With the 2019-2020 NHL season on hiatus, we’re going to take a casual look at some of the alternate timelines that could have existed throughout the history of the league. Here we contemplate what would have happened if the Pittsburgh Penguins, not the Washington Capitals, had won the 2004 NHL draw for Alex Ovechkin.
Even before the arrival of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals had developed fierce rivalry throughout the 1990s.
They were old enemies of Patrick’s division. They met in the playoffs seven times between 1991 and 2000 and had absolutely epic games, including Petr Nedved’s playoff overtime, the night Jaromir Jagr was suspended from 10 games for making contact with a referee, and at night, two coaches nearly climbed on the glass to fight, and a strange post-season scheduling conflict that exasperated former Capitals coach Ron Wilson.
The two teams were also surprise trading partners in the summer of 2001 when the Penguins sent Jaromir Jagr to Washington for Kris Beech, Michal Sivek and Ross Lupaschuk.
In short: the two franchises already had a bitter history with each other.
In the 2003-04 season, they participated in another type of race. The race to the bottom of the league. The results would forever change the course of the NHL.
After the Jagr trade, the Penguins were completely stalled as a franchise and were plunged into massive reconstruction a few years ago.
The Capitals, meanwhile, had a terribly disappointing start, could not get the most out of Jagr and were preparing to launch their own reconstruction which would be launched with Jagr’s season trade with the New York Rangers and several high-level movements.
Both teams were in desperate need of a player now changing their franchise.
This player was going to be Alex Ovechkin.
Everyone knew that Ovechkin was going to be the first pick in the repechage, and even though Evgeni Malkin (the eventual choice number 2) had started to become a favorite of scouts and hockey players, there was still a gap between the two players , and it was a slam dunk of which Ovechkin was going to be the player. He was so sought after that the Florida Panthers tried – repeatedly – to fish him out in the 2003 class, arguing that when leap years were taken into account, he would have been eligible for the draft (he missed the cut for the 2003 four-day project).
The 2003-04 season ended with the Penguins finishing in the worst league record with 58 points, one point behind the Chicago Blackhawks and the Capitals. This gave the Penguins the best chance (25%) of winning the 2004 draw, while ensuring that they would choose no less than the latter, which means they were going to get a from Ovechkin or Malkin. The Blackhawks had the second best lottery odds (they had fewer wins than Washington), the Capitals entering the lottery with the third best odds.
When the time came to shoot the ping pong balls to determine the top pick, the Capitals won it, moving from third to first, pushing Pittsburgh to second and Chicago to third.
The Capitals selected Ovechkin, the Penguins ended up getting one of the best consolation prizes of all time in Malkin, and the Blackhawks selected … Cam Barker. Ovechkin and Malkin went on to careers in the Hall of Fame and collect a truck of individual and team honors, while Barker has only 200 mostly forgettable games in Chicago.
There are many significant “what ifs” at stake here.
The 2005 project
These results would have a significant impact on the next project which would also be presented by another talent from the Hall of Fame – Sidney Crosby.
With the 2004-05 regular season wiped out by a lockout, the league needed a way to manage the 2005 lottery and draft without a game producing results.
The solution was a weighted lottery involving the 30 teams.
The odds have been weighted by playoff appearances in the previous three seasons and total first choices in the previous four projects. Teams that did not play in the playoffs and no overall first choice within these time frames received three lottery balls. These teams were the Penguins, the Buffalo Sabers, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the New York Rangers. The Penguins * had * a No. 1 pick during that period, but it was via trade … not a lottery win.
Teams that have had only one playoff appearance or a first choice received two lottery balls.
All other teams received a lottery ball.
This is important because if the Penguins had won the Ovechkin lottery, they would have had only two 2005 class lottery balls and a lesser chance of choosing Crosby. It is not a guarantee that they would not have won, but they would have a lesser chance.
Long-term leadership of Penguins, Capitals and Blackhawks
All of these teams ended up improving over the next decade and a half, combining to win seven of the 14 Stanley Cups between 2005 and 2019, while also combining for four presidents’ trophies and only a handful of non-champions. . playoff seasons. They were the elite of the NHL elite.
But if the 2004 draw had taken a different direction, we don’t know where all these teams will end up.
If the Penguins had won the 2004 draw and chosen Ovechkin, it means that the Blackhawks would have had overall choice # 2 and could have selected Malkin, while the Capitals would have chosen the third and would have ended up with neither .
Maybe they don’t pick Barker there like Chicago, but the rest of the top 10 were Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, Al Montoya, Rostislav Olesz, Alexandre Picard, Ladislav Smid and Boris Valabik. Aside from Wheeler, there are no frontline or top-pairing players in this group.
It would have given the Capitals a second lottery ball in the Crosby lottery, but it’s still not a guarantee of having it. It would have been entirely possible – if not unlikely – that they would have ended up with no by Crosby, Ovechkin or Malkin.
Given Ovechkin’s importance to franchise and hockey in the nation’s capital, it could have been overwhelming. Would they have stayed bad enough to get a first choice in a future year (like Patrick Kane or Steven Stamkos)? Or would they have settled in long-term mediocrity?
The Blackhawks would also have taken an entirely different route. Instead of having Barker, they would have a real franchise player and an immediate boost in their reconstruction. Malkin would have been an absolute game changer from the start and quickly improved their short term outlook. But that too could have had a lasting impact. Would they have been able to win the 2007 draw and select Kane # 1 overall? Would they have been able to get Jonathan Toews in 2006?
The Penguins would almost certainly have been able to build a competitor around Ovechkin, but the high probability of not having Crosby makes it hard to believe that they would have put three more Stanley Cup banners in the rafters.
Then there is the question of where Crosby could have ended up. New York, Columbus and Buffalo would have been the only teams with three lottery balls in the 2005 class, all of which would have been desperate for a talent like him. Would he have knocked down the Blue Jackets or the Sabers? Would an additional lottery ball in the 2005 draft have produced a better result for the Capitals and sent Crosby there? The possibilities are limitless.
Ultimately, the Capitals began the 2003-2004 season after a 92-point playoff season the previous year and were expected to return to the playoffs. But their season in the tank and a few bouncing lottery balls ended up having a profound impact on them, the Penguins, the Blackhawks and the whole of the NHL as a whole.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Send him a line to [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.