Okay, so these articles are long. Really long. I know. I’ve been thinking of something I could do to give these a “maximum length” of sorts, in order to find a way to cap the work I do (and cap how much you guys have to read through) without compromising quality or information. The solution I have is that from the next article on, I will only write about the next ten seasons following a point of divergence, making an exception or two if it is truly important to do so. This will become more important as I get into stories from way back; all of my work so far has been from the mid-2000s, and it would be outright exhausting trying to piece together a year-by-year analysis starting from, say, the 1970s.
July 22nd, 2005
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK
Fresh off of ratifying a new collective bargaining agreement, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association were finally at peace. After a year that saw a season wiped out due to a ten-month lockout, the National Hockey League was set to resume play in October of 2005. But before that could happen, there were other matters to take care of – specifically, the matter of the 2005 NHL Draft.
While the league was returning to business as usual, the all-new draft lottery was as far from “business as usual” as it got for the league. In previous years, the lowest-ranked team in the league was given the 1st-Overall Pick in the yearly Entry Draft, but with the 2004-05 season not played, a fair draft order had to be decided by lottery. The format decided on for the 2005 lottery was a simple drawing of a numbered ball, with teams having anywhere from one to three numbers depending on two factors. The first extra number was awarded for teams that had failed to make the playoffs in the past three official seasons (2001-02, 2002-03, and 2003-04), and the second was awarded for teams that had not selected 1st at any point in the past three drafts.
In all, only four teams were eligible for three balls in the lottery: the Buffalo Sabres, the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the New York Rangers. The four teams were not only in the running for the 1st-Overall Pick. They were hoping to have the best chance at drafting Sidney Crosby, a dynamic centreman from the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic. Crosby was of a special breed, a player that could take control of a game from a very young age. No less an authority than Wayne Gretzky himself said that Crosby was most likely to be the man to break his point records. In what was to be his final season of junior hockey, Crosby notched 168 points in 62 games in the QMJHL, and finished in the top 10 in scoring at the 2005 World Junior Championships as a 17-year-old. The young man from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia was already being hailed as “The Next One”, as a spiritual successor to “The Great One” Gretzky.
If anyone knew about the hype surrounding Crosby, and the prospects of his talent, it was Pittsburgh Penguins’ majority owner Mario Lemieux. Lemieux himself was highly-touted going into the 1984 Draft, having notched 282 points in 70 games in his last season in the QMJHL – a record that stands to this day. Lemieux would be drafted by Pittsburgh, and went on to become a legend in the city, winning two Stanley Cups. His junior point-scoring prowess translated so well to the National Hockey League that even multiple injuries and a battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma couldn’t stop him from notching just over 1700 points in his career up to that point. (Lemieux had returned to NHL play in the 2000-01 season, and would continue until the 2005-06 season, when an irregular heartbeat sidelined him for good.)
Lemieux knew the effect that drafting Crosby would have on the Penguins, a team desperately in need of something to rejuvenate the club. Even having Lemieux back wasn’t good enough for a team that had finished with the lowest attendance in the NHL in the last full season. Having already undergone financial problems in the year leading up to Lemieux’s drafting, the Penguins likely couldn’t afford another few years of being at the bottom of the attendance rankings. Though they had an impressive prospect in Evgeni Malkin yet to make the jump to North America, Crosby’s hype and potential would make him an instant draw in a city desperate for something (and someone) to cheer for.
In the original timeline, the Penguins got their wish. The draw would come up in their favour, and the Penguins drafted Crosby 1st Overall in the 2005 Entry Draft eight days later. But it was still a 1-in-16 chance. It’s entirely likely that they would miss out on a glorious opportunity to restore the franchise to the glory of the early 90s. So, it leaves the question…
WHAT IF THE PENGUINS LOST THE 2005 NHL DRAFT LOTTERY?
WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: Well, not a whole lot has to change. As mentioned, this was a universal lottery, with a total of 48 balls available to draw. At only about a 6% chance, the odds were still quite low for Pittsburgh to get the #1 pick. All it really takes is for whoever conducted the lottery to grab a different ball. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to make the assumption that one of the three other teams with three balls (Columbus, Buffalo, or the New York Rangers) has one of their numbers called first instead of the Penguins.
So, in a “secret location” somewhere in New York, league administrators (including Commissioner Gary Bettman and his deputy Bill Daly) meet up with local auditors to ensure that the draft is conducted fairly. There is radio silence for the first hour or so after the draw is conducted, but eventually, with everything verified, the news is broken. Multiple sports networks run with the news that the Columbus Blue Jackets have won the first-ever Draft Lottery, and are thus given the chance to draft a potential superstar in Sidney Crosby.
FROM PITTSBURGH’S PERSPECTIVE
As the news breaks of the Lottery result, there is only heartbreak in Pittsburgh. The chance the team had to repeat their build in the 1980s has passed. Mario Lemieux, the man who kick-started the Pens’ ascension after being drafted to the team, will not see Crosby come to follow in his footsteps. The fact that the team missed out on Crosby is only magnified by the fact that the team has nobody to build hype around in order to sell tickets in the new season. Lemieux is far from the player he was in his prime, and prized prospect Evgeni Malkin was still a year or so away from getting to North America. The team goes into the 2005 NHL Draft looking for someone to form a partnership with Malkin, either as a fellow centre or as a winger on Malkin’s line. With the 6th Overall Pick, the Penguins select Gilbert Brulé, a forward from the WHL’s Vancouver Giants.
The 2005-06 season is set to begin, and virtually nobody in Pittsburgh has any hope of the team being successful. It almost seems a foregone conclusion that the Penguins are going to suck, and things were only bound to get worse as time went on. Mario Lemieux, now slotted in as the #1 centre by default, would retire in January after discovering an irregular heartbeat. At 40, his storied career was done for good. Marc-Andre Fleury, touted as the goalie of the future, struggles in his first year as a starter, managing a .898 save percentage in 50 games. So bad are the Penguins, ultimately, that they fail to manage even 20 wins, finishing dead last in the NHL with 48 points. Fans continue to tune out, not wanting to bear witness to such an awful team. The team’s average attendance clocks in at 10,804 a game – also worst in the entire league. If there is anything positive to take from the season, it’s the fact that Pittsburgh does get to select 1st Overall in the 2006 Draft, taking American blue-liner Erik Johnson.
For 2006-07, the first seeds of hope are planted. Following an extensive and controversial negotiating process with his Russian team, the Pens finally sign Evgeni Malkin just in time for training camp. Gilbert Brule, following a short but strong year with the Vancouver Giants, is ready to make the jump to the NHL. Though Malkin excels in his first NHL season (85 points in 78 games), Brulé doesn’t; though he plays just as many games as Malkin, Brulé only puts up 19 points. The team has certainly improved, but it just isn’t enough for a playoff spot. The Pens fall just short, managing 89 points, good for 10th in the East. At the Draft, they have the 12th Overall selection, using their pick on another American defenseman, Ryan McDonagh. The prospect of a McDonagh-Johnson tandem looks tantalizing, possibly one that could be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
But while the news is steadily getting better on the ice, the news off the ice only seems to get worse and worse. With the team looking for a permanent owner, a solution seemed to come in the form of Blackberry CEO Jim Balsillie, who agreed to buy the club for $185 million. The deal was scuttled in December of 2006 after the NHL informed Balsillie that they would handle upcoming negotiations with local and state governments for a new arena. Balsillie, long viewed as wanting to bring an NHL franchise to Hamilton, withdrew his bid. The negotiations for a new arena in Pittsburgh also went roughly, as Lemieux and the ownership group began to look at other cities for hosting the Penguins, including Kansas City, Winnipeg, and Oklahoma City. In March of 2007, a source close to Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell said that the odds of the Penguins staying in Pittsburgh were “slim to none”.
