What If?

(Posted 9-22-05 -- this was written by Lyle Richardson of Spectors Hockey circa November of 2003 and reposted for the Carnival of the NHL #9)

In addition to my love of hockey, I'm also a bit of a history buff. Recently I've been reading books that take a look at how world history might've been shaped if certain events turned out differently. It got me to wondering just how different the NHL of today might look if certain teams hadn't made player moves based on lack of money or bad management decisions over the past ten-twelve years.

For example, what might the roster of the NY Islanders look like today if they could've kept most of the draft picks who went on to become stars on other clubs? Only a handful of teams have drafted better than the Islanders since the early 1990s, and while chalking that up to years of missing the playoffs is a valid point, they've also shown a knack for drafting well regardless of where they were picking. Were it not for a series of owners who skimped on payroll and some outright dumb trades by GM Mike Milbury, there might be a second dynasty on Long Island today. Consider the following roster:

Goal: Roberto Luongo, Tommy Salo.
Defence: Scott Lachance, Darius Kasparaitis, Bryan McCabe, Brad Lukowich, Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara and Eric Brewer.
Forwards: Travis Green, Zigmund Palffy, JP Dumont, Jan Hlavac, Todd Bertuzzi.

Or how about the NY Rangers? Much attention has been given over the past ten years to the parade of fading free agents that have graced the Blueshirts roster, but what's often overlooked is how well this club drafted during Neil Smith's tenure as general manager.

Smith's undoing was his abandoning promising young players for quick roster fixes of aging veterans, believing he could capture lightning-in-a-bottle a second time after it worked so well for him in 1993-94. It can be convincingly argued that the Rangers could've remained a consistent playoff contender, even a Cup contender, if Smith retained most of the promising young talent he'd drafted. Consider:

Goal: Dan Cloutier.
Defence: Sergei Zubov, Aaron Miller, Matthias Norstrom, Eric Cairns, Kim Johnsson.
Forwards: Tony Amonte, Doug Weight, Rob Zamuner, Niklas Sundstrom, Todd Marchant, Marc Savard, Mike York.

Then there are teams who lost talent simply because of bad management.

The Montreal Canadiens won their last Stanley Cup in 1993, but spent most of the past ten years in decline. But what if this storied franchise hadn't been so poorly managed throughout the 1990s? Imagine how strong the Habs would've been through the remainder of the 1990s if they'd retained the following core players from that 1993 roster:

Goal: Patrick Roy.
Defence: Eric Desjardins, Mathieu Schneider, Lyle Odelein.
Forwards: Vincent Damphousse, John LeClair, Kirk Muller, Mike Keane and Guy Carbonneau.

...Now throw in players they'd traded away for little return between 1990 and 1993:

Chris Chelios, Jyrki Lumme, Andrew Cassels, Brian Skrudland, Petr Svoboda and Sylvain Lefebvre.

...Then add in players foolishly dealt away in the late 90s under Rejean Houle:

Craig Conroy, Darcy Tucker and Valeri Bure.

Obviously there were various circumstances that led to the gutting of the Canadiens over the years. Still, this would've been a roster that, properly managed and coached, would've continued to keep the Habs amongst perennial Cup contenders until the end of the 1990s.

On the topic of mismangement, the Chicago Blackhawks also fit nicely into this category. Stanley Cup finalists in 1992 and considered one of the most punishing clubs in the NHL in the early 1990s, the 'Hawks have fallen so far due to owner apathy and incompetent management that they've driven away their fanbase, once among the most fanatical in the league.

If owner Bill Wirtz hadn't been such a tightwad and if his general managers ran the Blackhawks better, here's a look at who might be on their roster today:

Goal: Ed Belfour, Dominik Hasek.
Defence: Chris Chelios, Bryan Marchment, Eric Weinrich, Keith Carney, Bryan McCabe.
Forwards. Jeremy Roenick, Steve Thomas, JP Dumont, Michael Nylander.

