scoring a three whole points. These are not numbers you want to see out of anybody, let alone the 18th overall pick. The Canadian center put up good numbers (though, with the exception of his last year in junior, never great numbers) in the Western Hockey League, but he could never translate that success to the NHL after being drafted in 1996. Houle could have gotten his drafting career off to a much better start by picking Marco Sturm, Daniel Briere, or Zdeno Chara.
3 Trading Mark Recchi
Mark Recchi led the Canadiens in scoring in the 1997-98 season. He also led the team in scoring in the 1998-99 season, despite only playing 61 games for them because he was traded to Philadelphia in March of '99. You could say that Recchi was another aging player who Houle dealt as soon as he saw a dip in form, but Recchi was still the team’s best player!
In exchange, the Habs got a second round pick in 1999 (Matt Carkner), a sixth-round pick in 2000 (Scott Selig, who would never play), and Dainius Zubrus. Zubrus would score 74 points in 139 games for the Habs. Recchi, on the other hand, would go on to play five full seasons for the Flyers, notching at least 20 goals each time. In fact, he was a productive NHL player all the way until his retirement in 2011! This trade still hurts to talk about for Habs fans to this day.
2 The Turgeon Trade
On October 29, 1996, Réjean Houle dealt Pierre Turgeon, Rory Fitzpatrick, and Craig Conroy to St. Louis in exchange for Murray Baron, Shayne Corson, and a fifth round pick in the 1997 draft (Gennady Razin). Razin never played in the NHL, Baron only ever played 60 games for the Habs (scoring six points), and Corson would go on to play four more seasons for Montreal, putting up decent numbers, but had only been traded from Montreal four years earlier (to Edmonton for Damphousse).
Therefore, the Habs basically got one player in return for a journeyman defenseman (Fitzpatrick), a future first-line center (Conroy), and Turgeon. Turgeon had led the team in scoring the previous season and would average over a point-per-game over his five seasons with the Blues. Turgeon was also the Habs captain, taking over from Mike Keane was involved in another Houle trade, specifically...
1 Le Trade
On December 6, 1995, just six weeks into his job as GM, Réjean Houle made his most infamous trade. In what became known as, “Le Trade,” Houle sent Patrick Roy and Mike Keane to Colorado for Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Ručinský, and Andrei Kovalenko. Now, some people have defended Houle on this one, pointing out that Roy had demanded a trade, so Houle’s hands were tied. But Roy didn’t actually demand a trade. What Roy said was that he would never play for head coach Mario Tremblay again. Tremblay was hired as coach at the same time that Houle was, and he and Roy did not get along, going all the way back to Roy’s rookie year when then-player Tremblay would mock and haze Roy.
The situation came to a boil when Tremblay left Roy in net for nine goals against the Red Wings on December 2 in what would be an 11-2 shellacking. Now, Tremblay had just got started, and firing coaches at player’s demands can set a bad precedent, but as GM, it was in Houle’s remit to sack Tremblay. And he should have done so. Tremblay was a rookie coach and Roy was the team’s best player and the league’s best goalie. And there’s no way Houle was going to get enough for Roy with every other GM knowing the situation. Nevertheless, Houle still traded Roy, along with his team captain Mike Keane -- a terrible trade by a terrible GM. In the end, Houle’s only saving grace is that he isn’t Mike Milbury.