The 2007-08 season was one where the fruits began to bloom for Pittsburgh on the ice. Malkin, fresh off a stellar rookie season, would put up 101 points in a full slate of games for the Pens, the first to eclipse the century mark since Jaromir Jagr did it in 2000-01. Marc-Andre Fleury played well prior to a high-ankle sprain, but the Pens would not suffer for his absence thanks to the strong late-season play of Ty Conklin (33 games, .923 SV%). The one lone dark spot seemed to be Brulé, who regressed further at the NHL level, managing only 9 points in 61 games. He would eventually be moved to Atlanta as part of a major deal that sees the Pens get Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis in return.
Given the New York Rangers in the first round, Pittsburgh stumbles out of the gate, but quickly finds their footing, eventually winning the series in six games. The most noteworthy moment of the series happens in Game Three, when Rangers’ winger Sean Avery turns around and waves his stick in Marc-Andre Fleury’s face in an attempt to block him from seeing the puck on a power-play. (The NHL immediately makes a rule preventing anybody else from doing such a thing again, which ends up being called the “Avery Rule” by hockey media.) Following their tense first-round series, the Penguins end up with New Jersey in the second round, and are given a major test. Thanks to some heroic performances from Fleury in goal, the Pens win a shocker, defeating the Devils in six.
For the first time in a while, there is true excitement in Pittsburgh. The Mellon Arena is packed for every playoff home game, much like it was in the days of Lemieux and Jagr. And if there was one opponent that could ensure that games were a sell-out, it was their cross-state rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers. Philly had gone through Washington and Montreal to get to this point, and were going to make it a test for a young Pittsburgh team looking to make a huge mark. The series goes the full seven games, with the decider going to overtime. In the overtime period, veteran Flyer Vaclav Prospal fires in the winning goal, sending the Flyers on to the Stanley Cup Final. Despite their elimination, the Pens take stock in the fact that they made such a fantastic run with such a young squad.
The Penguins enter the 2008-09 season with serious hope for a Stanley Cup, but also with time ticking down on their chances of staying in Pittsburgh. Things start off horribly for the Pens as Erik Johnson tears his ACL and MCL in pre-season, knocking him out for the entire year. And what started out bad only gets worse as the team struggles through the first half of the season, finding themselves well out of a playoff spot by January. Michel Therrien, the head coach since the 05-06 season, is dismissed, to be replaced by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Dan Bylsma. The change is too little, too late, as the Pens miss out on a post-season spot, finishing 11th in the East with 83 points. The fans, so excited for a potential Cup contender at the beginning of the year, tune out once again. The average attendance at Mellon Arena is 12,975, once again lowest in the league. Late-season crowds drop below 9,000 as the talk of relocation begins once more. Looking for a potential winger to play alongside Evgeni Malkin, the Pens select Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson 10th Overall in the Entry Draft.
With talk of relocation now at a fever pitch, the Penguins’ players are completely silent, instead choosing to focus on the season ahead of them. The return of Erik Johnson proves a huge boon, as the Pens stay competitive throughout the year. The team acquires Jordan Leopold and Alexei Ponikarovsky late on, hoping to cement themselves for a late-season push; even with a playoff spot not assured, the team knows that in order to keep interest high in Pittsburgh, a long post-season run is crucial. Pittsburgh eventually does grab a playoff spot, finishing 7th in the East with 88 points. Given the New Jersey Devils in the first round, the Pens acquit themselves well in their first two home games, but their inability to win on the road proves to be the killer, as New Jersey takes the series in six games. With the 16th pick in the 2010 Draft, the Pens get Russian winger Vladimir Tarasenko, hoping that he could be a future fit with Malkin.
With the Mellon Arena rapidly deteriorating, and no deal for an arena in Pittsburgh agreed upon, the ownership group begins to truly consider relocation as an answer. Jim Balsillie is no longer an option, as he concentrates his efforts on trying to buy the Phoenix Coyotes, only to get denied. With the NHL trying desperately to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix, their attention is drawn away from the Penguins, who now have no choice but to consider new cities to host the team. The primary target is Kansas City, who have an arena ready to go in the Sprint Center, a luxury few other cities have. Mario Lemieux is hesitant to move the team, considering that Pittsburgh is where he made his name as a player, but as the chances of the team staying put dwindling, he feels as if he might have to relocate the team.
In the 2010 off-season, Lemieux, Ron Burkle, and the Penguins’ board issue an ultimatum to the local and state governments, stating that if a deal is not reached, the team will move to Kansas City beginning in the 11-12 campaign. With the state in the middle of a gubernatorial race, the issue becomes a political one, with Democratic candidate (and Pittsburgh native) Dan Onorato publically committing to making a deal with Penguins’ ownership. Republican candidate Tom Corbett remains mostly mum on the issue, but does state that he hopes a solution can be reached without much cost to taxpayers. Though Onorato makes solid gains in Pittsburgh, Corbett wins the election, and upon taking office, refuses to negotiate.
With the knowledge that this season may possibly be the Pens’ last in Pittsburgh, the fans start to show up in larger numbers, hoping that maybe a show of support will be enough to keep the team in the city. Things go bad at points during the season, with an injury to Evgeni Malkin being marked as a death knell for the team, despite being reasonably solid up to that point. The team, whether thanks to the dire team situation or Dan Bylsma’s coaching, refuses to give up, and eventually, the Penguins finish in 5th place in the East with 102 points. They match up in the first round with the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have to deal with a heavily-motivated Pittsburgh side. Despite the Pens’ efforts, Tampa Bay wins in seven games. Game 6, a home loss, turns out to be the last home game in Pittsburgh Penguins history, as without a deal for a new arena, the team is set to move to Kansas City.
As the off-season begins, discussion over the identity of the new Kansas City team is rampant. The two major theories are either that the team will retain the “Penguins” name, or enter an agreement with Sporting Club, owners of Sporting Kansas City in Major League Soccer, to adopt the MLS club’s name and logo in the NHL. (This idea, though somewhat unprecedented in modern North American sports, is familiar in Europe, with such clubs as CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid, Olympiacos, and several more across the continent fielding teams in multiple sports.) In the end, though Sporting Club does buy a small percentage of the club, the “Penguins” name is retained, likely due to the sentimental value held by both Lemieux and hockey fandom as a whole.
Another big change happens prior to Draft Day, as Kansas City and Colorado swing a trade. To the Avalanche go former #1 pick Erik Johnson, forward Dustin Jeffrey, and a 1st-Rounder in 2011 for Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart, and Colorado’s 2nd-Rounder, used on Ty Rattie. This is similar to the trade made in real life between St. Louis and Colorado, save for the fact that because of their desperation for a playoff spot, the Pens held on to Johnson throughout the year.
