The 10 Biggest 'What Ifs' in the NHL from the Past Decade

Allan Mitchell@@Lowetide_Featured ColumnistDecember 23, 2013

The 10 Biggest 'What Ifs' in the NHL from the Past Decade

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    There are moments on the ice and in the boardroom that have tremendous impact on the future. After a while, our mind settles with the result and the memory of that moment fades into the distance. We are left with Zdeno Chara in Boston, Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, Patrick Kane in Chicago and many more transactions that could have changed based on luck and timing. 

    Those events shaped Stanley Cup winners, sent all-time scorers to other leagues for years—and impacted their ranking on some of the most prestigious offensive lists in the game—and yet the memories of specific points in time fade away.

    What if things happened differently? How would the hockey world look? Here are the 10 biggest "what-ifs" in the NHL from the past decade.

10. What If Buffalo's Defense Stayed Healthy in Spring 2006?

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    What Happened: At the beginning of the 2006 playoffs, the Buffalo Sabres under coach Lindy Ruff boasted an impressive group of defensemen. Veterans Teppo Numminen, Henrik Tallinder, Dmitri Kalinin, Toni Lydman, Brian Campbell and Jay McKee gave the club an outstanding group of players with a wide range of skills. However, they lost almost every one on the way to the finals, and as these injuries cropped up the club's chances to win games became remote. 

    What Could Have Been: A Stanley Cup victory in 2006 for Buffalo would have impacted the city, the team and the future. Daniel Briere, Brian Campbell and others might have stayed with the team, perhaps winning another championship. Injuries devastated Buffalo's chances in 2006 against Carolina, and for Ryan Miller and the Sabres it's been a difficult seven years.

    Why We Wonder: Since 2006, the Sabres have fallen on tough times, and at this point they are a franchise in transition. New ownership brought hope and a lot of money for free agents, but it was a disaster for Buffalo. The arrival of Pat LaFontaine brings hope for hockey fans in the Queen City, but it will be a long road back for the Sabres. 

9. What If Chris Pronger Stayed in St. Louis?

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    What Happened: After reaching the playoffs every season 1979-80 through 2003-04, the Blues missed the postseason in five of the following six years. Chris Pronger was a franchise defenseman the summer the Blues sent him to Edmonton for Eric Brewer, Jeff Woywitka and Doug Lynch. St. Louis was going in a different direction, beginning the building process that we're seeing in full bloom today. 

    What Could Have Been: If Pronger had stayed in St. Louis, there's a good chance the team would have continued to reach the postseason but lose in the first or second round—the Blues went to the third round only twice in those years, 1986 and 2001.

    Why We Wonder:  The post-Pronger era was a difficult period for Blues fans, but the years outside the playoffs gave the team a chance to draft and develop the group we see in 2013-14. It's been a long road for St. Louis, but young defender Alex Pietrangelo is joined by a strong group of defensemen who are deeper than the Pronger team and have a chance to win it all in the spring.

8. What If Dwayne Roloson Didn't Get Hurt in Game 1, 2006 Stanley Cup Finals?

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    What Happened: The Edmonton Oilers acquired goaltender Dwayne Roloson near the trade deadline in 2006, and his addition helped an already outstanding roster to ignite in the playoffs that spring. The club fought through impressive opponents in Detroit, San Jose and Anaheim, before facing the Eastern Conference champion Carolina Hurricanes.

    Roloson, who had played every minute of the playoffs up to that point, was locked in a battle with rookie Cam Ward in a 4-4 Game 1 when he was injured. Backup Ty Conklin entered the game and would later surrender the winner on a communications breakdown with little time to play.

    What Could Have Been: The Oilers were a team of destiny and had overcome so much that spring. A Stanley Cup victory may have changed Chris Pronger's mind (it would later be known he had asked for a trade earlier in the year) and Edmonton may have been a competitive team for years after 2006. That play remains forever burned into Oiler lore, along with the heroic efforts of that team to get the series to a Game 7.

