Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Great NHL What Ifs of the Last 25 Years

After the raging success of my first What If columns on the NFL and my second on the Giants and Jets in particular, I felt it appropriate to tackle on the NHL. Why? Because their season starts next and it's great to have some hockey chatter at a time when there is very little to talk about. Just like before, I'm separating the Rangers into its own article because I may value a Rangers What If more than it would be if it was compared with the rest of the league. Also, moves are considered more important than games since games can be arbitrary, while moves are selective. Let's get with the list:

10. What if the Vancouver Cauncks avoided having a bunch of ugly sweaters?

The Canucks would have won a Stanley Cup, in that case. You think the hockey gods want a team wearing this, this or this carrying around the Stanley Cup? Now having a great sweater doesn't guarantee a Stanley Cup as the Blackhawks and the Maple Leafs can attest to. However, it never hurts to take care of the sweater department. Of all the Stanley Cup champions at least since the Original Six era, only the '96 and '01 Avalanche, '04 Lightning and '07 Ducks would be considered as having pedestrian uniforms and we have seen teams like the '98 Capitals and the '99 Sabres lose wearing terrible sweaters. Coincidence? I think not. Thus, if the Canucks keep these sweaters, their chances of winning a Cup only get better.

9. What if Kerry Fraser calls a high sticking penalty on Wayne Gretzky in Game 6 of the 1993 Campbell Conference Finals?

Let's set the scene, it's Game 6 of a hard fought series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and L.A. Kings. Glenn Anderson gave the Leafs a 3-2 series lead with an OT goal and Wendel Clark scored a hat trick in the sixth game to tie the game at 4. Prior to overtime, Glenn Anderson is called for a roughing penalty and it appears like the Leafs will catch the break they need. Wayne Gretzky high-sticks Doug Gilmour and cuts his chin. Back then, as evident in Game 3 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals, the refs would call five-minute majors and game misconducts for high-sticking with a cut; going by now, it's always a double minor and a four-minute penalty. Unfortunately, Kerry Fraser didn't call even a two minute penalty and the Kings won the game on Gretzky's goal about a minute later, leading to Gretzky's finest performance of his career in Game 7 on the road as the Kings won the series.

So what if Fraser calls the penalty? Besides giving Down Goes Brown a whole lot less material (by the way, he deserves all the credit for posting the Leafs videos), the Leafs go to the Stanley Cup Finals. That game was going to end quickly and the Leafs had the momentum with Clark's hat trick. And not having to face Gretzky for either four or five minutes would have been enough time for the Leafs to win the series. That sets up CBC's wet dream of a Final, Toronto-Montreal, since both teams were still in opposite conferences. It's also a Final that pits Pat Burns coaching against the team left for Toronto the previous year. Now, that series could go either way, because the Leafs played better defense than the Kings did, but the run the Habs made that year is hard to ignore.

(Quick tangent here: This series loss by the Leafs is certainly up there in the toughest defeats a fan base ever experience and would easily rank toward the top of Bill Simmons Levels of Losing. If you're not a hockey fan, think of this is as the Don Denkinger Game or the Hue Hollins Game. Leafs fans have every right to bitch and moan about this game because if it happened to Rangers, I'd bitch and moan too. Hell, this blog would be called Fuck You Kerry Fraser.)

8. What if Mike Milbury never became the GM of the Islanders?

Then Rangers-Islander games would actually matter, instead of a chance for Rangers fans to fill Nassau Coliseum to chant "Kansas City". I mean seriously, the damage Mad Mike did to this once proud franchise is equal to the damage Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas did combined. These players either played for the Islanders, or were drafted by them: Roberto Luongo, Todd Bertuzzi (pre-Steve Moore), Wade Redden (when he was good), Zdeno Chara, Olli Jokinen and Bryan McCabe. That doesn't include trading the pick that would be Jason Spezza with Chara to Ottawa for Alexei Yashin. Looking at that, plus the Islanders would of drafted Marian Gaborik or Dany Heatley instead of Rick DiPietro in 2000, this team would have been among the best by 2001-02 and Milbury's tenure wouldn't have had it's high point be losing a Game 7 in Toronto during the 2002 playoffs. Yes, I know the Islanders lose money every year and the chances of another dynasty weren't going to happen, but if the Oilers can make a run to the Stanley Cup, the Islanders could too.