With all of the moving and shaking of the off-season done, and the Penguins now settled in the Sprint Center, the season begins. Fans are clearly excited for NHL hockey in Kansas City, hoping that this team will not be a repeat of the old Scouts from the 70s. On the ice, at least, there’s no comparison; the Penguins are better in every way. Evgeni Malkin has a great season, putting up 107 points, and the Shattenkirk-McDonagh pairing proves to be a formidable duo, with both getting occasional Norris Trophy consideration. The Penguins finish their first season in Kansas City as the top team in the entire league with 117 points, winning the President’s Trophy for the first time since 1993. Malkin is not only the top point-scorer in the league, but also the Hart Trophy winner as league MVP.
The Sprint Center is a packed house as the Penguins begin their first playoff series in their new home, faced with the Ottawa Senators. Despite the sell-outs, and the fantastic team on the ice, the Pens suffer major playoff jitters, and get swept by the Sens in four games. It’s no big deal to Kansas City fans, who are just happy to see high-quality hockey. The playoff collapse certainly puts a target on the back of head coach Dan Bylsma, who has yet to win a single playoff series. Regular season success isn’t enough for the “hot seat” talk to sprout, but as long as the team is still a regular season powerhouse, his job is relatively safe. The Penguins end up with the 22nd Overall selection, using it on Finnish defender Olli Maatta.
The next season is only contained to 2013, due to the lockout shortening the campaign. Once the off-season issues are sorted out, teams return to play; the Penguins are still stuck in the Eastern Conference, as are their fellow 2011 travelers the Winnipeg Jets. As with last year, the Pens start strong, despite some injury troubles, ending up 1st in the East with 75 points. They are given the New York Islanders in the first round, and though it ends up a closer series than the team would like, the Penguins take it in seven games – Dan Bylsma’s first playoff series win. The second series pits Kansas City against the Ottawa Senators, who use the Pens’ lack of experience against them, winning in five. It’s not great for KC, but a sign of progress.
In 2013-14, the team makes their move to the Western Conference official, slotting in the new Central Division with St. Louis, Colorado, Chicago, Minnesota, Dallas, Nashville, and Winnipeg. Looking for another high-scoring winger to play alongside Malkin and Chris Kunitz, the Pens acquire David Perron from St. Louis in a deal that sees Magnus Paajarvi go the other way (as well as two draft picks in 2014). Perron proves quite useful (53 points in 78 games), as coach Bylsma utilizes a rotation between Perron, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Jussi Jokinen. Chris Stewart is the odd man out, sent to Nashville in a trade that sees the Predators get Stewart and a 2014 1st-Rounder in exchange for David Legwand. The Penguins finish the year with 117 points, clinching their second President’s Trophy in three years.
For the first time, Kansas City is in the playoffs in the Western Conference, matched up with the Minnesota Wild in the first round. The series starts off back-and-forth, but eventually, KC takes it in six games. Now up against the defending Stanley Cup champions from Chicago, the Penguins are in for a real test, as they are matched up with a team that seems to be in the final four every year. Despite their talent, Kansas City are stymied by strong goaltending from Corey Crawford, who manages two shutouts in a four-game sweep. Having failed to reach the Conference Final, the whispers rise once again of Dan Bylsma’s job being in danger, but despite the rumour mill kicking into high gear once more, neither he, nor GM Ray Shero, are given their marching orders just yet. The next year is a “now-or-never” season for the two, as they hope to deliver the success that has eluded them so far. (Their 1st-Round Pick in the Draft ends up being the #26 pick, which the Predators, who acquired the pick in the Legwand trade, use on Nikita Scherbak.)
In the 2014-15 pre-season, a special on-ice connection forms between the Russian duo of Malkin and Tarasenko. The two seem to be able to find each other with passes that nobody else can pick up, and the season starts with the two matched on the first line, with Chris Kunitz, as usual, on the left side. Kansas City starts off hot thanks to the top unit, which sends both of the Russians to the All-Star Game. At the end of the year, Tarasenko finishes with 37 goals and 73 points, a break-out campaign for the 2010 1st-Rounder. The Penguins, as a whole, end up with a total of 108 points, good for 2nd in the Central Division.
The Pens are matched up against the Minnesota Wild once more, who have revenge on their mind. This time, it is Minnesota that moves on, winning the series in six. With Kansas City out at the first hurdle, ownership could no longer afford to be patient with the management team. Both Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma are fired, and the search for new leadership is on. The two vacancies are not filled by the 2015 Draft, which sees VP of hockey operations Jason Karmanos take control of the Pens’ drafting efforts. Having made the David Perron trade in 2014 rather than 2015, the Penguins still have their 1st-Round Pick this year, which they use on goalie Ilya Samsonov.
By early July, the Penguins have filled their coaching and managing spots, bringing in two veteran names. In as the new General Manager is Lou Lamoriello, formerly of the New Jersey Devils. Lamoriello had been with the Devils for almost 30 years, building a team that stood as a powerhouse for most of the 90s and early 2000s, with two Stanley Cups won in that time. Another former Cup winner, John Tortorella, is brought in as the head coach. The notoriously prickly Tortorella immediately gets questions as to how he will cooperate with the likes of Evgeni Malkin and Vladimir Tarasenko, but he brushes them off at his first press conference in Kansas City. He states that “we’ll worry about that when we’re playing”.
(Note: There is a major trade in the original timeline at this point, as the Pens acquire Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs for a package that includes Kasperi Kapanen, among others. Two factors arise in this new timeline that prevent this trade from happening. The first is that the Pens no longer have Kapanen, and the second is that with Vladimir Tarasenko under contract, Kansas City no longer needs an elite winger to play alongside Malkin. Nick Spaling, who was part of the original trade going to Toronto, instead is traded to Vancouver, along with a 3rd-Round Pick in 2016; going the other way are Nick Bonino, Adam Clendening, and Anaheim’s 2016 2nd-Rounder.)
With Kansas City serious about competing for a Cup, the fan excitement is just as high as it was when the team first moved from Pittsburgh. The Sprint Center sees some early sellouts, but nervousness starts to set in as the team struggles early under coach Tortorella. The team suffers another setback as Malkin deals with injuries throughout the season, limiting him to only 57 games. His Russian linemate, Tarasenko, picks up the slack, registering his first 40-goal season to lead the team in both goals and points (73). The Pens finish with 104 points, putting them in second in the Central, locked up in the first round with their geographical rivals St. Louis.
The first series between St. Louis and Kansas City proves to be a pretty nasty one, with a few star players getting in on the fights. In Game 2, Marc-Andre Fleury ends up injured thanks to a hit by Steve Ott, but his deputy, Matt Murray, proves to be stellar in goal. Murray sees out the series as the Penguins win in six games. The next round sees the Penguins face off against the Dallas Stars, and once again, Matt Murray proves to be solid between the pipes, as the series goes the full seven games. In Game Seven, Murray is shelled for four first-period goals, forcing Tortorella to drop him in favour of Jeff Zatkoff. The move pays off, as Kansas City claws back to tie the game 4-4. In overtime, a wicked slap shot from Vladimir Tarasenko proves to be the difference, as the Pens complete the comeback to move on to the Conference Final.
