Wilf Paiement was more than just the first ever draft pick by the New Jersey Devils franchise. He became their first ace forward and he still sits as the 13th top scorer in franchise history. This post looks back on his days with Kansas City and Colorado.
In Lou We Trust is a New Jersey Devils blog where you can read all kinds of posts about the New Jersey Devils. However, as you know, the Devils weren't always the Devils. The franchise got their start in Kansas City as the Scouts in 1974. They moved to Colorado to become the Rockies two seasons later. Six years and a Don Cherry Experience later, Dr. John McMullen purchased the team and relocated them to the Meadowlands to become the team we all know and love today. While the Devils have reached the top of the mountain a few times, there haven't been a lot of memories carried over from the prior two teams. From my perspective, I think I understand why. The Scouts and Rockies were bad teams. The franchises' best record before moving to the Brendan Byrne Arena was 22-45-13 in 1980-81; and they only made the playoffs once because the Rockies were the second best of an awful Smythe Division in 1978. If we recall any players from that era, it's likely those who became Devils like Ken Daneyko, Aaron Broten, and Chico Resch. However, there was one name that stuck out from those days that deserves more attention: Wilf Paiement.
Wilf Paiement was the first ever drafted player by the Kansas City franchise from the NHL Entry Draft. He was selected second overall in 1974 behind the legendary Greg Joly. Being the first ever draft pick is pretty good trivia, and thankfully for the Scouts Paiement became more than just trivia. He wasn't a particularly big player at 6'0" and 190 pounds according to Hockey Draft Central's profile, but he scored enough to command attention and he was mean enough to command respect with St. Catherine's of the OMJHL. In the notes of his profile at Hockey Draft Central, he signed a then-record contract for a rookie thanks to agent (and, I'm not making this up, NHLPA executive director) Alan Eagleson and jumped right into the NHL.
It's always a little difficult to gauge an 18 or 19 year old player's performance. Some excel, some struggle, and it's difficult to place a lot of expectations on someone who just turned pro in the best league in the world. In retrospect, I think it's fair to say that things went well for Paiement. In 78 games, the rookie scored 26 goals (six in his first ten games, per HDC) and tallied 13 assists while taking 195 shots on net and 101 PIM. Those may seem like modest totals, yet Paiement finished fourth on the team in points, tied with Simon Nolet for the team lead with 26 goals, and second behind Nolet in shots. OK, that speaks a lot to how well the Scouts did in 1974-75 in that they didn't. They were an expansion team after all. In retrospect, Paiement wished he was on a better team according to this post about the player by Aaron Stilley at The NHL in Kansas City. It's understandable. He was their top pick and with that comes higher expectations that don't get any easier when the team loses so many games.
His second season showed some improved production as Paiement put up 21 goals and 22 assists in 57 games. He was even named to the NHL All Star Game for the first time in his career. A thigh injury kept him on the shelf; but his 21 goals and 43 points were good enough for second on the team behind team leading scorer Guy Charron. Again, that speaks to the Scouts' quality. Paiement headed west as the Scouts became the Rockies in the 1976-77 season. This would be his breakout year. The 21-year old Paiement just burst out offensively and led the team in most basic stats per Hockey-Reference. He led them with 41 goals, something Paiement himself may have saw coming because he predicted he'd reach 40 according to the notes at Hockey Draft Central. He also led them in assists with 40, points with 81, even strength goals with 27, shorthanded goals with 5, and shots with 287. He was only second in power play goals with 9 to Paul Gardner's 11 and penalty minutes with 101 to Tracy Pratt (110) and Steve Durbano (129). Paiement became the Rockies' ace in that season, he went to the NHL All Star Game as Colorado's representative, and their MVP. Unfortunately, the team still wasn't very good. At least he was meeting those high expectations he presumably had in Kansas City. His play certainly was noticed by Team Canada as they invited Paiement to play on their World Championship team. In ten games, he scored five goals, put up five assists, and terrorized several players to earn 32 PIM. Needless to say, he made his mark.
