Old Time Hockey: A look back at the 1978 NHL Dispersal Draft

John Ziegler gave the sagging North Stars a Barons-fueled boost that resulted in two long playoffs runs

Mostly lost in the pregame hype of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning was the passing of the 24th anniversary of a unusual occurrence in NHL history, the 1978 Dispersal Draft.

After the Montreal Canadiens won the third of what would be four straight Stanley Cups and in the latter stages of its costly war with WHA, the NHL entered the offseason with financial fires of varying degrees burning in Cleveland, Minnesota and Long Island.

A change in ownership structure brought stability to the New York Islanders, but instead of letting the Cleveland Barons, who narrowly escaped the hangman’s noose in February 1977, finally (and mercifully) fold outright, an agreement was reached that president John Ziegler hoped would put the North Stars, who had missed the playoffs in five of the previous six seasons and fought off challenges from two different incarnations of the WHA’s Minnesota Fighting Saints, on stronger footing.

On June 14, 1978 a day before the NHL Amateur Draft, the two troubled franchises merged with Barons owners George Gund and Gordon Gund III taking over as majority owners of the North Stars.

Ziegler’s maneuver ended Cleveland’s brief, two-season stint in hockey’s top circuit and was the last time one of North American’s major league’s decreased in size, with the NHL going from 18 to 17 teams for the upcoming 1978-79 season. The North Stars would move from the weak Smythe Division into Cleveland’s old spot in the Adams Division with the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs.

The 1978 Dispersal Draft would be held prior to the amateur draft, which notably saw the North Stars hit big on Bobby Smith first overall and Steve Payne with the first pick of the second round, giving the newly-fortified franchise a much-needed infusion of top young talent.

All of Cleveland’s picks in the amateur draft were cancelled (including its fourth round pick which belonged to the Islanders via trade) except for its first and second round selections.

The Washington Capitals acquired the Barons 1978 second-rounder and Bob Girard in a December 9, 1977 deal for Walt McKechnie and eventually selected defenseman Paul MacKinnon.

Why the NHL let the Capitals make that pick while stripping the Islanders of its pick is a question without a clear answer.

The Islanders and Barons had swapped fourth picks as part of a January 10, 1978 trade that saw Jean-Paul Parise and Jean Potvin head west to Cleveland and Wayne Merrick go back the other way along with Darcy Regier.

The league decided to axe both of the picks included in that deal, resulting in only 16 selections being made in the fourth round of the 1978 Draft instead of 17.

My guess on the NHL’s reasoning for this decision would be that since the number of asserts in the New York-Cleveland trade balanced out, by letting the Islanders make a pick while the pick that went back the other way was cancelled would create an unfair advantage or imbalance of sorts, while the Capitals had acquired an extra asset (the second round pick) from Cleveland in the McKechnie trade so they were able to keep it. Pure conjecture on my part, but I feel that’s probably pretty close to something we’d get from the mind of the NHL in 1970s...

As for the leftover Barons first round pick, We’ll get to that later...

For the one-round dispersal draft. the “new” Minnesota franchise was allowed to protect 12 players (ten skaters and two goalies) from the combined pool of Barons and North Stars, while five of the league’s other bottom-feeders in the standings (Washington, St. Louis, Vancouver, Pittsburgh and the Colorado Rockies) would each be able to pluck a single player from the unprotected list with a $30,000 fee for doing so going to Minnesota.

General manager Lou Nanne and his Cleveland counterpart Harry Howell, who would become the amalgamated team’s head coach, worked together to retain the best from both rosters.

The protected North Stars were goaltender Pete LoPresti, forwards Per-Olov Brasar, Glen Sharpley and Tim Young, and defensemen Brad Maxwell and Bryan Maxwell. Bryan Maxwell was taken fourth overall by Minnesota in the 1975 NHL Draft and chose to start his career off in the WHA before finally playing 18 games for the North Stars in 1977-78.

Former Barons players that were protected were goaltender Gilles Meloche, who dated back to the franchise’s days as the California Golden Seals, a trio of skilled forwards in Dennis Maruk, Mike Fidler and Al MacAdam, and defensemen Rick Hampton and Greg Smith.

Minnesota would be able to protect an additional player after the second and fourth picks were made or not made.

The Capitals, who finished 17th overall - just above the last place North Stars - the season prior, were slated to choose first in the dispersal draft. However, they were given the option of making the opening selection or receiving Cleveland’s first-rounder in the amateur draft. Washington decided to forfeit its place in the dispersal draft and take the pick in the amateur draft, which was placed at end of the first round (18th overall). They used it on forward Tim Coulis, who played a total of 47 NHL games. Might’ve been better off keeping the dispersal draft pick...

St. Louis was up next and they tabbed a Baron in right wing Mike Crombeen. who was Cleveland first round pick (fifth overall) in 1977. Crombeen was coming off a rookie campaign that saw him produce three goals and four assists in 48 games. A useful selection, Crombeen would play the next five seasons with the Blues, scoring a career-high 19 goals in 1981-82, and another two with the Hartford Whalers.

After the St. Louis pick was made, the North Stars were able to protect young forward Ron Zanussi, who had just produced 15 goals and 32 points for Minnesota as a rookie.

The Canucks followed the Blues and they tore another piece off the Cleveland carcass by taking tough defenseman Randy Holt. Holt would appear in just 22 games for Vancouver before he was moved to the Los Angeles Kings for fading forward Don Kozar on December 31, 1978.

The Penguins decided not to select a player with the fourth pick and the North Stars put another long-time Baron around since the club’s Oakland era, defenseman Bob Stewart on its protected list.

Like Pittsburgh, the lowly Rockies decided to save thirty grand and not add another existing contract and passed on making a selection, bringing the dispersal draft to a close.

Bolstered by the some of the best parts from Cleveland (sans Maruk, who was quickly dealt after two games to the Capitals for a first round pick in the 1979 Draft) and rookies like Smith, who won the Calder Trophy, and Payne, the North Stars improved from 45 points in 1977-78 to 68 points in 1978-79. Making the 23-point increase more impressive was that it came while playing in the much-more difficult Adams Division. Had they remained in the Smythe, Minnesota would’ve finished in second place and qualified for the playoffs under the postseason format in place back that season.

The 1979-80 campaign saw further positive strides with Minnesota jumping up to 88 points and sweeping Toronto in the preliminary round before they put a halt to Montreal’s dynasty in a stunning seven-game quarterfinal upset. The North Stars were promptly eliminated in five games by the Philadelphia Flyers in the semifinals. Ex-Baron MacAdam led the team in regular season scoring, setting career-highs in goals (42), assists (51) and points (93), playoff scoring (16 points in 15 games), and won the Bill Masterton Trophy.

In 1980-81, just three seasons after the merger, the North Stars made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, falling in five games to the defending champions, the Islanders, after they made it through Boston, Buffalo and Calgary to get there.

That edition of the team that battled the mighty Isles, still included a sizable chunk of the players that were protected by Nanne and Howell in the dispersal draft as well as Tom McCarthy, who was chosen 10th overall with pick acquired in the Maruk trade. Former Barons goaltender Meloche played a significant role in both playoff runs, appearing in 24 of the club’s 34 postseason games.

Ziegler’s gambit paid off, at least in the short term, as the North Stars where able to survive, thrive to a degree, and stay put in Minnesota for the remainder of the 1980s until, unfortunately, trouble struck again in the early 1990s.