While I was in the middle of writing this article, news broke that Charles Wang, the long-time owner of the New York Islanders, and a man who is focused on a small bit in this article, passed away. I may not be completely kind to the man in this piece, but one thing must be stressed: Wang fought extremely hard for the New York Islanders, and no matter what personnel decisions he may have made, his first priority was always to make his team better. In addition to this, however, he was determined to keep the club in New York, no matter how many battles he had with local government (see: The Lighthouse Project).
June 23rd, 2001
As the 2001 NHL Entry Draft was set to take place, people were excited to see a first-time occurrence in the history of the league, as Ilya Kovalchuk would be the first Russian player ever selected 1st Overall. As it would turn out, another Russian player would be the name on everybody’s lips by the end of the day.
The Ottawa Senators went into the Draft with a major headache rearing its ugly head. Alexei Yashin, the team’s star centreman, was on the verge of free agency, following an 88-point season. Despite his solid regular season play, he was virtually invisible in the playoffs, and he had not bothered to attend a team meeting following the Sens’ elimination. Though tendering a qualifying offer would make him a restricted free agent, it was a battle that General Manager Marshall Johnston had grown tired of. On multiple occasions during his tenure with the Senators, Yashin held out for more money, and the last such occasion led to the Russian talisman getting suspended by the team. Alexei had only showed up for the 2000-01 season because an NHL arbitrator ruled that he owed the team another year of service due to his holdout.
An opportunity to trade Alexei would have been welcomed by the Senators, and as it just so happened, one such chance would come on Draft Day. The New York Islanders, having just finished with the worst record in the league, were looking for an immediate boost to their roster, especially down the middle of the ice. Of their current group of centremen, Dave Scatchard could not cut it as a #1 guy, and Tim Connolly was much too young. The Islanders needed someone to work with their top winger, Mariusz Czerkawski, and Yashin, with both his goal-scoring and playmaking ability, fit the bill nicely. So desperate were the Islanders for the Russian centreman that they were willing to offer up their 2nd Overall Pick, as well as other pieces, for Alexei’s services.
As the trade was announced, the league was left shocked. Not only had Ottawa rid themselves of a problematic presence, but in doing so, they had grabbed an extremely high draft pick, one which would be used to get their centreman of the future in Jason Spezza. The deal would turn out to be horribly one-sided in the end, both because of the disappointing play of Yashin, and the development of the young players that Ottawa acquired. Not only did Spezza develop into a star playmaker with Ottawa, but one of the other pieces the Sens got, blue-liner Zdeno Chara, would blossom into an All-Star in the next few years.
To this day, the trade stands as one of the very best (if not THE best) deal that the Senators have ever made, as well as one of the biggest black marks on the tenure of Islanders’ GM Mike Milbury, one which had already seen several questionable deals take place. The deal is certainly one that Islander fans the world over would like to take back, but what could have happened had the Yashin trade were erased from the history books? How would Ottawa deal with Alexei in the upcoming free agent period, and beyond? And most importantly, how would both teams fare in this new timeline?
WHAT IF THE ALEXEI YASHIN TRADE NEVER HAPPENED?
WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: Alexei Yashin, for all intents and purposes, was done in Ottawa. No matter how good he may have been (nearly cracking the top 10 in the league in points), he had simply had too many run-ins with Senators’ management. Given the option of tendering a qualifying offer to Yashin, the Sens would certainly take it, so as to hold on to Alexei’s rights. Bringing him back, though, was no longer an option, unless he and his agent drastically reduced their demands. (Considering his agent’s history, that was unlikely to ever happen.)
From the Islanders’ perspective, Yashin would be exactly the #1 centre they needed to become a playoff team once again. The team had not made the post-season in seven years, and had been through a tumultuous period of time since; the stretch of time from 1995-2000 included several popular players leaving town, Mike Milbury going from head coach to General Manager, and proceeding to make baffling trades, and most importantly, two ownership changes (and one more that was only nixed at the eleventh hour thanks to a report that the prospective buyer, John Spano, had grossly misrepresented his wealth). They were in need of a true franchise player, and as the OTL shows, they were willing to pay Yashin what he was asking for.
For this trade not to go through, one of two things needs to change: either Marshall Johnston has a grotesque mental lapse, or Mike Milbury avoids one, depending on who offered the deal in the first place. Knowing that the Islanders had the 2nd Overall Pick in that day’s Entry Draft, Milbury could have foreseen the likelihood of Jason Spezza being available at #2. It wouldn’t be unprecedented, considering that Mike had done something similar the previous year in trading away Roberto Luongo in order to make Rick DiPietro the team’s goalie of the future. If he had simply been a bit more patient, he could have waited until free agency to make his move.
As the teams prepare for the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, talk swirls about a potential deal between the Ottawa Senators and the New York Islanders, with Alexei Yashin being the centrepiece. Sens’ GM Marshall Johnston and Isles’ GM Mike Milbury are seen in conversation, with negotiations lasting past the announcement of the 1st Pick, which Atlanta uses on Russian winger Ilya Kovalchuk. With the Islanders next in line, a deal has to be made quickly. Eventually, the two sides reach an impasse, and the Islanders’ management group heads to the podium at the National Car Rental Center to announce their selection…
“With the 2nd Overall Pick in the 2001 Draft, the Islanders select… from the Windsor Spitfires, centre Jason Spezza.”
From that moment on, talk of a New York/Ottawa deal is finished. The two sides could not come to an agreement, and speculation begins as to what was offered. Eventually, several hockey journalists report that indeed, Alexei Yashin was the target for New York, but the team was not willing to give up the 2nd Overall Pick. Though Marshall Johnston would continue to look for a suitor for Yashin, nobody would be willing to bite after finding out the price that the Sens’ GM was asking for. Instead, the centreman is tendered a qualifying offer by the team, making him a restricted free agent on July 1st.