Jeff Zatkoff gets the start in goal for the first game of the Pens’ series against the San Jose Sharks, and it becomes clear that the magic from Game Seven against Dallas won’t be repeated. The Pens lose 4-1 on home ice, and Matt Murray is brought back in for the next one. Though Murray plays well, the Penguins’ lack of secondary scoring becomes apparent. Martin Jones is given little difficulty in the next three match-ups, as the Sharks take the series in five games. Despite their loss, Kansas City fans are clearly excited again, and looking for more next year. (Having not given up their 1st-Round pick in 2016, the Penguins use their pick at #28 on defenseman Lucas Johansen.)
With a Stanley Cup the expectation going into this season, the biggest need for the Pens to address is their second-line centre slot. Though the team seems to function well as is, an upgrade here could be just what Kansas City needs to make that final step. The Pens make their move at the trade deadline, acquiring Martin Hanzal from the Arizona Coyotes for Kevin Shattenkirk and a 2017 4th-Rounder. Shattenkirk was on his last contract year, and was deemed expendable; KC already had Kris Letang, and wouldn’t have salary room for two top-tier offensive defensemen. The move gives the Penguins the secondary scoring they were looking for, and they go into the playoffs ready to make a long run.
The Pens are once again matched up with the St. Louis Blues in the first round, and Marc-Andre Fleury is back as the starter. Fleury is dominant against a lacking St. Louis attack, not letting in more than 3 goals in any of the five games he plays as Kansas City takes the series with ease. Fleury is once again the starter against Nashville, but his first game doesn’t go well as he lets in 5 goals on 33 shots. Matt Murray is once again the starter, but despite his efforts, the Penguins are left unable to get many pucks by Pekka Rinne. The Predators win the series in five, and move on to the Conference Final. The poor performance by Fleury in Game One is his final bow as a Penguin, as he is left unprotected in the Expansion Draft; Murray had been the starter for most of the regular season, and played very well, managing a .923 SV% in 49 games, making him more important to the team going forward.
The Penguins Today: The biggest effect is obvious – the Penguins are no longer in Pittsburgh. Finding a new arena was an important step for keeping the team in Pennsylvania, and the lack of a major draw to build around would ultimately prove to be the fatal blow. The Penguins had one of the lowest attendances going into the 2005-06 season, and without a major sign of hope in Crosby, their attendance would never recover quite as much as it did in real life. The lack of Crosby is also evident in the last years at Mellon Arena, as in real life, Pittsburgh made two Stanley Cup Final appearances, winning one in 2009. Without the dangerous duo of Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins would never win those Cups, and would even miss out on the playoffs in ’09. Save for a temporary blip, the Pens are still near the bottom of the league in attendance.
The Kansas City Penguins are owned by a consortium that includes Mario Lemieux, Ron Burkle, and Sporting Club, the owners of Sporting Kansas City in Major League Soccer. Though the hockey team does not adopt the MLS club’s name as planned at the time of the move, the team does move to a colour scheme featuring powder blue and navy blue, with a design similar to that of the 70s-era uniforms. At first, the Sprint Center features constant sell-outs, putting the team square in the middle in terms of attendance numbers. As time goes on, fan interest doesn’t seem to diminish too much, especially considering the team is a constant playoff presence. The real test will come when the team has to complete a proper rebuild. Will the fans stick around and make the Penguins a fixture in the city, or will they tune out, and set the stage for another potential move in the future?
As an aside note, speaking of Lemieux, he is now seen as a polarizing figure within Pittsburgh. There are older fans who still remember how valuable he was to the Penguins on the ice, and while not all of them are approving of the move, quite a few understand the situation Lemieux was thrust into. Younger fans, some of whom weren’t around at all for Mario’s glory days, are less forgiving, cursing his name in the same breath that a Cleveland fan might curse the name of Art Modell.
On the ice, the team looks pretty solid, even without Crosby. The first line features two of the most dynamic players in the game in Evgeni Malkin and Vladimir Tarasenko, players who can light the lamp at any moment. If they don’t get scoring from their forwards, any of Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, or Justin Schultz can step up and create something. And in goal, Matt Murray looks to be the keeper of the future, with Ilya Samsonov not too far behind. The “C” is worn by Ryan McDonagh, considered to be one of the best defensive defensemen in the game. Despite all of the talent they have, the lack of true secondary scoring is what harms the team the most, and prevents them from making that Cup run they have been wanting so long. Obviously, the team miss out on Crosby, and because of trades that they make in this timeline, they miss out on the likes of Jake Guentzel and Phil Kessel, players who have been key in recent playoff runs.
And as for the pick they made in the 2005 draft, it can only be considered a disaster. Gilbert Brulé was considered to be someone who could potentially be an elite forward in the NHL, but never lived up to what people had expected of him. He would play 146 games in Pittsburgh, managing a mere 32 points. His best season in the NHL would come in 2009-10, when he managed 37 points in 65 games on a horrendous Edmonton team. He would never come close to that total again, and now finds himself with Kunlun Red Star in the Kontinental Hockey League – a long way to fall for a former 6th-Overall Pick.
FROM COLUMBUS’ PERSPECTIVE
The moment the results are announced, there is an outpouring of joy in the Columbus front office. The Blue Jackets, already a somewhat promising team, are now the destination for Sidney Crosby, a young man projected to be the player that leads the National Hockey League into a new era. As it stands, Columbus is still a very new team, one of the two most recent additions to the league. Though attendance was falling a bit, the team was still pulling in over 16,000 per game, and wasn’t in danger of becoming a failed experiment just yet. This new piece, however, makes the Blue Jackets an immediate draw. Over the next few days, sales of Columbus jerseys skyrocket, most of them bearing the name “CROSBY” and the number “87” on the back, the number Crosby wore in the QMJHL.
When the draft is held on July 30th at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa, it doesn’t take even thirty seconds before the Blue Jackets’ general manager, Doug MacLean, heads up on stage to announce Sidney Crosby as the team’s first pick. The shot of Crosby holding a Blue Jackets sweater is plastered on the front page of every newspaper in Columbus, and reactions from the players are overwhelmingly glowing. One in particular, Rick Nash, says he “can’t wait to start taking passes from Sid”. Nash had finished the last season tied for the goal-scoring lead with 41, and was the youngest player in league history to lead the league in that category.
As the season begins, excitement in Columbus is hard to contain. Sure, the team had struggled in their first few years, but now, they were ready to be competitive, and had a potential superstar to build around. In his first season in the National Hockey League, Crosby lives up to the hype, managing 102 points in 81 games. Despite Crosby’s outstanding play, the team is hit by injuries to a few of their players; Nash is among them, playing only 54 games. At the end, the Blue Jackets once again fail to make the playoffs, but their total of 84 points is the highest in their short history. Picking 9th in the 2006 Entry Draft, the Jackets select forward James Sheppard from the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
Going into the 2006-07 season, fan excitement is still apparent. Having seen what “Sid the Kid” can do, they want more, and they also want a playoff spot. Sell-out crowds populate the Nationwide Arena every game, but despite Crosby’s talent, the players around him just don’t match up. Sure, Rick Nash and David Vyborny are good (67 and 74 points respectively), but the defending is nowhere near up to scratch, and the goaltending is just not good enough to keep the team in the race. After a slow start, Gerard Gallant is fired, and Ken Hitchcock is brought in, to little avail. The team finishes with 86 points; while this is good enough for 10th in the West, it is well out of a playoff spot. Crosby can hardly be blamed for the poor performance of his team, as he notches a league-leading 120 points. In only his second season in the league, Sidney wins the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP.