7. What if Ulf Samuelsson doesn't go knee-to-knee on Cam Neely during the 1991 Wales Conference Finals?

Following a disappointing loss to the Edmonton Oilers in the 1990 Cup Finals, the Bruins were poised to head back to the Finals in 1991. They won the Adams Division and had the best record for any Wales Conference team, then beat the Hartford Whalers and the Habs to reach the Conference Finals against Pittsburgh. After taking a 2-0 lead in the series, the Penguins bounced back while Ulf Samuelsson earned his reputation as a dirty player by hitting Cam Neely knee-to-knee, an injury that Neely never really recover from. He was the leading goal scorer for the Bruins and without him at 100 percent, the Bruins were finished and lost the series in six games.

So what if Samuelsson didn't hit Neely in Game 3. I believe that the Bruins win the series and win the 1991 Stanley Cup. It also changes the next five years for Boston as now instead of Neely playing a combined 22 games over two seasons, missing the 1992 playoffs in particular. There's a good chance that the Bruins would of won another Stanley Cup and Neely would have reached 500 goals and thus wouldn't be considered an iffy Hall of Famer as I'm sure some people think he shouldn't be in. Consider, Neely in 1993-94 played 49 games and scored 50 goals that year. He was still capable of scoring after Samuelsson's hit; he would been scoring if he wasn't hit.

6. What if Steve Moore doesn't take out Markus Naslund on Feb. 16th, 2004?

I know what your thinking, you might not remember this hit. However, this is was the catalyst to Todd Bertuzzi's retaliation on Moore about a month later. Steve Moore gave Naslund a concussion which Bertuzzi felt had to be returned and then some. Bertuzzi would miss the rest of the season and the Canucks would be upset in the first round against the Calgary Flames by Martin Gelinas' overtime goal (by the way, this is quite a cruel way to lose in an elimination game, since Matt Cooke tied the game at home with five seconds left, took their fans off the ledge, then lose two minutes into OT, throwing them right back on it). Neither Naslund or Bertuzzi would ever be the same, ruining the West Coast Express line of them and Brenden Morrison and allowed Canucks fans to raise in their game with Sabres fans on who's been more tortured since 1970.

So what if Moore doesn't give Naslund a concussion. Well, the Canucks had been building toward a Stanley Cup in the previous seasons. The one thing that keeps me from declaring Vancouver as the champions in 2004 with Bertuzzi is the injury that Dan Cloutier suffered in the playoffs, when he was sidelined with a knee injury in Game 3 of the Flames series. It was unknown at the time that Cloutier wouldn't play another full season in the league. However, if you give me a healthy Cloutier, there's no reason why the Canucks don't win the Stanley Cup with their offense, defense and goaltending that year. It also solves a key problem for the post-lockout Vancouver teams as they seemed to not score as much as they did pre-lockout since Naslund wasn't the same and Bertuzzi was gone in a year.

5b.What if Gary Bettman and the NHL decided against having a lockout during the 1994-95 season?

A tale of two work stoppages, both the 1994 MLB Strike and the 1994-95 NHL Lockout didn't solve anything. Fortunately for baseball, when the players threatened to strike in 2002, the owners didn't let it happen and baseball was saved. The NHL, on the other hand, allowed a season to get wiped away a decade later. But this column will only deal with the first one since its the World War I of work stoppages to 2004-05's World War II; it could have been prevented.

First of all, the NHL picked the exact wrong time to have a work stoppage. In a related story, the NHL tends to always do things either the wrong way (expansion) or at the wrong time (not having a TV contract during Gretzky's prime). After the 1993-94 season, it was the best of times for the NHL; the Rangers Stanley Cup win brought on the biggest buzz in the sports history and they were benefiting from a weakened NBA after Michael Jordan took his hiatus a year after Larry Bird and Magic Johnson retired. They had finally returned to television as Fox signed a deal to show hockey games and the Stanley Cup Finals, a first on network television in 20 years (not counting Game 6 of the 1980 Finals on CBS). The problem was, the league wanted a salary cup and obviously the players refused. Neither side was willing to end the season, so they had a poor agreement that would compound the leagues' problems for the next decade. It didn't help that the team winning that Stanley Cup would change hockey for the worst during those years between.