The Senators still hold on to first negotiation rights for the Russian star, but Yashin’s agent, Mark Gandler, makes a public plea for an offer sheet. Indeed, a few teams line up to sign Alexei to a contract, among them the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the Florida Panthers. The Islanders, feeling the pressure, decide to make a massive offer to Yashin: 10 years, $87.5 million total. Yashin accepts, and signs an offer sheet with New York on July 8th. Though Ottawa has a week to match, they have no intention of doing so; not only have they grown tired of off-ice battles with Alexei, but Rod Bryden, owner of the Sens, was beginning to deal with financial troubles that would come to dominate local headlines a year from now. Instead, the Senators are awarded four 1st-Round Draft Picks from the Islanders in arbitration.
FROM NEW YORK’S PERSPECTIVE
The summer of 2001 sees several major changes to the roster in an effort to make the team a playoff contender once more. Not only is Alexei Yashin signed as a restricted free agent, but Michael Peca is brought in from Buffalo in a trade that sends young forwards Tim Connolly and Taylor Pyatt to the Sabres. (As the Islanders now have Jason Spezza as their future #1 centre, Connolly is expendable, and is still traded in this timeline.) The final big move comes in the waiver draft, as the Isles pick up Chris Osgood from the Detroit Red Wings. What went into the off-season as the worst team in the league was now respectable, and the post-season was within sight.
As expected, the change in New York’s fortunes is clear. Not only are they a playoff team, but by the later part of the season, they are the runaway leaders in the Atlantic Division. The new acquisitions are, for the most part, living up to expectations. Chris Osgood, brought in to be the starter, wins 35 games, putting up a .910 SV%. Alexei Yashin leads the team with 75 points, while Michael Peca grabs 60 points to set a new career high. Young players contribute, too, with Mark Parrish (30 goals and 60 points) and Zdeno Chara (23 points and a +30 rating) having breakout seasons. The Islanders claim the Atlantic Division title with 103 points, good enough for top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Having the #1 seed in the East, the Islanders were pitted against the Ottawa Senators, the very team they pried Alexei Yashin from in the first place. Yashin would immediately prove to Ottawa just how valuable he was, grabbing 5 points in the first couple of games at the Nassau Coliseum. Alexei would return to the Corel Centre to a resounding chorus of boos, but even though the Sens shut him down in the two Ottawa games, they could not do the same to Mariusz Czerkawski, who would grab NINE points in those two contests. The Islanders would sweep the Sens, winning their first playoff series since 1993.
By all accounts, the fact that the Islanders were rested should have made them favourites against the 4th-seeded Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto had just come off a grueling series with the Philadelphia Flyers, one which lasted seven games; captain Mats Sundin would be injured in Game Four, leaving him out for the series against New York. Despite being banged up, the Maple Leafs fought valiantly to drag it to a seventh game at the Nassau Coliseum. Home-ice advantage had decided the first six games, but it would not be present in the decider, as a pair of goals by Darcy Tucker would send the Leafs to an unlikely Conference Final following a 2-1 victory.
The Islanders may have been out, and may have lost in heart-breaking fashion, but the very fact that they had got into the playoffs in the first place was cause for celebration on Long Island. As the seconds ticked down in Game Seven, Islanders fans applauded the team for their efforts that year. Those efforts, though, came at an off-ice cost, as the team would not have their 1st-Round Picks for the next four years. The first of those would come in the 2002 Draft, which would see the Sens take Hannu Toivonen at #29.
With good results come great expectations, and having done so well the previous year, this was certainly true for the Islanders. Unfortunately, many of the players who had proven themselves the previous year would not repeat their efforts. Though Alexei Yashin still led the team in points, he only managed 65 this time around, a poor total for someone who was one of the highest-paid players in the entire NHL. Michael Peca would miss some time due to injuries, still managing 42 points in 66 games. Chris Osgood, meanwhile, was so poor that he was actually traded near the deadline to St. Louis, leaving Garth Snow as the starting netminder, and young Rick DiPietro as his back-up. Despite the regression of the team, there were some bright spots, particularly Zdeno Chara, who would earn Norris Trophy consideration for the first time in his career.
New York would see their points total drop slightly, but they would still finish 6th in the Eastern Conference with 94 points, pitting them against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. Despite having less points, the Lightning would have home-ice advantage due to having finished first in the Southeast Division. Home ice advantage would mean little early on, as both sides would go 1-1 at home in the first four games. The two sides would win each of their next home games, setting up Game Seven in Tampa. Though the Islanders would keep the contest close, a goal by Ben Clymer would prove the difference as the Lightning won 3-2. After a solid run the previous year, the Islanders were out at the first hurdle in 2003.
The Islanders’ early playoff exit was cause for concern in the New York front office, and coaching bore the brunt of the blame. Peter Laviolette and his assistants would be fired following the campaign, with Steve Stirling brought in to take his place as head coach. Mike Milbury was safe, considering he had signed a multi-year extension part-way through the year, and despite some worrying moves early on in his GM tenure, he had made the playoffs in both of the past two years. The second Islanders’ pick given to Ottawa as compensation for the Yashin signing would fall at #18, with the Sens using it on Eric Fehr.
The sacking of Laviolette, as it turned out, was just what the Islanders needed. Though the team found themselves unable to score consistently, their defensive core, including Chara, Adrian Aucoin, Roman Hamrlik, and Kenny Jonsson, kept opposing teams stymied. They were helped by Rick DiPietro in goal, who finished his first year as starter with a .911 SV% in 50 games. This year also saw a new #1 centre emerge, as Jason Spezza would lead the team with 55 points in his first full season on Long Island. He would take the place of Alexei Yashin, who would only play 47 games that year, racking up only 34 points.