The poor results in the regular season (not including Crosby and Nash) mean the end for Doug MacLean’s tenure as General Manager. Acting quickly following the end of the season, the Jackets bring in Cliff Fletcher, a former Stanley Cup winner, to take over for the next three years. A month shy of 72 years of age, Fletcher is not a permanent solution, and is only there to build a contender in the short term. His first order of business is at the draft, as he uses the team’s 1st-Round Pick on defenseman Keaton Ellerby, in a bid to bolster the team’s blue line in the near future. Given a mandate by ownership to spend big in free agency (due to the increased revenue created through Crosby), Fletcher makes his first real splash in July, signing former Edmonton Oilers winger Ryan Smyth to play alongside Crosby and Nash. Also brought in for a year is legendary netminder Dominik Hasek; though he is 43, he can still be relied upon to take a few games as the team continues to ready Pascal Leclaire for regular NHL play.
With their squad bolstered by a few veteran names, the Blue Jackets are ready to compete for real. When once, playoffs were a hope, they are now an expectation. Injuries, however, threaten to derail the Blue Jackets, with both Crosby and Smyth spending time in the press box. When they are unavailable, however, others pick up the slack. Hasek proves to be a solid 1b, playing 37 games and managing a .902 save percentage. Leclaire is even better, managing 27 wins and a .919 SV% in his first year as a starter. The team also gets big contributions from the likes of Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev, who both register over 65 points. The Jackets end up in 7th in the West, sneaking in to the post-season with 94 points.
For the first time in Columbus, there is playoff hockey. The Blue Jackets are matched up with the San Jose Sharks, a dangerous team bolstered by one of the highest-scoring lines of the modern era. Columbus proves to be a rather tough opponent, but the Sharks eventually prevail in five games. Though they are knocked out at the first hurdle, there are positives to take from their first post-season appearance. In his playoff debut, Sidney Crosby proves to be more than ready, managing 5 points in 5 games. Another silver lining is the atmosphere at Nationwide Arena, described by hockey writers as “electric”, and “intimidating”. In his quest to improve the blue line further, Cliff Fletcher uses his team’s 1st-Rounder on another defenseman, Minnesota high school stand-out Jake Gardiner.
2008-09 is centred around preparing for a Cup run, and looking for more pieces that can aid the team immediately. Fedor Tyutin is brought in from the New York Rangers in a deal that sees Nikolai Zherdev go the other way, while Mike Commodore and Kristian Huselius are signed as free agents. Though the team looks set to do damage in the post-season, injuries once again pop up to derail Columbus’ plans. Pascal Leclaire found himself sidelined early on, leaving 20-year-old Steve Mason to fill in as the starter. Mason proves to be far better than anyone would expect of a rookie goalie, playing 61 games and notching a .916 SV% in his first professional year. The play of Mason eventually makes Leclaire expendable, and he is dealt to Ottawa near the deadline for centreman Antoine Vermette.
The offense proves to be key in solidifying Columbus’ spot in the post-season, as Sidney Crosby returns to form with 103 points in 77 games. Rick Nash is once again deadly, potting 45 goals for the first time in his career. All in all, the Jackets finish with 100 points in a tough Central Division, their total putting them in 5th in the West. Their first-round match-up sees the Jackets pitted against the Chicago Blackhawks, setting the stage for a rivalry to flare up, if not between the teams, then between two dynamic duos – Crosby and Nash suiting up for the Jackets, and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane for the Hawks. The ultimate X-factor in this series proves to be goaltending, as Steve Mason succumbs to playoff jitters, putting up a .878 SV% in four games. The Hawks sweep, and the Blue Jackets are left to figure out what could have been. Picking 22nd in the 2009 Entry Draft, the Blue Jackets select centreman Jordan Schroeder.
Going into the last year of his contract, Cliff Fletcher makes moves to ensure the team is competitive long after he has left, and spends big on free agent winger Marian Hossa, signing the Slovakian sniper to a 12-year contract. Also brought in are goaltender Mathieu Garon and defensive forward Sami Pahlsson, pieces to give the team added depth. Ryan Smyth, after two somewhat solid seasons in Columbus, is traded to Los Angeles, with the Jackets getting Kyle Quincey, Tom Preissing, and a 5th-Round Pick in 2010 (eventually used on Luke Walker, who never made it to the NHL).
The hope that many Blue Jackets fans have for the team is tested very often due to Steve Mason’s slip in form. Playing 58 games, Mason only manages a .901 SV%, leaving the offense to pick up the slack. The forwards, however, suffered no such slip; Sidney Crosby finishes with 51 goals, leading the entire league, and 109 points. Though beset by injuries, Marian Hossa is a point-a-game player over 54 games, while Rick Nash eclipses the 35-goal mark once more. It comes to the final day of the season, but in the end, the Blue Jackets finish with 95 points, missing out on the playoffs due to having fewer wins than 8th-place Colorado. Having failed to make the post-season, Fletcher and Ken Hitchcock are fired, replaced by Dale Tallon and Scott Arniel, respectively.
Fans are beginning to get restless. After a couple of disappointing playoff appearances, the Blue Jackets followed it up by missing out entirely, and despite their talent, look to be on the way back to building for the future rather than the present. The presence of Tallon at least gives the fans some hope that the team will soon find a way to be truly competitive again; Tallon, after all, built the core of the Chicago Blackhawks team that just won the Stanley Cup. His first move as GM is to select Jaden Schwartz 14th Overall in the 2010 Entry Draft.
The Jackets have a strong start, and manage to remain in the playoff picture for most of the early months, but the injury bug strikes again, in a big way. During the Winter Classic against Chicago, Sidney Crosby collides with Blackhawks forward Jake Dowell during a line change, and ends up with a concussion. In a game against Phoenix three days later, the concussion is aggravated after a routine hit along the boards by Ed Jovanovski. Crosby would not play again for the rest of the season, leaving Columbus without their #1 centreman.
With Crosby out for the rest of the year, the Jackets begin to fade in the standings. Antoine Vermette and R.J. Umberger aren’t bad as fill-ins, but neither of them can keep their team in a game the way Crosby can. Eventually, Columbus finishes in 11th in the West with 91 points. Steve Mason was given leeway from his previous year, which was chalked up to the “sophomore slump”. Unfortunately, Mason proved that the form from that year was closer to his true level, as he duplicates his .901 SV% from 2009-10, this time in 54 games. Time is running out for him as a starter, and as a Blue Jacket.