    Why We Wonder: Chris Pronger was the best defenseman in the NHL during the time Edmonton had its run. If the Oilers win the Stanley Cup, perhaps Pronger stays and the club has another run in 2007. At the very least, the club would have had a franchise defensemen and the long years of futility might have been avoided for the Oilers.

7. What If Tim Thomas Had Pumped Roberto Luongo's Tires?

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    What Happened: Things got a little weird in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals. The Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks met for the championship, and one of the major story lines involved goaltending. Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo spent part of the final saying unusual things in front of cameras and microphones. After Game 1, he talked about Thomas wandering and a costly goal, and then before Game 6 he talked about pumping Thomas' tires but receiving no praise in return. It was a peculiar side story to the series, well played by both men. 

    What Could Have Been: The Vancouver Canucks have been in the NHL since 1970, so their Stanley Cup drought is among the longest in the league. They are also the only NHL team to have played in two seven-game Stanley Cup Finals without winning a championship. No fanbase has been hurt more than the Canucks in the finals.

    Why We Wonder: If Vancouver wins the Stanley Cup, the Sedins receive their crown and vindication for a lot of hard work on the West Coast. Roberto Luongo adds the final piece to the trophy case, and those long-suffering Canucks fans finally get their parade. Boston's fans would have had to wait for another time, as their drought was also among the longest in league history entering 2011.

6. What If Chicago Had Sent out the Contracts Before the RFA Deadline?

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    What Happened: All NHL teams must send out qualifying offers to restricted free agents they intend to retain by a certain date. Dale Tallon neglected to do so with Cam Barker, Kris Versteeg, Colin Fraser, Ben Eager, Aaron Johnson and Troy Brouwer. It forced the club to sign the players to higher contract numbers, for dollars that would have been negotiated at the time of unrestricted free agency. It led to his firing and impacted the Chicago payroll in a major way.

    What Could Have Been: The error had a huge impact on the team's cap. As an example, Versteeg went from being a $491,667 hit to $3,083,333 per season. Adding all of these extra dollars from all of the restricted free agents was made even more painful because Chicago won the Stanley Cup—and that fact meant bonuses to various Blackhawks immediately kicked in. The nightmare scenario forced a number of trades by the team.

    Why We Wonder: There are a couple of reasons to wonder about Tallon's error. First, it cost him his job and the opportunity to preside over the team he'd helped mould, including drafting franchise cornerstones like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Also, as dominant as the Blackhawks have been in recent years, they might have won another Cup without the contract errors. 

5. What If Todd Bertuzzi Didn't Hit Steve Moore?

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    What Happened: On March 8, 2004, the Vancouver Canucks were playing the Colorado Avalanche. Colorado's Steve Moore had injured Canuck captain Markus Naslund in a February game with a hit to the head and there was bad blood between the two teams. Late in the game of March 8, with the game long decided, Bertuzzi took action. In a story that will be opened up again in September 2014, Bertuzzi struck Moore from behind and then drove his head into the ice. The injury was devastating to Moore and his career. The NHL immediately suspended Bertuzzi for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs.

    What Could Have Been: The impact on the Vancouver Canucks was immediate, as the club lost their top-line LW and one of the offensive keys to the club. The Canucks would go out in a first round defeat by the Calgary Flames, the eventual Stanley Cup finalists from the West in 2004. The series was close enough to suggest that Bertuzzi might have made the difference in advancing to the next round.

    Why We Wonder: The Vancouver Canucks had a great chance to win the Stanley Cup in 2004, Steve Moore lost his entire career and Todd Bertuzzi's terrible decision sparked another round of discussions about fighting, violence in hockey and protecting players. In a way, the savagery of that event—and others like it—forced the NHL to evaluate the rules and how they were called. The NHL changed because of the Bertuzzi-Moore incident, probably the only good thing to come of it.