The Islanders now looked like an invulnerable powerhouse. They would finish at the top of the Eastern Conference with 109 points, tied with the Detroit Red Wings for the best record in the league. Their first-round match-up would be against the Buffalo Sabres, who would just squeak in to the 8th spot. Despite their reputation of being a defensively sturdy team going into the series, it would be the offense that shone, as the Islanders scored a total of 23 goals in a four-game sweep. That same offensive force would be put to the test against the grinding Philadelphia Flyers, who managed to drag the series all the way to seven games. It was there that a clutch goaltending performance by Rick DiPietro would seal the series, as the rookie starter would stop 38 shots en route to a 4-1 victory.
For the first time in what seemed like forever, the Islanders were now a Stanley Cup threat. To truly cement themselves as a contender, however, they would have to knock out the Tampa Bay Lightning, the same team that eliminated them a year prior. The Lightning had multiple offensive weapons, including 2003-04 Art Ross Trophy winner Martin St. Louis, and would prove to be a threat at any point in the game. Though the Isles would do well to shut down the likes of St. Louis, Lecavalier, and Richards, Tampa Bay responded in kind thanks to their star goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, and claimed a 3-1 lead after four games. New York would win the next two, but Game Seven would be a 4-3 win for the visiting Lightning, sending them to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their existence.
After a shaky start to his GM tenure, “Mad Mike” was now being hailed as a mad genius. Sure, the Islanders had traded Roberto Luongo away, but Rick DiPietro was starting to prove himself as an NHL netminder. Sure, the team paid a steep price to get Yashin, and sure, he was starting to fall apart, but the team still had two young cornerstones in Zdeno Chara and Jason Spezza to build around, the latter of whom had replaced Yashin as the team’s top centreman. Times were good for New York, now, and a Stanley Cup now looked like a realistic possibility. Of course, they would once again give up their 1st-Round Pick to Ottawa, who would use the selection on Vancouver Giants D-man Mark Fistric.
The 2004-05 season would be entirely wiped out, thanks to a lockout that lasted about ten months. For New York, it was a chance to look back on what they had done over the past few years since the Yashin signing. Mike Milbury’s attempt to build the Islanders into a contender would bear fruit, as the team managed three straight playoff appearances, including a Conference Final run in 2004. The acquisitions from the 2001 off-season had not all played to expectations, with Yashin and Michael Peca missing time due to injuries, and Chris Osgood shipped out of town just two seasons in to his New York tenure. Despite those slip-ups, the team had new stars leading the way in the form of top blue-liner Zdeno Chara and new #1 centre Jason Spezza, both of whom could be cornerstones for a while, if owner Charles Wang was willing to spend the money.
The 2005 Entry Draft would be decided entirely by lottery, with all 30 teams technically eligible for the #1 pick, and the chance to select Sidney Crosby, who was projected to be the next megastar of the game. New York, however, would have to let go of the last of their 1st-Round Picks from the Yashin signing, and would not be able to grab anybody. Their pick would be drawn at #15, and the Senators would use it on Erie Otters centreman Ryan O’Marra.
The 2005-06 Islanders team was markedly different from previous years. Gone were the likes of Adrian Aucoin and Roman Hamrlik, in favour of more scoring options, such as winger Miroslav Satan. Michael Peca would be traded out of town, with Mike York taking his place. Finally, Jason Spezza was now pencilled in full-time as the first-line centre, which would work to great effect. While Alexei Yashin would put up a respectable 66 points, Spezza would manage an incredible 90 points in only 68 games. Despite pleas from agent Mark Gandler to give the Russian more playing time, it was Spezza who would be relied upon more in key situations late in the season.
The Islanders would barely sneak in to the playoffs, grabbing 7th place in the Eastern Conference with 94 points. This would pit the Isles against the Buffalo Sabres, who had taken advantage of the more open style of play to claim top spot in the Northeast with 110 points. Indeed, the Islanders looked hopelessly lost at times, due to their playing a style similar to the one that had made them a Cup hopeful a couple of years ago. Their slow, suffocating defense couldn’t keep up with the exciting Buffalo attack, and in no game was this more evident than Game Five; the Sabres would chase Rick DiPietro from his net half-way through the game, eventually winning by a score of 9-3. That game would also close out the series, as the Sabres advanced with a 4-1 series win.
The Islanders looked out of touch. While they had enough talent, their style was not suited for the new NHL. The defending, which had previously been nigh impenetrable, was now beginning to show leaks. And if that wasn’t enough, the team was on the verge of some serious contract decisions. As a consolation, the team finally had a 1st-Round Pick for the first time in five years, which they would use on blue-liner Ty Wishart.
Charles Wang was being implored by the fan base to spend a bit of money on the team, as both Rick Dipietro and Jason Spezza were restricted free agents, and Zdeno Chara was now unrestricted. The former two were the priorities for Wang, who authorized GM Mike Milbury to sign them both to extensions, particularly after Chara would sign in Boston on July 1st. “Mad Mike” would make his maddest move yet, signing his #1 goalie to a 15-year contract, and signing Spezza for 12 years. The contract lengths made headlines across the hockey world, and would have a few other owners and GMs crying foul in the years to come.
With the lengthy contracts offered to both DiPietro and Spezza still baffling fans, media, and executives alike, the two would show that their paydays were well-deserved. Spezza would once again miss a few games, but he would still rack up 87 points to lead the team, in turn helping Jason Blake turn into a 40-goal scorer for the first time in his career. DiPietro, meanwhile, would get 62 games of action, putting up an outstanding .919 save percentage. The Islanders find themselves in the midst of a battle for 1st place in the Atlantic Division, but a poor stretch in February means they are left finishing 3rd in the Atlantic with 101 points. This is, however, good enough for 5th in the East.