5a. What if the Devils failed to win the 1995 Stanley Cup following the lockout?

This was the second reason why the NHL declined during the late 90s-early 00s. The neutral zone trap, aided with larger goalie pads and overexpansion watering down the talent pool hurt the scoring ability for many teams. The symbol of the trap is the New Jersey Devils under coach Jacques Lemaire, who won the shortened Stanley Cup in 1995 (how ironic that the two most despised teams of recent memory for their mind-numbing style of play, the Devils and Spurs, won their first titles in fake seasons). Their success was copied a year later by the Florida Panthers during their run to the Stanley Cup Finals and it snowballed from there. The low point was the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals when the Devils and the Ducks played the worst Final in any sport as it was all technique, no-skill. One of the best things to happen after the lockout in 2004 was the changing of the rules to limit the ability for teams to trap and the first year after the lockout, scoring was up a full goal a game.

But what if the Devils didn't win in 1995; what if Claude Lemieux doesn't score with seconds left in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Flyers? I ask that because that was the closest the Devils were to elimination. If they lose Game 5 and the series, it becomes Detroit-Philly Stanley Cup Final two years earlier and a different series than the 1997 Final was. After the sweep by the Devils, Scotty Bowman added a more defensive element to the team and I believe jettisoned Paul Coffey and Dino Ciccarelli for those reasons. Bowman implemented a form of the trap with those Red Wings teams and to be fair, that element has always been around since the loss in 1995. If Detroit wins in 1995, I'm certain they continue to a more free-wheeling style that the Red Wings utilized in the beginning of the 90s and if they couldn't be stopped, teams would try to outscore them like the Oilers in the 80s. However, here's a third possibility; the scoring would still go down because of the changes in goaltending equipment and style of play (not too mention a lower quality of talent in the league being drafted in the 90s).

4. What if Eric Lindros didn't refuse to play for the Quebec Nordiques in the 1991 Entry Draft?

This is an interesting what if that I will tackle on from a NY Rangers perspective during their list, but here's if he plays for the Nordiques. Now, Quebec for the third year in a row held the 1st pick in the draft and the previous two picks were Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan, along with Joe Sakic as a mid 1st-rounder in 1987. Eric Lindros came into the 1991 Draft as a can't miss prospect, but refused to play in Quebec because of the language barriers, Quebec being a small-market and his mommy telling him not to. Thus, he was traded to the Flyers for a package led by Peter Forsberg. We all know that Lindros ended up not living up to the hype as The Next One, but it was for his injuries, not lack of production when on the ice.

So what if he stayed in Quebec and joined Sakic, Sundin and Nolan? Well for starters, he would have definitely played with all three since Sundin wasn't traded until after the 1993-94 season, before Forsberg started playing and would of had more time playing with Nolan since Lindros would have began play in the 1991-92 season I'm sure. I also believe that if Quebec would have moved like it eventually did, he could of have a healthier career not dealing with the punishment he receive playing Atlantic Division teams. And Lindros was more prepared for the new era in hockey because of his size and I believe would have succeeded with them, possibly win a Cup before they acquired Patrick Roy.

As for the Flyers, I believe their renaissance during the 90s was due to Lindros and trading Mark Recchi to Montreal for John LeClair and Eric Desjardins to strengthen the blue line and create the Legion of Doom (not only the best name for a line since the Sabres French Connection line in the 70s, but the last nickname in sports that didn't look for initials or shortened name). While Forsberg is certainly a talented player and Hall of Famer, I always thought of him as Joe Sakic's second banana, like Sergei Federov was Steve Yzerman's second banana in Detroit. Having said that, the Flyers would have probably needed to make another move to complement Forsberg in order to win. Meanwhile, Lindros and Sakic would have been like Crosby and Malkin now and if you include Sundin, then you have Gretzky, Messier and Kurri (which is almost an perfectly accurate comparison: Sakic=Gretzky, Lindros=Messier, Sundin=Kurri).

