Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Playing "what if?" with five draft scenarios from NHL history

We’ve spent a good part of the last week sorting through the fallout of the draft lottery, which certainly gave us plenty to talk about. But we weren’t supposed to be doing this. Before the pandemic hit, the draft lottery was scheduled for April, and we were supposed to have spent the last week talking about the draft itself. The same Friday night the league was drawing ping pong balls and Bill Daly was flipping over generic logos, the NHL was supposed to be gathered in Montreal for Round 1 of the draft.

What if they had been? It’s impossible to know how it would have played out, although we’ll get some indication when the delayed draft is held, well, whenever they get around to it this fall. In the meantime, we’re left with that question: What if?

Alternate realities don’t sound like a bad option right now, so let’s do this. Here are five draft-themed what-if scenarios from modern NHL history and how they might have changed everything.

What if Eric Lindros had just put on the jersey?

The arbitration-mandated trade that sent Eric Lindros from Quebec to Philadelphia for a massive package that included Peter Forsberg is probably one of the most what-if’d transactions in NHL history. Most of those alternate realities revolve around the arbitrator making the decision he’d been expected to make at the time and awarding Lindros to the Rangers instead, for a package that was reported to include names like Tony Amonte, Alexei Kovalev and (maybe) Mike Richter. Lindros could have wound up somewhere like Chicago, Detroit or Montreal. I’ve offered up my own version where he lands in Toronto, and everything changes.

But there’s a simpler scenario that often gets overlooked: What if Lindros had just put on that Nordiques jersey? What if he’d never decided he didn’t want to play in Quebec or had been talked out of his stance or had backed down once training camp arrived and decided to report?

For one thing, Lindros would have arrived in the NHL in 1991 instead of heading back to junior. That might mean he adds a Calder Trophy to his resume instead of finishing miles behind Teemu Selanne in 1992-1993. It also means he misses the 1992 Olympics, which might cost Canada a medal.

Instead, he’d have been in Quebec, playing on a team that already had Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan. But they didn’t have much else – the real 91-92 Nordiques’ leading scorers included names like Mike Hough, Greg Paslawski and Mikhail Tatarinov, and starting goalie Stephane Fiset went into the season with nine career games on his NHL resume. Add Lindros, who scored 40 goals in his real-world rookie season, and they’d be a lot better than the 52-point team they were, but we won’t get silly and suggest they’d be a playoff team. Meanwhile, would the Flyers have had the patience to wait for Forsberg to arrive, or would they have used him as a trade chip to land some other big-name star?

But those aren’t the big questions. Instead, we want to know two things about our what-if Nordiques: Do they still move to Colorado and do they still go on to win multiple Stanley Cups?

I think the answer to the first question is yes, they do still end up moving. The NHL’s economics in the early ’90s were just about impossible for small-market Canadian teams to manage, and the clock was already ticking on the Nordiques by 1991. It’s possible that Lindros bursting onto the scene would have meant a reinvigorated fan base, a new arena and a team that puts down firmer roots that remain to this day. But it feels unlikely.

Still, Lindros might at least have bought them another season or two, which puts everything about their Colorado days in question, even if we assume they still wind up there eventually. Having Lindros instead of Forsberg might be close to a wash, although plenty of fans would tell you Forsberg was better, and there were plenty of other pieces from that trade tree that ended up being crucial. But more importantly, what if those Lindros-led Nordiques haven’t moved in time for the 1995-96 season? There’s no way the Habs trade Patrick Roy to their provincial rivals, and without him the Sakic-era Cups seem a lot less likely.

We never found out, which is good news for hockey fans in Colorado and bad news for those in Quebec.

What if there hadn’t been so much confusion over Pavel Bure’s draft eligibility?

The saga of Pavel Bure’s draft remains confusing to this day. Heading into the 1989 draft, Bure was considered one of hockey’s most dynamic prospects, but back in those days teams were hesitant to invest high picks in Soviet players who may have taken years to come to North America, if they ever did at all. Soviet players were almost always taken as late-round flyers, and the rules of the day said that an 18-year-old Bure was only eligible to be picked in the first three rounds because he hadn’t played two full pro seasons back home.

Or had he? While the threshold for a season was 11 games and Bure’s official records only listed five with CSKA Moscow in 1987-88 (and still do), the Canucks believed they’d uncovered evidence of six more. They believe Bure was eligible to be picked. And depending on who you believe, they weren’t the only ones.

According to Brian Burke, who helped the Canucks build their legal case, the only other team that knew about Bure’s mystery games was the Edmonton Oilers. But years later, a story emerged that the Red Wings were in the loop too, and that’s where the confusion really kicks in. According to Jim Lites, an executive with Detroit at the time, the Wings were ready to take Bure in the fifth round but were specifically told by the league that he wasn’t eligible. The Canucks called his name in the sixth round, other teams immediately objected, and everything went to hell.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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