The Islanders are given a first-round match-up against divisional rivals Pittsburgh, who have recovered from nearly being moved in the early 2000s to become one of the most dangerous teams in the league. Their one-two punch of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is a handful for virtually any opponent, especially New York; yes, Spezza and Yashin aren’t bad, but even they are no match for two centremen who have not yet turned 21 and are already dominant. To their credit, the Islanders put up a valiant fight, especially when Rick DiPietro is pulled from the starting job in favour of Wade Dubielewicz. Though “Dubie” grabs three straight wins in the middle of the series, the Pens’ attack gets the best of him in Games Six and Seven, forcing him to the bench on both occasions. Though their lack of playoff experience nearly betrayed them, the Penguins would win the series in seven games to advance.
With their 101-point finish, the Islanders are given the 19th pick in the 1st Round of the 2007 Entry Draft. In this timeline, lacking both Robert Nilsson and Ryan O’Marra, they can no longer make the Ryan Smyth deal, and thus hold on to their 1st-Round Pick, which they use to select Halifax Mooseheads forward Logan MacMillan.
Another priority for the Islanders was the contract of Alexei Yashin. About half-way into his ten-year deal, Yashin was beginning to see his ice time slip, not just because of the play of Jason Spezza, but because of injury troubles. Yashin would play only 58 games in 06-07, and though he put up 50 points in that time, it just wasn’t enough to silence rumours of a buy-out. Indeed, Charles Wang would negotiate for the Russian’s contract to be bought out on June 6th, making him an immediate free agent. After five seasons on Long Island, Yashin had put up 290 points in 346 games. It wasn’t horrible, by any stretch, but for someone who was one of the higher-paid players in the league, it was nowhere near good enough. His playoff troubles in recent years (no points in seven games in the 2007 post-season) didn’t help matters, either, as he would be relied upon less and less by Steve Stirling in key situations.
With Yashin bought out, and Jason Blake departing in free agency, New York’s offense would be weakened, meaning Rick DiPietro was under more pressure to perform. Though he would manage a respectable 63 games, his save percentage would plummet to .902, a somewhat mediocre total. His new official back-up, Wade Dubielewicz, would continue his solid play from last year, putting up a .919 SV% in 20 games of work. Up front, Jason Spezza would do everything he could to carry the load for the Islanders, grabbing 92 points in 76 games, but New York could no longer keep up. For the first time since 2000-01, the Islanders would fail to qualify for the playoffs, managing only 88 points. The team’s failure to make the post-season spells the end for both Mike Milbury and Steve Stirling, as both are canned at the end of the regular season. Former back-up goalie Garth Snow, having spent a year as assistant GM, is bumped up to the main role, while Scott Gordon is hired as head coach.
In the real-life 2008 Draft, the Islanders made a pair of trades during the 1st Round, trading down twice – first with Toronto, then with Nashville. They would move from 5th to 9th in the order with those two deals, selecting Josh Bailey at #9. In this timeline, they get the 9th Overall Pick naturally, and thus do not make the two trades. They would not get extra picks as a result, and end up missing out on Shawn Lalonde, Mat Clark, and Aaron Ness.
The Islanders went into the 2008-09 season already at a disadvantage. Rick DiPietro, he of the monstrous 15-year contract, would undergo arthroscopic knee surgery, forcing him to miss a large chunk of the regular season. With their starting goaltender out, and their roster being dismantled, the Islanders were now set to hit rock bottom. Jason Spezza would once again lead the way with 73 points in 82 games, but he couldn’t carry the load alone. New York would finish dead last in the entire league with 63 points, giving them the best chance to win the 2009 Draft Lottery.
Indeed, New York would be awarded the 1st Overall Pick, and now had a dilemma. Should they take John Tavares, a centreman granted “exceptional player” status by the Canadian Hockey League, or should they take highly-touted defenseman Victor Hedman of MODO in Sweden? The team already had a #1 centreman in Spezza, but the added presence of Tavares would make the team more dangerous going forward. Hedman, meanwhile, could very well join Mark Streit on the top defensive pairing, allowing for a unit that could play 25-27 minutes of solid hockey every game. In the end, New York would attempt to recreate the Yashin-Spezza days, drafting Tavares with the 1st Pick.
Though the team had a new 1-2 punch in Spezza and Tavares, they still needed goaltenders to cover for the still-injured Rick DiPietro, who would only play 8 games in 09-10. Garth Snow would bring in the tandem of Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron to pick up the slack. The two of them prove to be underwhelming, both of them falling below the league average in save percentage. The two top centremen lead the team in points, but their respective totals of 57 (Spezza) and 54 (Tavares) prove to be of little help. Once again, the Islanders are well out of a playoff spot, but this time, they have moved up in the standings, finishing in 11th in the East with 80 points. Their finish puts them in 7th in the Entry Draft order, and they use their pick on Kitchener forward Jeff Skinner.
2010-11 is a year of ups and downs for a young New York team. The major positive is the offensive core, which sees NINE different players get over 40 points. Three of them, Spezza, Tavares, and rookie Jeff Skinner, crack the 60-point mark; Skinner’s total of 63 points is enough for him to earn the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. The major negative is the defensive woes, and the declining health of Rick DiPietro. Not only does he play only 26 games this season, he puts up an awful .886 SV%, almost 25 points below the league average. To add injury to insult, he ends up in a rare goalie fight in a heated contest against the Pittsburgh Penguins in February; the opposing netminder, Brent Johnson, knocks him out with only a single punch.