4. What If Ottawa Kept Chara?

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    What Happened: In the summer of 2006, the Senators had to choose between Zdeno Chara and veteran defender Wade Redden, as both contracts were up at the same time and the club could afford to sign only one. At the time, the decision didn't appear as black and white as it does today, as Redden was an acknowledged leader and effective defender.

    What Could Have Been: Zdeno Chara is a defenseman who can help his team win in many ways. The Senators were in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007, but having lost Chara the previous summer, they fell short of their goal. Ottawa never had a chance against Anaheim, but the addition of the big man may have made the difference.

    Why We Wonder: Ottawa has found a way to contend for most of the last decade but has been unable to enter the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference and sustain it. One of the reasons for Ottawa's troubles is the Boston Bruins, kings of the Eastern Conference with regularity since signing Chara as a free agent. Zdeno Chara has had a great impact on both franchises.

3. What If the Flyers Had Drafted Patrick Kane?

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    What Happened: The NHL draft lottery can be a cruel process, as the Philadelphia Flyers found out in the spring of 2007. The Chicago Blackhawks leapfrogged Philadelphia and landed the No. 1 overall selection. In some years, the significance between picking first and second is minimal, but in 2007 the gap was wide. Patrick Kane was the best player available and Chicago wasted no time in selecting him.

    What Could Have Been: The Philadelphia Flyers finished with the league's worst record, and had the best chance of winning the lottery. The 2007 NHL draft offered them a chance to draft the incredibly talented Patrick Kane. An elite-level scorer and playmaker, the Buffalo native separated himself from the other draft eligibles early enough to be considered the No. 1 available talent. The Flyers future was altered in a big way.

    Why We Wonder: Chicago won Kane, and combined with Jonathan Toews the club has constructed a modern dynasty. Two Stanley Cups have made their way to the Windy City since Patrick Kane was drafted, and it was a stroke of complete luck that he landed in Chicago. There is credit due to Chicago management, as they found a way to sustain the level of performance over a long period of time.

2. What If Jaromir Jagr Had Stayed in the NHL?

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    What Happened: After the 2008-09 season, Jaromir Jagr received much interest from NHL teams and it was thought he would continue his career in North America. In a surprise move, Jagr signed a two-year deal in the KHL with Omsk. He would eventually spend three seasons outside the NHL. 

    What Could Have Been: Jaromir Jagr ranks with the all-time best players in the history of the game. As his career winds down, he currently sits eighth in total points and goals. Jagr still has an opportunity to pass a few players before retirement, but his career was so great he would have passed almost all of them had he stayed in the NHL. 

    Why We Wonder: Added to the two lockouts, Jagr's three years in Russia represents about 25 percent of a career and a large number of potential points. If Jagr had scored an average of 60 points a season during those years, his point total would currently be somewhere between Gordie Howe and Mark Messier. If that were the case, his ranking among the greatest who ever played the game would be greatly enhanced, and the argument for Jagr as one of the 10 best players of all time would have more ammunition.

1. What If the Rangers Had Won the Crosby Lottery?

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    What Happened: On June 30, 2005, the NHL had a drawing for their draft lottery. Due to the lockout, the NHL couldn't just make a certain number of teams eligible for the lottery, so they weighted the process in favor of the four weakest teams: Columbus, New York Rangers, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. The prize was a franchise player, the best of his generation, and second place was not an option. The Penguins winning the draft lottery in 2005 did more for the franchise than any single event in club history.

    What Could Have Been: Sidney Crosby in Manhattan would have been an incredible bonus for the NHL, and impacted the league in a major way. The Rangers have spent the decade trying to get to another level, and they would have received the biggest available boost if their name had been called No. 1 overall. 

    Why We Wonder: The NHL's footprint in the United States would have been impacted in a positive way; the mind boggles at the economic impact. The league has had plenty of struggles during the last 15 years; with the top impact player skating for the Rangers it would have been a promotional bonanza for the Rangers and the league.