3. What if Mario Lemieux didn't have Hodgkins' Disease during the 1992-93 season?

Then I believe Wayne Gretzky's records for most goals in a season (92) and most points (215) would have been broken. I will argue that not only was the 1992-93 season the best NHL season since 1967, it was the best all-around sports year in history for all four majors. The NHL was perfectly at 24 teams, and was still scoring like the 80s. However, goaltending in a weird way was better that year then it was for the previous fifteen. It was in this setting that Mario Lemieux went on an all-out assault on the best scoring records in history. Now, I'm sure most everyone thinks Gretzky's records are safe, but Mario was going at it. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease in January of 1993 when he was at 104 points and missed the next 24 games. After his return, he put up another 56 points in 20 games and led the Penguins to their only President's Trophy. However, in the playoffs, they were upset by the Islanders in seven games, villainizing David Volek into the Bucky Dent of Pens history and ending Pittsburgh's two-time Stanley Cup reign.

So what if Lemieux wasn't stricken with the disease? Well, if he plays all 84 games that year, he breaks both the goals and points records, but with Mario's injury history, it's probably not likely he plays every game. Thus, I believe he ends up short of both records, but still scores over 200 points. However, his 1993-94 season probably isn't as poor as it turned out and he doesn't sit the entire 1994-95 season from the effects of radiation treatment. I would also think he doesn't retire in 1997, though his hatred of the trap factored in the decision. Lemieux ends his career as the second all-time scorer behind Gretzky and I think the Penguins win another Stanley Cup during his career. Another thing effected, Mario Lemieux needs to retire in order to become the owner since rules didn't allow him to own the team as an active player, which incidently was overlooked when Lemieux came back during 2000-01. Perhaps, Mario ends up playing somewhere else if he's still playing and the owner of the team needs to get money from somewhere.

2. What if Patrick Roy doesn't get embarassed against Detroit on Dec. 2nd, 1995?

Roy was an institution in Montreal during his ten years there and had carried the Canadiens to two Stanley Cups and numerous honors for Roy, including Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophys. However, after missing the playoffs in 1994-95 and starting slow the following year, Montreal fired coach Jacques Demers and GM Serge Savard and replaced them with Mario Trembley and Rejean Houle, respectively. Roy and Trembley never got along and a powder keg was set to spark and spark it did on that faithful night in the Fourm. That game had Detroit goals and lots of them, an angry Roy, a pissed off crowd, mock cheers, mock salutes and finally, a trade demand at the end of Roy's night. Trembley didn't pull Roy until it was 9-1 and Roy proceeded to tell Habs president Ronald Corey "It's my last game in Montreal". Days later, Houle traded Roy in the most one-sided trade in hockey history, sending Roy AND Mike Keane to the Colorado Avalanche for Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Rucinsky and Andrei Kovalenko. The result from the move is apparent, the Avs have won two Stanley Cups with Roy as the goaltender and the Canadiens have never been back to the Stanley Cup Finals.

So what if either Roy plays better against Detroit or Trembley pulls him after the first period when he allowed five goals? Well I came into thinking about how the Canadiens would of fared if Roy stayed in Montreal and I believe they go to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals since I'm fully confident that Montreal ends up as a four or five seed and travels the path Florida travelled in that playoff season. Plus, Roy was a better goalie than anyone in the Eastern Conference that year. Also, the Canadiens probably don't fall off like they did in the beginning of the 2000s because the Habs would owe it to Roy to keep being competitive or trade him.