Goalie issues aside, the team’s offensive outburst under new coach Jack Capuano (who would replace Scott Gordon after the latter was fired only 17 games into the campaign) makes the team competitive once more. It just isn’t enough to secure a playoff spot, as the Islanders finish in 10th in the East with 87 points. They would be granted the 11th Pick in the 2011 Entry Draft, which they would use on defender Duncan Siemens.
The work that had started under Jack Capuano the previous year would be continued in 2011-12, and the strong attack from the last season would get even stronger. Both John Tavares and Jason Spezza would cross the 80-point mark, while both Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau would come close to 70 points each. The forward production would be augmented by much improved goaltending, thanks to the veteran duo of Evgeni Nabokov and Dwayne Roloson, the latter of whom would enter his final NHL season. Nabokov, who got claimed on waivers by the Islanders the previous year but refused to report, would play 42 games in goal this year, managing a respectable .914 SV%.
The vast improvement in goaltending would turn out to be key for New York, as they would reach the playoffs for the first time since 06-07, grabbing 7th place in the East with 95 points. They would be “rewarded” with a match-up against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Boston Bruins. Though New York had plenty of offensive zip, the Bruins had a stifling defense core, and last year’s playoff MVP, Tim Thomas, in goal. In the end, experience would be the victor, as Brad Marchand’s OT goal in Game Four would put the finishing touches on a series sweep for Boston. The Islanders’ consolation prize would be the 16th Overall Pick in the 2012 Entry Draft, which they would use on grinding winger Tom Wilson.
THE ISLANDERS FROM 2001-2012: New York’s attempt to right the ship following the tumultuous late 90s would be somewhat successful, but there would not be a Stanley Cup waiting on the shore. Despite not getting to win a championship, the team was at least somewhat secure in their future. Sure, they may be on the verge of a constant battle over a new arena for the team, but they now have (relatively) stable ownership in the form of Charles Wang, who would be a damn sight better than somebody who didn’t even have the money to buy a team bus, let alone a whole professional hockey team. This is much the same as it was in the OTL, with the exception of the team actually advancing in the playoffs this time around.
And of course, much of the credit for the team being a brief contender will go to Mike Milbury. After details emerge of the potential trade for Yashin in 2001, Milbury is commended for not letting go of a future #1 centreman and a potential All-Star D-man. He still would pay a heavy price for Yashin thanks to his offer sheet to the Russian, but of the draft picks lost, only one, Eric Fehr, is an NHL regular. In addition to Yashin, Milbury would bring in Chris Osgood and Michael Peca, to mixed results. Though not all of the veterans would contribute, there were enough good players to give the Islanders “dark horse” status in the early 2000s.
Alexei Yashin’s Islander tenure was expected to be one in which the Russian playmaker cemented his status as one of the best players in the league. He was certainly being paid like it, after all, not just in terms of money, but in the price of four 1st-Round Picks that Milbury paid through the offer sheet. Though early returns were encouraging, injuries would take their toll, and by the 06-07 season, he would manage only 58 games, still getting 50 points in the process. He was still a solid player, but his fragility, combined with poor playoff performances, meant that his high salary was no longer justified. He would be bought out in the 2007 off-season, eventually returning to Russia to play out the rest of his career.
As for the rest of the team, this is the way they would look going into opening day of the 2013 lockout-shortened season:
Matt Moulson – John Tavares – Jeff Skinner
Brad Boyes – Jason Spezza – Michael Grabner
Keith Aucoin – Frans Nielsen – David Ullstrom
Eric Boulton – Colin McDonald – Matt Martin
Mark Streit – Travis Hamonic
Andrew MacDonald – Brian Strait
Matt Carkner – Joe Finley
This Islanders team has offensive punch to spare, and then some. John Tavares and Jason Spezza can both crack the 80-point mark when they are healthy, and the top four wingers can all pitch in very effectively. The third line has Frans Nielsen, who would otherwise be a top-six forward on this team, and would get some significant power play time. The fourth line is mostly a grinder line, with young Colin McDonald surrounded by two enforcers in Eric Boulton and Matt Martin. Defensively, the team may have trouble; though the first pairing of Streit and Hamonic can be pretty effective, the depth gets worse beyond them, with Andrew MacDonald the only NHL-calibre blue-liner. Not even the addition of veteran Lubomir Visnovsky during the season will be enough to improve matters.
In goal, Evgeni Nabokov is once again the starter of choice for New York. After initially refusing to join the team, he has proven himself moderately effective in a single season with the team. Last year, however, he was only in 42 games. He would be expected to play at least 80% of his team’s games this time around, with Kevin Poulin not quite ready, and Rick DiPietro a virtual lock for the injured reserve list. It is almost certain that the forwards will continue their form from the previous year, but the defenders and goalies need to prevent other teams from scoring if they are to be a playoff threat going forward.
FROM OTTAWA’S PERSPECTIVE
The announcement that the Senators will not match New York’s offer sheet to Alexei Yashin is greeted with sighs of relief from the public in Ottawa, who were tired of dealing with Yashin’s off-ice attitude. Not only had he held out on multiple occasions, but he had even reneged on a major charitable donation after it was discovered he wanted some of the money to go to his own family. With their old headache now on Long Island, the Senators could focus on moving forward to become a legitimate playoff contender. The future looked somewhat brighter, too, considering Ottawa now had four 1st-Round Picks as compensation for Yashin’s signing; if the Sens could grab top players with those, they may well have a chance at being a dynasty.