In the following season, Paiement's big season was rewarded with the team captaincy. While he was still a young player, he endured and grew in his three seasons with the franchise. Paiement didn't change with the "C," at least not on paper. Paiement still played with toughness and an edge as he picked up 114 PIM in the season to lead the team in sitting in the box. He set a new personal season high in points with 87. He even went back to the All Star Game. However, he hit regression when it came to goal scoring. While he had just as many shots in 1977-78 as he did in 1976-77, he wasn't as lucky so his goals dropped from 41 to 31. It's OK because he still led the team in goals. The 1977-78 is notable in that the Rockies were the best of the non-Minnesota teams in the Smythe Division and went to the playoffs. They faced Philadelphia in a best-of-three preliminary round where Paiement and many of his teammates were held to nothing (the team scored three goals total) in two straight losses. A disappointment, sure, but at least the Rockies got a taste of the postseason. Unfortunately, we know the franchise would have to wait until 1988 to get back in. Paiement returned to the international game after the short postseason and scored six goals in ten games as Canada won the bronze in the 1978 World Championships.
Due to the drop in goals in the 1977-78 season, Paiement resigned as team captain prior to the 1978-79 regular season believing the captaincy was presenting a problem according to the notes in HDC's profile of the player. . We know better, but it's how he felt and so it was done. Paiement's big highlight of this season was actually a lowlight. In an October game against Detroit, Dennis Polonich managed to get under Paiement's skin. Whatever it was, Paiement despised it as he reacted by smashing Polonich in the face with a two-handed cross-check. Polonich's face was re-arranged and he later sued and won a settlement for the incident. Paiement received a match penalty and was suspended for 15 games, which then tied a NHL record for longest suspension. Even with only 65 games played, Paiement still led the team in goals with 24 and points with 60. A happier highlight would be representing Canada in the 1979 World Championships, scoring three goals and three assists in eight games, and being named the tournament's best forward on a fourth-place team.
That season would turn out to be the last full one with the franchise. Paiement began the 1979-80 season (a.k.a. the Don Cherry Season) with Colorado and expected to be their top scorer. Unfortunately, the points didn't come so easily. His shooting percentage dropped to 9% after five seasons at just under 11% and higher. His passes didn't lead to as many goals. Close to the end of 1979, Paiement only had 10 goals and 16 assists in 34 games. At the same time, Toronto was looking to move Lanny MacDonald. A deal was struck on December 29, 1979 as Paiement and Pat Hickey went to the Maple Leafs for MacDonald and defenseman Joel Quenneville. The move was seemingly beneficial for both teams. MacDonald made an instant impact in Colorado, while Paiement tore it up in Toronto with 48 points in 41 games.
Paiement would continue to enjoy the prime of his career in Toronto, wearing #99 of all numbers. In 1980-81, he had his most productive season ever with 97 points in 80 games and he would continue to be a prolific scorer in following seasons for Toronto and Quebec. The scoring dropped off dramatically in the 1985-86 season when he suffered torn knee ligaments and a fractured left foot as a Nordique according to HDC's profile. Paiement bounced around the league with three more teams before calling it a career.
While he never won the Cup or was among the very best in the NHL, Paiement had a very good run in the NHL. He played 946 games, scored 356 goals, picked up 458 assists, and took 1,757 penalty minutes. To put that in perspective, only two other players from that draft class scored more points than Paiement: Pierre Larouche and Paiement was never big, but he was tough to play against and just plain tough.
Paiement never made to New Jersey, but he was clearly the franchise's first top player from the Entry Draft. He scored 153 goals and picked up 186 assists with the franchise in 392 games. His 336 points puts him 13th all time in scoring franchise history according to Hockey-Reference. No other Rockie or Scout came close and most Devils haven't either. The twelve who did surpass Paiement's totals are all players who have had considerable success with the team. Note that only two of them, Aaron Broten and Kirk Muller were pre-Lamoriello players.
We can dampen the achievement by noting that scoring was more prolific in those days of the 1970s. On the other hand, Paiement had to develop as a player, play on some abjectly awful teams, and deal wit constant instability among coaches (he played for seven in five-and-a-half seasons) and management. He wishes he was on a contender as a rookie and I have to wonder how much more he could have done if he was on an established team back in 1974. Either way, results are results and he earned the accolades he got in those dark days of the franchise. Nevertheless, he should be remembered as more than just trivia such as the last player to wear #99 or the franchise's first pick. He represented his country thrice, he was a top forward that led in scoring for teams that badly needed it, and he turned out be a reason to pay attention to the franchise despite all of the losing. Wilf Paiement was truly the franchise's first ace.