Granted, Belfour and Hasek wouldn't have been able to co-exist, but surely a great return could've been had for one or the other. As for the rest of the roster, include the good young talent already on the club, like Steve Sullivan, Eric Daze, Kyle Calder and Tyler Arnason, and you'd have another club that could considered a perennial Cup contender. The roar of the Blackhawks faithful at home games would've been as loud as during the club's glory years with Hull, Hall, Mikita and Pilote.

Then there are the small-market Canadian teams stuck behind the 8-ball because of tight finances. It's acknowledged that playing in a small Canadian market in Edmonton has severely hampered the Oilers development from a seemingly perpetual promising team into a legitimate Cup contender. If money hadn't been the primary factor restricting the Oilers development, the players they might've afforded to retain may have been enough to possibly bring another Stanley Cup back to the "City of Champions." A couple of smarter player movement decisions wouldn't have hurt either:

Goal: Curtis Joseph.
Defence: Janne Niinimaa, Bryan Marchment, Luke Richardson, Roman Hamrlik, Tom Poti.
Forwards: Doug Weight, Mike Grier, Todd Marchant, Rem Murray, Miroslav Satan, Bill Guerin, Ray Whitney.

The Calgary Flames began the 1990s as one of the dominant teams in the NHL, but player moves based primarily on cutting salary contributed to their prolonged decline since the mid-90s. If money hadn't been an issue, it's likely they still would've been a dominant club with a roster of the following:

Goal: Mike Vernon, Trevor Kidd.
Defence: Al MacInnis, Gary Suter.
Forwards: Joe Nieuwendyk, Doug Gilmour, Theo Fleury, Gary Roberts, Michael Nylander, Cory Stillman, Sandy McCarthy, Valeri Bure.

Of course, if one wants to truly examine how tightening finances can change the look of a team, the Pittsburgh Penguins are a notable example. Since winning the Stanley Cup 11 years ago, they've lost Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Larry Murphy, Shawn McEachern, Markus Naslund, Alexei Kovalev, Petr Nedved, Sergei Zubov, Bryan Smolinski, Glen Murray, Stu Barnes, Darius Kasparaitis, Johan Hedberg, Fredrik Olausson and Jan Hrdina.

Granted, not all those players were lost because of money, but it did play a factor in quite a large number of those moves. If the Pens could've afforded to retain even half the players on that roster, it's no stretch to believe they'd be a consistent playoff club.

It's quite obvious that, if money issues and poor management hadn't affected these clubs, the standings of the National Hockey League would look quite different today.

The Rangers and Flames wouldn't have suffered through their prolonged post-season absences since the late 1990s and probably would've made sustained playoff runs. The Canadiens, Blackhawks and Islanders would've not only made the playoffs more often but would've been Cup contenders. The Oilers would've been able to blossom into contenders. And the Penguins would've remained among the dominant clubs of the NHL.

As I noted earlier in this piece, there were obviously extenuating circumstances that resulted in several of the trades made by these teams over the years. But the recurring themes for most always seems to be money and/or mismanagement.

So what if the National Hockey League hadn't seen the economic upheavel of the past dozen years? What if things had stayed as quiet as they did in the 1980s? Or what if the owners and the NHLPA had worked out a better collective bargaining agreement in 1995 that would've allowed the small market clubs like Calgary and Edmonton to stay competitive? What if Canadiens GM Serge Savard paid closer attention to his club in the early 1990's? What if the Isles had found stronger ownership in the early 1990s and a smarter general manager? What if former Penguins owner Howard Baldwin hadn't started his team down the slippery financial slope with his bloated contracts? What if Neil Smith had used better judgement in his trades? What if Bill Wirtz were a better owner and hired more competent management?

These are moot points now. Things are as they are and no pondering the past will improve things. All the fans of these clubs can hope is those presently running their clubs can learn from that history, and in the case of the Flames and Oilers, that the next CBA allows them the opportunity to retain their players and develop into contenders again.

Lyle Richardson
Spector's Hockey