With no Yashin, the time has come for Radek Bonk to take over as the team’s #1 centreman, playing alongside Martin Havlat and Daniel Alfredsson. While Bonk isn’t quite at Yashin’s level, he still does rack up 70 points, and his passes help Alfredsson to a career-high 37 goals. Behind Bonk in the depth chart is Todd White, who has a break-out year with 50 points, by far his career best. In addition to their forwards, the young blue-line core shows some potential, if a little rough around the edges. Of particular concern is Wade Redden, who manages only 34 points despite having come close to 50 a year prior. Patrick Lalime, coming off a poor 2001 playoff run, is mediocre in goal, putting up a .903 SV% in 61 games.
The Sens, if barely, sneak into the playoffs with 87 points, ending up in 7th in the Eastern Conference. They are drawn against none other than the New York Islanders, the team that now had Alexei Yashin. As expected, the former Ottawa superstar is the target of Sens fans’ wrath, and much of the focus of Jacques Martin’s coaching for this series was on stopping Yashin from being effective against his old team. Though Martin’s tactics work against the former Senator, they are much less effective against Mariusz Czerkawski, who grabs NINE points in the two games held in Ottawa. The Islanders would sweep, with the Sens eliminated at the first hurdle.
Going into the 2002 Entry Draft, the Sens would have a pair of 1st-Round Picks, thanks to the compensation for the Islanders signing Alexei Yashin. The Sens’ natural pick would be at #15, with Ottawa taking Finnish forward Jesse Niinimaki. The second pick, the first of four that the Islanders would give up in the next four years, would be used on another Finn, goalie Hannu Toivonen.
With the team unable to make much progress in the playoffs, Marshall Johnston would resign as General Manager, with former Stanley Cup-winning coach John Muckler taking over his duties. As it would turn out, the GM position would be the least of Ottawa’s worries that year, as on January 9th, 2003, the team would file for bankruptcy. It would take emergency financing from the NHL to keep the Sens afloat for the season, and without a local buyer stepping up soon, it could very well mean the end of NHL hockey in the city.
Though the off-ice issues dominated the headlines, the team’s on-ice play was not getting any worse. After Daniel Alfredsson’s personal goal record a year ago, Marian Hossa would follow suit, leading the team with a career-high 45 goals. Alfredsson would pitch in 51 assists and 78 points, while Todd White would continue his improvement from last year, grabbing 60 points. They would be aided by the development of the team’s blue-liners, with Wade Redden breaking the 40-point mark again, and Karel Rachunek proving a decent two-way option. Finally, Patrick Lalime’s goaltending would improve somewhat, as he would put up a solid .911 SV% in 67 games. He would also rack up 8 shutouts, tied for 2nd in the league behind Martin Brodeur of New Jersey, who had 9.
Despite cries of doom and gloom for the Sens due to their off-ice issues, the team would manage to finish 1st in the Northeast – and 2nd in the Eastern Conference – with 102 points. Their first-round playoff match-up would be against the Washington Capitals, who like New York a year ago, had a prime offensive talent on their team in the form of Jaromir Jagr. Jagr, who had been acquired by the Caps from Pittsburgh in the off-season, was the focus of Jacques Martin’s coaching strategy, just as Alexei Yashin was in 2002. This time, however, Ottawa is able to shut down not only Jagr, but all of the other Washington forwards. Though the Caps win Game One, the Sens take the next four to win the series in five games.
The Sens would be drawn against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round. The Lightning had a plethora of offensive options available, including the centre duo of Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, who had combined to knock out the Islanders in the previous series. Any attempt to shut down a single player would be utterly useless, and the first two games proved it, with Tampa Bay winning two straight road contests in OT. Though Ottawa would win Game Three in extra time, the Lightning would take the next two, with Martin St. Louis’ hat trick in Game Five clinching the series. For a team that had been in bankruptcy for half the season, it was still an impressive run, and the team was given a standing ovation as the clock ticked down in their final game.
The Sens’ money issues would not last for long. After a search for a local buyer, one was found in pharmaceutical magnate Eugene Melnyk. The Toronto-born Melnyk would purchase the team in the 03-04 offseason, finally ending speculation as to the future of the Senators. In addition to the ownership change, the team would once again get two 1st-Round Picks in the Entry Draft. Their 2003 picks would be Eric Fehr (taken at #18 with the Islanders’ pick), and Anthony Stewart (taken with the Sens’ won pick at #25).
With their future in Ottawa now secure, the focus for the 03-04 season is for the Sens to make a deep playoff run for the first time in their history. Having never advanced past the second round, the time is nigh for the Senators to cement themselves as a true contender. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Despite the two top wingers Hossa and Alfredsson both registering over 80 points each, the defense behind them proves leakier than usual, giving up 27 shots per game, an increase of around 2.5 from last year. Patrick Lalime and Martin Prusek can only do so much; the poor defending means that the Sens fade quickly in the standings, eventually finishing 9th in the Eastern Conference with 83 points.
The Sens’ result is clearly noticed by Eugene Melnyk, who vows that not only will this early exit be a one-time event, but that as long as he is owner, the team will be a constant Stanley Cup threat. The message is loud and clear to both players and management, and preparations begin for a potential Cup run in 2004-05. The team once again has two 1st-Round Picks; their 2004 Entry Draft would begin with the drafting of Drew Stafford at #13 (using their own pick), followed by Mark Fistric at #28 (using the Islanders’ pick).
Any plans the Senators had for playoff success would have to wait, as the 2004-05 season would be wiped out due to a lockout that would last until the following summer. It was, at least, a chance for the organization to look back at their decision to let Alexei Yashin go, and assess how they had fared. In truth, the Islanders were in a much better spot; they had made the post-season every year since signing the Russian centreman, while the Sens had only made two appearances out of three. In addition, the Islanders had three series wins in the playoffs during that span, while Ottawa had none. What the Senators DID have were New York’s 1st-Round Draft Picks from 2002-2005, the last of which would be used in the following Draft. Ottawa would take Brian Lee with their natural pick at #9, then use the Islanders’ selection at #15 to pick centreman Ryan O’Marra.