At this point in the original timeline, there is a major trade that no longer happens. At this point in time, Jeff Carter was traded to Columbus in a deal that saw Jakub Vorcaek go to the Flyers, along with 1st and 3rd-Round Picks in the 2011 Draft. Having not drafted Voracek, and having no need for a #1 centreman due to the presence of Crosby, the trade is nixed. Columbus holds on to their picks, selecting D-man Duncan Siemens and centreman Nick Cousins respectively.
2011-12, needless to say, would end up being a tough season for the Blue Jackets. With their star player playing only 22 games due to post-concussion symptoms, and their starting goalie only getting worse and worse, the year looked a dismal one. By January, the team was well out of contention, and Scott Arniel was out as head coach, in favour of Todd Richards. Richards attempted to get the Jackets back in the mix, and at least managed to make the team look respectable, but the damage was done. In the end, Columbus would finish 12th in the West with 83 points, a drop of 8 from the previous year.
The 2012 off-season sees Columbus undergo several massive changes, starting with Draft Day. First up is a deal with Philadelphia that sees the Jackets give up three draft picks (a 2nd-Rounder and two 4th-Rounders) for goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky, like Mason, finished the 2011-12 season very poorly, and needed to find his form again. Also on that day, the Blue Jackets would use their 1st-Round Pick on American defenseman Jacob Trouba. They have another pick in the round, having traded Kyle Quincey to Detroit for the Wings’ pick at #19, which the Jackets use on goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The final change, and easily the biggest, comes on July 22nd, when the Jackets trade Rick Nash, Steven Delisle, and a conditional 3rd-Round Pick in 2013 for Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Tim Erixon, and a 2013 1st-Rounder. Nash, once a 1st-Overall Pick of the Blue Jackets, was coming closer to the end of his contract, and had asked for a trade from Columbus prior to the previous season. With Marian Hossa in town, he was no longer the sniper of choice to play alongside Crosby, and found himself getting less and less time under Todd Richards.
The team would get some extra time to gel, as a lockout wiped out the first few months of the year. Play would officially resume in late January, and it quickly became clear that Columbus found a game-changer in Bobrovsky. The former Flyer would play 38 games for the Blue Jackets, registering a .932 save percentage in his first year with his new team. This made Mason expendable, and he was traded to Philly at the deadline for Michael Leighton and a 3rd-Rounder in 2015. Sidney Crosby also returned to regular action, playing 36 games in the shortened season. He still managed to record 56 points, giving him the clear lead on the team.
(Note: In the original timeline, the Blue Jackets make a trade with the New York Rangers. Marian Gaborik, Steven Delisle, and Blake Parlett go to Columbus, while Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett, John Moore, and Columbus’ 6th-Rounder in 2014 go the other way. Because they never drafted Brassard or Moore, this trade never happens.)
The vastly improved goaltending, plus a relatively healthy Sidney Crosby, lead the Blue Jackets to finish with 65 points, good for 4th in the West. Attendance at Nationwide Arena, which had been slowly dwindling over the past three years, returns to sell-out level as fans anticipate a potential playoff run. First in their way are the St. Louis Blues, who finished 3rd in the Central Division. The Blues make it a tough fight, coming back from a 3-1 series deficit, but the Jackets get a late goal from Matt Calvert to win Game Seven. Their second round opponents are the Anaheim Ducks, who waste no time in testing Bobrovsky. The Russian netminder is pulled in Game Two, leaving Michael Leighton to try and win the series. He gets a win, but it isn’t enough, as the Ducks win the series in five.
Because of their trade with New York for Rick Nash, the Jackets have two 1st-Round Picks to use in the 2013 Entry Draft. Their first is the New York pick at #20, which they use on winger Anthony Mantha, while their natural pick at #26 is used on blue-liner Shea Theodore. The Jackets’ cupboard is bursting with future stars, with the likes of Jordan Schroeder, Jake Gardiner, and Jaden Schwartz having already made their debuts on the NHL squad, and Jacob Trouba on the way. The Jackets make a move of an entirely different variety in the 2013 off-season. With the re-alignment of the league, Columbus is moved to the Eastern Conference, taking a spot in the Metropolitan Division with the NY Rangers, NY Islanders, Philadelphia, Washington, New Jersey, and Carolina.
The move to the East doesn’t faze Columbus in the least. Given more time in the spotlight of the Metro Division, Sidney Crosby shines, putting up 104 points in 80 games to lead the league. Bobrovsky proves his first year with Columbus was no fluke, as he puts up a .923 SV% in 58 games. Jaden Schwartz and Jacob Trouba have breakout years, with Trouba getting serious consideration for the Calder Trophy. In their very first year in the East, the Blue Jackets finish with 115 points, good for 1st in the Metro Division, and a first-round date with Detroit, who, like Columbus, migrated over from the Western Conference. The series is exciting, but in the end, it is Columbus that prevails, taking it in six. Next up are the New York Rangers; they, too, fail to solve the Jackets, as Columbus moves on to the Conference Final.
The Jackets have never come this far, but experts are predicting them to advance past the Conference Final, and compete for a Stanley Cup. To do so, they have to overcome Montreal, who are getting through on the strength of Carey Price’s goaltending and the playmaking abilities of blue-liner P.K. Subban. The Blue Jackets take the first two, but from then on, Price becomes unsolvable. Try as they might, Columbus can’t get anything past the Olympic gold medallist, and the Habs win the series in six. The team is greeted at John Glenn International Airport to a slew of appreciative fans, who are happy to see their team make such an impact in the post-season. Columbus’ 1st-Round Pick in 2014 is used on winger Josh Ho-Sang – a player with some rumoured personality issues, but tons of talent.
The Nationwide Arena is no longer simply a regular sell-out. It is now a primary destination for hockey fans, as the Blue Jackets are a strong team, anchored by the arguable best player in the game, playing in the division that gets the most American media attention. Season ticket waiting lists begin to grow as Columbus is now a true-blue hockey hotbed. To their credit, the Blue Jackets do not wilt under the pressure, and Crosby looks every bit the star that he was advertised to be before his NHL career had even begun. Now gunning directly for the Stanley Cup, the Jackets finish the 2014-15 season exactly where they finished the last year, on top of the Metro Division with 115 points. Despite no change in points, the Jackets do win the President’s Trophy as the top regular season team.
Their first-round series pits Columbus against the Ottawa Senators, who finish in the second wild-card spot in the East. Immediately, they are treated to the Crosby Show, as the Jackets’ captain scores four in the series opener. He doesn’t let up at any point, and the Jackets finish with a six-game series win. Next up is a re-match with the New York Rangers, who are looking for revenge from last year. They manage to get a split at Nationwide Arena, but the Blue Jackets return the favour at Madison Square Garden, before taking the next two games to lock up another six-game win.
Their final Eastern hurdle is the ever-dangerous Tampa Bay Lightning, led by the “Triplets”: Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov. Though the Triplets cause problems for Bobrovsky in the first couple of games, Sidney Crosby does the same to Ben Bishop, as the Jackets take the first two. A split in Tampa sees the Jackets with a chance to move on in Game Five, but the Lightning are having none of it, winning 9-3, and chasing Bobrovsky from his net. Todd Richards sticks with “Bob” for Game Six, and it proves to be a horrible decision, as Tampa chases him again in a 10-4 win. A clearly rattled Columbus team goes with Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal for the decider, but it still isn’t enough to change the tide, as Tampa Bay wins 5-2, and moves on to the Cup Final. (With their natural 1st-Round Pick in 2015, the Jackets pick Anthony Beauvillier at #28. They also have the 29th pick due to a trade with Toronto, which they use on D-man Gabriel Carlsson.)
