Recently, our boss and supreme overlord Achariya contributed a detailed piece for Puck Daddy’s Alternate History series in which she explored various aspects of Jonathan Drouin’s rocky tenure with the Lightning. Couple that with a tweet earlier in the summer from Michael Dunlap and that set my mind to wandering*.
You can change the outcome of one sporting event during your lifetime. Which one would you choose and why?— Michael Dunlap (@DunlapSports) July 19, 2017
What would one thing would I change in Lightning history if I had that awesome power? Would it be to have the officials rule Drouin on side? Or would it be to have Steven Stamkos score on his breakaway in Game 6 against the Hawks in the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals? Maybe it would be to have Dwayne Roloson pull out one more miracle save against the Bruins in Game 7 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals...
Maybe the change would be draft related. Imagine what the team would look like if Filip Forsberg was drafted instead of Slater Koekkoek, Cam Fowler instead of Brett Connolly, or anybody instead of Mario Larocque. Changing draft picks doesn’t mean success, after all just because Fowler blossomed in Anaheim doesn’t mean he would have in Tampa.
I wouldn’t change the Art Williams era or the OK Hockey era, because without those two we don’t get Bill Davidson (and a Stanley Cup) or Jeff Vinik (and hopefully a second Stanley Cup). I don’t wish for a better backup for Daren Puppa (although if I had two wishes, that might be the second one).
So what do I, with my genie-like powers, decide on doing? I make sure that Matt Cooke doesn’t run into Vincent Lecavalier at the end of the 2007-08 season.
It wasn’t a horrible hit, in fact, it probably didn’t even register as one of the top 10 dirty hits that Cooke laid out in his career. Was it late, yes. Was it unnecessary, of course. Do I think Cooke intended for Lecavalier to collide with Maxime Ouellet and then fall awkwardly on his shoulder? Probably not.
Did Lecavalier think it was a cheap shot? Who knows, but we do know his feelings toward Cooke. Here is a quote from the Tampa Bay Times in 2010,
"I just can't believe the league is letting him get away with that, a guy like that. He hurts guys. He's a dirty player. He's running around the ice looking for hits like that when guys aren't looking.”
So yeah, not a big fan. The hit happened in the Lightning’s 81st game of the season, so it technically only cost him 1 game. Lecavalier had surgery that April and was back in the starting line-up the next fall. He even started off fairly well, racking up 9 points in his first 10 games for a disastrous Lightning squad.
Something was off though. The dominating player that Lightning fans had grown accustomed to wasn’t there. The center who had scored 92 goals over the previous two seasons and had thrown his body around with reckless abandoned wasn’t there. He wasn’t timid or shying away from hits, but there was something that was just….off.
Lecavalier scored 29 goals in that trainwreck of a season, which was good enough to lead the team even though he missed the final five games of the season with a wrist injury. The wrist most likely bothered him all season as he had been scheduled to have surgery on the previous summer that had to be delayed due to the shoulder operation.
From then on, Lecavalier never seemed to be 100% healthy. He did manage to play in 82 games in 2009-10, but after that season he never topped 69 games in a season. There were no major injuries, but he would miss a few games here and there with a bad wrist or a sprained neck. The nagging injuries took their toll and his production slipped. He would never crest the 25 goal mark for the rest of his career.
Lecavalier was never going to have an ironman streak of consecutive games, he played too much of a physical game for that. During his prime he dished out more than his fair share of hits. Hell, even his goal celebration in his early years was violent as he often celebrated by throwing himself into the glass.
Would there have been some decline in Lecavalier’s output even without the injury? Probably. His best two seasons were his age 26 and 27 years. Most aging curves start to show a decline at that point. The drop-off wouldn’t have been as dramatic, though. He should have had a couple of 40-goals seasons left in him.
Saddled with an 11-year, $85 million contract that Lecavalier signed just after the 2007-08 season ended, he would have had to maintain a 40-goal output to keep the wolves at bay. Unfortunately he would score only 110 goals during the life of that contract, which was bought out following the 2013 compliance buyout season. An average of 22 goals per season isn’t enough for a $7.6 million cap hit, especially when the same player averaged 38 goals over the previous five seasons.
If you’re not familiar with Lecavalier’s early work, think of a player with with Jonathan Drouin’s passing and Steven Stamkos’ shot. I would argue that he was one of the top three creative players to ever don a Lightning uniform. Some of his best plays were the ones that didn’t work out. There wasn’t a toe drag, between-the-legs or bank pass move he didn’t try more than once.
It is apropos that three of his top 10 “goals” were assists. He was a tremendous playmaker. Unfortunately, early in his career he was trying to set up Sandy McCarthy and Benoit Hogue. It wasn’t until he started playing with Marty St. Louis that he found his running mate.
So, if I could turn back time, I would have Cooke take a better angle on his path to hitting Ouellet. Or, I don’t know, not try and throw a meaningless hit at all.
*In full disclosure, I replied to the Tweet with a baseball scenario - Jeffrey Maier gets called for interference and the O’s beat the Yankees in the playoffs. The Orioles win the World Series and the world is spared a Yankee dynasty.