As the NHL resumed play in 2005-06, it became clear that Ottawa was simply not able to adjust to the quicker pace. Though the team got 80+-point seasons out of Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley (who was traded to Ottawa in the off-season in exchange for Marian Hossa and Greg de Vries), the rest of the team lagged behind. Mike Fisher would be thrust into the #1 centre role, one which he was not quite ready for. He would manage 44 points in 68 games, a rather poor total for someone who was getting top-line minutes. Sadly, the awful play all over the ice nullified great goaltending performances from veteran signing Dominik Hasek and rookies Hannu Toivonen and Ray Emery. Hasek would put up a sterling .925 SV% in 43 games of work, while Toivonen’s .914 SV% in 20 games would be quite respectable for a first-year keeper.
The Sens were once again out of the playoffs; though they managed 84 points, an improvement of one from the previous season, the introduction of the shoot-out made points easier to come by. While their total would have been somewhat competitive in the old NHL, it was now not enough to have much of a sniff at a playoff spot. They would finish 12th in the Eastern Conference, enough for Eugene Melnyk to fire both GM John Muckler and head coach Bryan Murray. In their place would be new General Manager Peter Chiarelli (who had previously been Muckler’s assistant) and head coach Pat Quinn. Quinn’s hiring would cause concern in Ottawa, considering he had previously been the coach of their rivals in Toronto. Melnyk would defend the moves, saying that his goal was to make the Sens competitive once more, and that he would hire the best person available, no matter who they previously worked for.
Ottawa would get the 9th Overall Pick in the 2006 Entry Draft, using it on forward James Sheppard from the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
With the new regime in place, expectations were that Ottawa would be back in the post-season in 2007. They had made a trade for some extra defensive help, acquiring Tom Preissing from Chicago in a package deal that had Martin Havlat going the other way, but even Preissing wasn’t enough to make the Sens a sure-fire playoff team. They would tread water in the East for much of the season, eventually making a desperate trade to try and secure their spot. On trade deadline day in 2007, the Senators would trade Eric Fehr, Ryan O’Marra, and their 1st-Round Pick in 2007 to the Edmonton Oilers for winger Ryan Smyth, hoping that the long-time Oiler would give the team some extra scoring punch down the stretch.
As it would turn out, Smyth would perform well in the last part of the season, racking up 15 points in 18 games for the Sens. But even he wasn’t enough to get Ottawa into the post-season. In fact, the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference would go to none other than the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Sens’ provincial rivals, and the team they had hired Pat Quinn away from. Ottawa would finish 9th in the East with 90 points, one point behind Toronto. The team still hadn’t found a true #1 centre, but they had found a new starter in Ray Emery, who would play 58 games and record a solid .918 save percentage in that time.
Because they traded their 1st-Round Pick to Edmonton in the Ryan Smyth deal, they would not have a selection in that round of the 2007 Entry Draft. The Oilers, holding the pick at #13, would use it on Danish forward Lars Eller.
With their first season in Ottawa ending without either a playoff spot or a 1st-Rounder, both Peter Chiarelli and Pat Quinn were now under pressure to deliver in 07-08. Chiarelli would make his move in free agency, bringing back Dominik Hasek on a 1-year contract. Now 42, Hasek was clearly at the end of his career, and despite having been great a couple of years ago for Ottawa, he was unable to handle a major workload; he would play 57 games, recording a rather poor .902 SV%. Ray Emery, meanwhile, had regressed, managing only a .890 SV% in 31 games. The goalie didn’t get much help in front of them, either, with Daniel Alfredsson’s 74 points standing atop the team leaderboard.
Ottawa was once again out of the playoffs, and were only getting worse. They would finish in 13th in the Eastern Conference with 77 points, finishing below even the Maple Leafs for worst in the Northeast Division. While Peter Chiarelli would be given his marching orders at the end of the season, Pat Quinn wouldn’t last that long, being sacked in February. Bryan Murray, formerly the team’s head coach, would be signed as General Manager, while World Junior-winning coach Craig Hartsburg would take over behind the bench. Murray’s first assignment as GM would be to put the team’s 4th-Overall Pick to good use; with the pick, he would select defenseman Alex Pietrangelo from the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs.
Now, the focus was no longer on competing for a playoff spot, but instead building up a new core with which to compete in a few years. But even with their eyes directed toward the future, the present was just too unbearable to watch. The new goalie tandem of Brian Elliott and Alex Auld were doing okay (combining for a .907 SV%, slightly above league average), but the team in front of them was awful. They were getting few chances to score, and giving up far too many chances in their own end. Ultimately, it was so painful for the Senators’ management group that Craig Hartsburg would be axed before the season was done, being replaced by Cory Clouston.
Ottawa was nearing rock bottom. They would finish in 13th in the Eastern Conference with only 66 points, just barely squeaking ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning on tiebreakers. They would get the 3rd Overall selection in the 2009 Entry Draft, using it on Matt Duchene. Duchene was a supremely skilled centreman, something the Sens lacked over the past few years, but by the time he would reach his prime, players like Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley would likely be on their last legs as players. He was the right guy at the wrong time, but could still be relied upon to be the cornerstone of the team in the future. (Of note, because the Sens never trade up in the 2008 Draft, they still hold their natural 3rd-Rounder in 2009, which they use to select Taylor Beck.)
