Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Brian Lawton led Mount St. Charles Academy to the Rhode Island state high school championship in 1982 after scoring 45 goals and 88 points in just 26 games. In 1982-83 he not only repeated that feat with 40 goals and 83 points in 23 games and a second consecutive state championship, but he played for the United States at the 1983 World Junior Championships, held in Leningrad in the Soviet Union.
On this date in 1983 in Montreal, the Minnesota North Stars selected Lawton with the first overall pick in that year's NHL Entry Draft, giving him the distinction of being the first American ever taken first overall as well as the first, and to date only, United States high school player taken first overall.
Lawton made the jump straight to the NHL without the aid of any further seasoning in college (he had signed a letter of intent to play for Providence College), Canadian Juniors (Verdun of the QMJHL held his draft rights) the minors or even the Olympics unlike fellow American Pat Lafontaine, who was taken third overall in the same draft. The pressure on him to perform was high thanks to his lofty draft status, but it was made even higher with the unfortunate choice of jersey #98 in light of the stratospheric numbers being put up by #99 Wayne Gretzky at the time.
The North Stars planned to bring Lawton along slowly, but a separated shoulder and stretched knee ligaments also contributed to his playing in just 58 games during his rookie year in which he scored 10 goals and 31 points.
Before the start of the following season, Lawton was a member of the United States National Team for the 1984 Canada Cup, a prestigious assignment for a 19-year-old. He rose to the occasion, scoring five goals in six games.
Things went terribly wrong for Lawton with the North Stars in 1984-85, as he managed just five goals and six assists for 11 points in 40 games with Minnesota, which was 21st on the team in scoring and placed him behind even defenseman Randy Velischek's 13 points. He was sent to the Springfield Indians of the American Hockey League three separate times after failing to produce in Minnesota. The relationship between Lawton and the team was not helped when North Stars general manager Lou Nanne was quoted in Sports Illustrated as having said, "If I had to do it all over again, I'd take [Tom] Barasso. I'm not an idiot."
In an attempt to start over, Lawton ditched jersey #98 for the 1985-86 season and instead chose #8, which just happened to have belonged to the franchise's first big star, Bill Goldsworthy. With Minnesota for the entire season, Lawton scored 18 goals and 35 points.
The pressure to perform on Lawton was now coming from a different place - comparison to those drafted immediately after him. #2 Sylvain Turgeon of the Hartford Whalers was coming off a 79 point season, the Islanders Lafontaine had 38 goals and 70 points in 1986-87, Steve Yzerman, chosen fourth, was already captain of the Detroit Red Wings and would score 90 points in 1986-87 and Buffalo Sabres goaltender Barasso took the league by storm when he won both the Calder and Vezina trophies as a rookie in 1984.
Lawton did show improvement offensively with the only 20 goal season of his career with 21 as well as a career high 44 points. With the North Stars missing the playoffs, Lawton made his final appearance for the United States, this time at the 1987 World Championships.
The 1987-88 season was one of stagnation, as Lawton played in 74 games, scoring 17 times and totaling 41 points, although his +/- rating dropped from a +20 to a -10.
Lawton's relationship with the North Stars reached it's low point in the North Stars training camp in 1988 when the club wanted to assign him to Kalamazoo of the IHL to start the season. He refused to report and threatened to retire if the club did not trade him. He was suspended by the team and three days later he was sent to the New York Rangers.
That was the start of a meandering trip through the NHL, as Lawton was only a member of the Rangers for 30 games, during which he scored 17 points, prior to being dealt to the Hartford Whalers for the second half of the 1989-90 season.
He began the following season with the Whalers, but after 13 games he was claimed off of waivers by the Quebec Nordiques in early December after 3 points in 13 games. His time with Quebec lasted 14 games before they released him despite his 11 points at the time. The Boston Bruins then signed him in early February and after eight games with no points he finished the season with five games for the Maine Mariners of the AHL.
The Los Angeles Kings singed Lawton for the 1990-91 season, but he never suited up for the Kings, instead spending the entire season with the Phoenix Roadrunners of the IHL where he finished second in team scoring with 26 goals and 66 points as well as 13 points in 11 playoff games.
Looking for all the scoring help they could get, the expansion San Jose Sharks inked Lawton to a contract for their inaugural season, but foot and knee injuries limited him to 59 games and 37 points, which was good for fourth place on the low scoring Sharks.
The 1992-93 season, the tenth of Lawton's career, saw him play 21 games for the Sharks and nine for their top IHL affiliate the Kansas City Blades before leaving the club which resulted in a trade to the New Jersey Devils organization in late January that saw him finish out the season with the Cincinnati Cyclones in the IHL before he retired as a player.
His final NHL totals were 483 games played, 112 goals and 154 assists for 266 points. He remains the only player in NHL history to ever wear the number 98.
Today's featured jersey is a 1985-86 Minnesota North Stars Brian Lawton jersey. This style North Stars jersey was first worn in 1978-79, and while the white jerseys had the addition of black stripes and outlines in 1981-82, black did not arrive on the green jerseys until 1988-89, seven years later!
This was Lawton's first season wearing number 8 after changing away from the ill-advised #98 and the inevitable comparisons to Wayne Gretzky that it brought on top of the expectations of being the first American born player, as well as the first US high school player ever taken first overall.
Today's video highlight is Lawton batting a puck baseball style past future NHL star Dominik Hasek of Czechoslovakia during the 1984 Canada Cup.