The focus for Columbus in the 2015 off-season is identifying the player who will be the last piece to bring them a Stanley Cup. They were one win away from the Final the previous year, only to be hamstrung by bad goaltending from Bobrovsky. With Andrei Vasilevskiy not quite ready to be a starter, there are no changes to be made in goal. The biggest need they encounter is their lack of a true top-pairing defenseman. Jacob Trouba has the talent, but can’t quite be a first-unit guy yet. Jake Gardiner has proven solid, but can’t seem to shake off his tendency to make mistakes. Fedor Tyutin is getting too old, and Shea Theodore isn’t NHL ready. A couple of months into the season, the Jackets make their move, acquiring Seth Jones from the Nashville Predators for Jaden Schwartz. The Jackets were beginning to find themselves with a surplus of forwards, and could afford to part with one of their wingers.
(Note: A trade made in the off-season is affected by the new timeline. In the OTL, the Jackets trade Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, Jeremy Morin, Corey Tropp, and a 4th-Round Pick in 2016 for Brandon Saad, Michael Paliotta, and Alex Broadhurst. Because the Jackets do not draft Dano, he can’t be included in the trade. Kurtis Gabriel is moved in his place, while the 4th-Rounder is bumped up to a 3rd-Rounder.)
The Jones move gives the Jackets some added cover in the blue line, but Bobrovsky’s regression, coupled with injuries to Vasilevskiy, leave the team going with Joonas Korpisalo for the plurality of their games. Given 31 games to show his stuff, Korpisalo is actually pretty solid, managing 18 wins and a .920 save percentage. His play is good enough to keep the team in the thick of the race, and eventually, they manage to get to the final day still in a playoff spot. Though surviving regulation got them the last wild card spot, anyway, the Jackets still got a dramatic moment as Scott Hartnell scored in overtime to finish the regular season on a winning note. Columbus would end up with 98 points, grabbing the last playoff spot.
The first round would pit the Blue Jackets against the Washington Capitals, setting the stage for a long-awaited battle between Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. Back in the beginning of the post-lockout era, Crosby and Ovechkin were promoted as the two players that would dominate the NHL for the rest of their careers. Ovechkin would rule the East, while Crosby would hold domain in the West, until Columbus was moved over. With that move, it now allowed the possibility of the NHL’s two superstars to collide in the post-season. The rivalry between the two players was pretty even, as Crosby and Ovechkin both managed four points in the series, but the teams were nowhere near as well-matched, as the Capitals took a sweep. The Jackets were left with the 16th Overall Pick in the 2016 Draft, which they use on dual-citizen blue-liner Jakob Chychrun.
The 2016-17 season begins with Sergei Bobrovsky now on the hot seat. His play got worse in the previous campaign, but he did finish off as the starting goalie after the poor play of Joonas Korpisalo in Game One against Washington. The Blue Jackets bear witness to a goalie duel over the course of the season, one that is eventually won by Bobrovsky, as Andrei Vasilevskiy is traded to Los Angeles at the deadline. The incumbent wins his spot by merit, finishing with 60 games played, and a .931 save percentage. The Jackets’ insane depth allows them to finish with 120 points, good enough to claim the President’s Trophy. Sidney Crosby is also notable, leading the league with 44 goals scored.
The Blue Jackets are given a first-round date with the New York Islanders, who snuck in on the final day of the regular season. Their status as a minnow becomes incredibly apparent when matched up with Columbus’ depth. They do manage to grab a game, but the Jackets win it in five games, each of their wins coming by three goals or more. This leads to a rematch with the Washington Capitals in the next round. This time around, the experience that Sidney Crosby gained from the previous year’s loss comes into play, as he proves to be dominant when pitted against Ovechkin. The Blue Jackets end up shocking the Capitals with a four-game sweep, solidifying themselves as Cup favourites.
The Blue Jackets find themselves in a series with the surprising Ottawa Senators, who are riding a wave of emotions on and off the ice. Ottawa’s talent got them through their first-round series with Boston, while sheer will got them past the Toronto Maple Leafs in six games. But Columbus was nowhere near those two teams in quality; if Ottawa wanted to get past the Jackets, they could not afford a single mistake. Mistakes, unfortunately, cost the Sens the first two games, and they find themselves having to avoid a sweep when they get back home. Though Ottawa takes Game Three, Columbus takes the next one, then returns home to finish the series in five games. For the first time in their history, the Columbus Blue Jackets are off to the Stanley Cup Final.
In the Final, the Jackets are matched up with the Nashville Predators, the same team that they made the Schwartz-Jones trade with. Schwartz, to his credit, has become a solid #1 guy (though not quite an elite forward), while the Preds’ defensive depth made even a player of Seth Jones’ talent expendable. Nashville, whether thanks to their on-ice talent or their intimidating home-ice atmosphere, were NOT going to be easy to take down. The Blue Jackets, at least, were able to make sure that they got to Nashville on the right foot, claiming the first two games. The series would move to Nashville, where the story became the battle between Sidney Crosby and Pekka Rinne – or to be more accurate, the massacre. Crosby would pick up a hat trick in Game Three, chasing Rinne from his net, then would add two more in the next one, a 4-1 Columbus victory. The Blue Jackets, a fearsome team going into the playoffs, would finish the post-season with only two losses, and more importantly, the Stanley Cup.
Sidney Crosby, after years of waiting, and being on some poor teams, had finally claimed the Cup that so many experts had predicted he would win. He would also claim the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, a trophy likely claimed on the strength of his performances late in the playoffs. Crosby’s trip around the ice with the Cup may not have been in Columbus, but it was still historic, and would immediately become an iconic moment in NHL lore. His first move after hoisting the Cup would be just as important, as he handed the Cup to Marian Hossa, who, at 38 years of age, would also touch hockey’s ultimate prize for the first time. His commitment to the Blue Jackets back in 2009 had finally been rewarded, and with rumours beginning to start up that he was looking to end his career, this moment would be a hell of a way to go out.
The Blue Jackets Today: As it stood in the original timeline, the Blue Jackets were never really in danger of being considered a failed franchise in the same vein as Atlanta. Even in their absolute worst attendance year (2010-11), their total of 13,658 fans was still more than Phoenix, the NY Islanders, and Atlanta (in their final year as the Thrashers). In this timeline, the Jackets never even come close to that total. With Sidney Crosby in town, the team is a constant draw, managing attendance rates of 100% for almost every single year that Crosby is a Jacket.
Indeed, the presence of the game’s biggest modern-day superstar makes Columbus one of the new NHL’s signature teams. The rise from expansion team to prime hockey market starts with Crosby’s selection, which leads to the skyrocketing of Columbus jersey sales with his name and number on the back. This allows the Jackets to be solid spenders in the free agent market, which, in turn, makes their team better, and thus increases fan interest. Despite a few lean years, the Jackets are still a constant presence on NBC telecasts, and also find themselves playing frequently on Saturday nights against Canadian teams. By this point, they are not just dominant in the local sports scene, but also on the international hockey scene as a whole.