However, I read a blog piece by the CBC's Elliotte Friedman that the Avs and the Habs were working on a trade that would of sent Roy to Colorado for Owen Nolan and Stephane Fiset. That was when Savard was still the GM, but he was fired before the trade could be made. If this move is made, Montreal is better set for not only that season, but the few years after that. Nolan could join Pierre Turgeon, Vincent Damphousse and Mark Recchi as the main scoring threats on a team that did a good job scoring that year, and Fiset was the goaltender of a Nordiques team that had the best record in the Eastern Conference the year prior. It's quite interesting though how much the Montreal Canadiens missed on every big trade they made in the 90s, with the exception of Vincent Damphousse for Shayne Corson prior to the 1992-93 Cup season. Imagine if the Canadiens had kept Chris Chelios, John LeClair, Eric Desjardins, Kirk Muller, Mathieu Schneider and Patrick Roy. You could basically say that Serge Savard and Rejean Houle answer the riddle "How many GM's does it take to rival the work of Mike Milbury".

1b. What if the Oilers never traded Wayne Gretzky following their fourth Stanley Cup?

This is the biggest what if since it was the biggest trade in NHL history and one of the biggest in sports history. Big enough that it had to be split in two because the L.A. Kings weren't the only one who were actively seeking Wayne out. Now, if the Oilers decided to keep Gretzky, I'm sure Edmonton wins the Cup in 1989 and 1990 and Cup wins in 1991 and 1992 were also quite likely. 1992 would then be the end of his contract and he becomes a free agent. Now, I think the Oilers would have decided to trade Gretzky eventually, but at much less value. They probably don't get the $15 million they received for Gretzky (or what value equals that a few years later) and maybe not the five players received from the Kings. Looking in hindsight, because the Oilers won the 1990 Stanley Cup with him, it was the smart move by the team.

1a. What if the Kings weren't the team that acquired Gretzky in the summer of 1988?

This is the better question because it seemed like the Oilers were going to move him. Now along with Los Angeles, the other teams interested in Gretzky was Vancouver, Detroit and the Rangers. The Rangers were the first team out because then-GM Phil Esposito wasn't willing to pay the $15 million to get Gretzky. Wayne's father, Walter, wanted Gretzky to go to Detroit and that was Wayne's favorite team growing up since he was a huge Gordie Howe fan. Vancouver was also very interested and rumors had them offering the Oilers over $22 million for him. If Detroit acquires him (assuming the Red Wings don't trade him), they are set to start winning earlier with Gretzky and Yzerman. If Vancouver trades for him, eventually he and Pavel Bure team up and Vancouver would have won the 1994 Stanley Cup (sorry Canucks fans for repeatedly torturing you with what could have been). If the Rangers, then they probably don't pick up Mark Messier (maybe LA does).

The most important question is how does the sport of hockey evolve if Gretzky isn't in Los Angeles? I'm convinced that the NHL would have eventually tried to go back into the Sun Belt, but Gretzky playing with the Kings made the transition easier and quicker. He might not be the reason that a Dallas or a Tampa Bay is in the league, but it's his fault that there are ten Sun Belt teams, you could say. Then, real teams would have won the Stanley Cups in 2004, 2006 and 2007, instead of a pack of bandwagon fans who need to be explained what a blue line is. He is also the first in a wave of the U.S. gaining at Canada's expense. Quebec and Winnipeg both moved within ten years of the Gretzky trade and no longer could teams other than Toronto be a glamour team in free agency. I remember reading in Sports Illustrated about the health of the six Canadian teams and who would be likely to move and while Vancouver and Montreal were in better shape, only Toronto was safe from moving. If Gretzky stays in Canada with the Canucks, perhaps that keep the leagues presence in the country as is and Detroit wouldn't change the league like L.A. did.

1 comment:

  1. 1. Even if Ulf doesn't knock out Neely, the Penguins still take the Bruins. They had a better team than Boston with or without Cam.

    2. If Gretzky stays in Edmonton, I still think that the Flames win in 1989. They were on a mission. Then, the Oilers win in 1990, and go to the Cup in 1991, where they get dethroned by the Penguins. After that, the team gets broken up. Gretzky is traded to Detroit, Fuhr is traded to Toronto, and Messier still goes to the Rangers. Gretzky leads Detroit to the 92 Finals, but they lose to Pittsburgh.

    3. I have another big WI: What if Badger Bob Johnson doesn't die in 1991? If he stays alive for the rest of the 90's, the Pens probably win at least two more cups, and become the Team of the 90's.