And as for the team itself? They start out with a few struggles, but eventually do become a playoff contender. The move to the East, however, allows the team to test themselves against some new opponents, and though they struggle a bit early on, they eventually pass with flying colours in the 2016-17 season, claiming their first Stanley Cup. Dale Tallon, the man who is credited with building a Cup winner in Chicago, has done the same in Columbus, putting several key pieces around the centrepiece in Crosby. Todd Richards, who ended up with a mediocre record in the OTL before being dumped in favour of John Tortorella, is able to stick around; once again, the presence of Crosby on his team makes life a lot easier for the coach.
And as for the team on the ice? Well, the changes are utterly massive, to the point where I actually have to come up with a depth chart just to illustrate how strong a team the Blue Jackets have become. Their line-up as of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final looks like this:
Brandon Saad – Sidney Crosby – Marian Hossa
Nick Foligno – Brandon Dubinsky – Cam Atkinson
Sam Gagner – Boone Jenner – Anthony Mantha
Scott Hartnell – William Karlsson – Josh Anderson
Seth Jones – David Savard
Jake Gardiner – Jacob Trouba
Markus Nutivaara – Shea Theodore
The team is clearly top-heavy, with the likes of Lukas Sedlak, Anthony Beauvillier, and Oliver Bjorkstrand not even getting into the first-choice line-up. The Blue Jackets have scoring at every line, and if anyone gets injured, their reserves can come in and be just as effective. The top two blue-line pairings are well-balanced, with both elite playmaking ability and defensive awareness. Bobrovsky, at his best, is a certifiable elite goaltender in the NHL, and when he struggles, Korpisalo has shown that even with so many years ahead of him in his career, he can already do a job at this level.
The legacy of Sidney Crosby, until the team’s 2017 Cup victory, was one of unfulfilled dreams. There is no denying the fact that he is every bit the player that everybody prognosticated that he would be. He goes into 2017-18 having already passed the 1000-point mark in his career. He has two Hart Trophies, two Art Ross trophies as the league’s leading point-getter, and was named the league’s best player three times by his peers. At the international level, he was influential in not one, but two Olympic gold medals for Canada, with his golden goal in 2010 against the United States being hailed as a moment akin to that of Paul Henderson’s goal against the Soviets in 1972. But for the longest time, it all seemed to mean nothing, until he won that Stanley Cup.
ON THE NHL AS A WHOLE
NHL Attendance: The alteration of where Crosby ends up, in this timeline, has some knock-on effects across the National Hockey League. The obvious effect is the failure of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who suffer heavily because of Crosby’s absence. Not only do they miss out on a prime draw, but they also miss out on a formidable 1-2 punch down the middle of the ice, and are now forced to rely heavily on Evgeni Malkin if they want to win. By the time he has hit his prime, it just isn’t enough. Columbus experiences the heavy gains in attendance and merchandise revenue that come with Crosby, and are now considered a “big-market” team, of sorts, occupying the position that Pittsburgh would hold in the original timeline.
The effect of Crosby in the Western Conference is also felt, if only at a minimal level. Teams in the Western Conference get more chances to see Crosby live, and thus raise their average yearly attendance by anywhere from a hundred to as many as a thousand. In our timeline, the Phoenix Coyotes host the Columbus Blue Jackets on December 14th, 2006, with a reported attendance of 11,301. A month later, the Coyotes face the Pittsburgh Penguins at home; this being Phoenix’s first visit from Sidney Crosby, the attendances spikes upward to an almost maximum-capacity crowd of 18,945. Given more chances to see “Sid the Kid” live, they would be just one of a few teams that would experience such an uptick.
As one of the teams that has been considered over the years for relocation, Phoenix would at least be in a bit less trouble with a few extra Crosby visits propping up the attendance numbers. The opposite would be true for teams in the Eastern Conference that have such struggles. Most notable of these is the Florida Panthers, who see their attendance drop below the 15,000 level for a few years, given no major draw in Crosby. The Atlanta Thrashers, who saw their attendance steadily dip following the 2006-07 campaign, find themselves in an even worse position. By the time 2011 rolls around, sub-10,000 attendances are a familiar occurrence. They still get bought and moved to Winnipeg, and nothing much changes from then on; no matter who shows up at the MTS Centre, the city will still watch NHL hockey.
NHL Alignment and Expansion: The relocation of the Penguins to Kansas City also has an effect on NHL alignment. In our timeline, the East and West are unbalanced, with 16 in the Eastern Conference, and 14 in the Western, with a 15th coming into the league in 2017-18 thanks to the Vegas Golden Knights. This new timeline means that the two conferences are actually balanced at 15 teams each. Two divisions, one in each conference, have eight teams, while the other two have seven. In this timeline, Vegas is still the next expansion team, but now, the scope changes a bit as to who may be next in line.
As we stand in our own timeline, Seattle seems to be one of the primary contenders to get the next NHL team. But with the Golden Knights adding a bit of imbalance on the side of the West, this could change. Seattle, rather than being the presumptive next-in-line for an NHL franchise, is instead looked at as a potential relocation option to house a Western Conference club that is failing in their current location. The next expansion team will likely come from the East, with the likes of Quebec City, Hamilton, Hartford, and Pittsburgh all being discussed for team #32. A dark horse candidate emerges in Cleveland, as hockey in Ohio seems to be doing quite well thanks to the Blue Jackets. Though the city hosted a failed franchise in the late 70s, the resurrection of markets such as Colorado, Winnipeg, and Kansas City make Cleveland an intriguing choice.
Crosby v. Ovechkin: The primary rivalry that seems to get attention in the hockey world as it stands is the rivalry between Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. Both were #1 picks in consecutive years (Ovechkin in 2004, and Crosby in 2005), and both came into the league at the same time, both putting up great numbers in their rookie campaigns. Eventually, the two superstars would clash multiple times in the playoffs, with Pittsburgh getting the upper hand on every occasion until the 2018 playoffs. The most notable moment would come in Game Two of the 2009 Conference Semi-Finals, when both players recorded hat tricks in a 4-3 Pittsburgh win.
With Sidney in Columbus, the first few years of the rivalry are limited to hypotheses and guesses as to how they would match up face-to-face. Sure, there are occasional regular-season games, but never anything like the multiple playoff match-ups that happened in the OTL. The rivalry finally becomes important in the seasons following Columbus’ move to the Eastern Conference, as the two teams face off many more times, both in the regular season and the playoffs. The two face off twice in the post-season, with Ovechkin taking the first meeting in 2016, and Crosby the second the following year – both series ending up sweeps. It remains to be seen if the two sides will square off again, but after years of waiting, Crosby v. Ovechkin has become must-see viewing for hockey fans.
Coming up at the end of the month, another two-parter: What if the Atlanta Thrashers had the same Expansion Draft rules as the Vegas Golden Knights?
And as always, if you have an idea you want me to look at in the future, go ahead and comment to let me know!