Before the 09-10 season even starts, the Sens are blindsided by a trade request from Dany Heatley, who felt slighted by moves made by Cory Clouston at the end of the previous campaign. After refusing to waive his no-trade clause for a deal with Edmonton, Heatley would accept a deal that would see him join San Jose in exchange for Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo, and a 2010 2nd-Round Pick. Heatley’s departure left an additional void in an already declining Senator attack. For much of the regular season, Ottawa would have trouble scoring, with Mike Fisher the only player to crack the 25-goal mark. Close behind him was rookie Matt Duchene, who managed 24 goals and 55 points in his rookie season, finishing 3rd in Calder Trophy voting.
Ottawa would once again find themselves out of the playoffs, but there was at least some hope for the future. The Senators would finish with 84 points, putting them in 9th in the East. On Draft Day in 2010, the Sens are offered a deal by the St. Louis Blues: David Rundblad to Ottawa in exchange for the 10th Overall Pick. The Sens refuse, instead using their pick on blue-liner Dylan McIlrath. In this timeline, having never acquired Alexandre Picard, the Sens are unable to acquire Matt Cullen from Carolina, and thus still have their 2nd-Round Pick this year. Instead of using it, they trade the pick to Edmonton in exchange for the rights to Riley Nash. (Edmonton uses the pick on Martin Marincin.)
With expectations now set towards a potential playoff spot, the Sens start out with a bit of optimism. That optimism quickly fades, as Brian Elliott’s poor play in goal leads to Ottawa falling flat in the first twenty games or so. Not even the spectacular play of rookie Alex Pietrangelo, nor the solid play of Matt Duchene and Drew Stafford can give the Sens a chance to be competitive in the East. By the trade deadline, moves are made to clean out a bit of the core, as Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Jarkko Ruutu, and Alexei Kovalev are all dealt away. Also dealt out is Elliott, who heads to Colorado in exchange for Craig Anderson. This proves a blessing, as Anderson proves to be excellent in his short stint with Ottawa, putting up a .939 SV% in 18 games.
Ottawa is once again closer to the bottom of the table than a playoff spot, but there is once again hope that they can rise from the depths. They finish the 2010-11 season in 13th in the Eastern Conference, picking up 78 points. They have the 5th Overall Pick in the 2011 Draft; wanting a bit of centre help, the Sens draft Ryan Strome from the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs. They also have the 21st Overall Pick thanks to the Mike Fisher deal with Nashville, a pick they use on Stefan Noesen.
The first big move made by the Sens prior to the 2011-12 season is behind the bench, as Paul MacLean is brought in to replace Cory Clouston, who was fired at the end of the previous regular season. The move is seen as a last chance for Bryan Murray, who has not made the post-season since taking over as General Manager. He makes moves more suited for a Cup run than a rebuild, including trading Dylan McIlrath and a 2nd-Round Pick to Phoenix for Kyle Turris, and trading a 2013 2nd-Rounder to St. Louis for goalie Ben Bishop. No amount of dressing up the roster could hide the fact that they were just not good enough; regression from the goaltenders and injuries to Matt Duchene proved to kill Ottawa’s playoff run before it could even start. Ottawa would finish right at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with 74 points.
Eugene Melnyk had seen enough. Bryan Murray would be let go as GM, and Paul MacLean would be sacked after only a year as head coach. In their place would be new GM Marc Bergevin and head coach Bob Hartley. Bergevin’s first assignment following his hiring would be the 2012 Entry Draft. Using the team’s 3rd Overall Pick, he would take forward Alex Galchenyuk from the OHL’s Sarnia Sting. Though there were concerns about what forward position Galchenyuk would play in the future, Bergevin dismissed any concerns, saying that more potential centre options would be a good thing for the Sens going forward.
THE SENATORS FROM 2001-2012: The decade started out with a major relief for the Sens, as their long-time headache, Alexei Yashin, was finally out of town. As it would turn out, this might as well have been a wish on a monkey’s paw; not only did the Islanders become a brief playoff contender (even knocking out Ottawa in their only post-season meeting since the deal), but none of the players that the Senators drafted with the four 1st-Rounders that New York gave up would become NHL mainstays. Hannu Toivonen would flame out after a couple of poor seasons as Ottawa’s back-up, while Mark Fistric has only had one effective season on the team’s blue line up to this point. Eric Fehr and Ryan O’Marra would both be given up for rental forward Ryan Smyth, who wasn’t able to make the Sens a playoff team in 2007.
In fact, ever since the lockout, the Senators have failed to make the playoffs on even a single occasion. Without having either of the two key pieces of the original deal, both their blue line and forward core take a hit. The team loses out on an All-Star defender in Zdeno Chara and a true-blue #1 centreman in Jason Spezza, both of whom would be key pieces of the mid-2000s Senators. As a result of this, the team’s Stanley Cup Final run of 2007 never comes to fruition. Even though they had let go of Chara by this point, the Sens were still a very solid team, with Wade Redden leading the defenders, and the CaSH line of Alfredsson, Spezza, and Heatley proving one of the most dangerous lines in the game at that point in the OTL.
It only gets worse for Ottawa as time goes on. Many of their own 1st-Round draft picks they make in the decade never quite pan out. Instead of Patrick Eaves, the team gets Anthony Stewart, who never becomes much in the NHL. Instead of Andrej Meszaros, they get Drew Stafford in 2004; Stafford is good, for sure, but Meszaros became an immediate impact player in the new NHL, and provided defensive depth in the Sens’ 2007 run. In fact, because they don’t get Meszaros, the Senators never get Filip Kuba, who would be a veteran presence for four years in Ottawa, and had some of his best years in the city. Really the only time that the Sens get any sort of upgrade in the Draft is 2009, when they end up with Matt Duchene instead of Jared Cowen. Right from the get-go, Duchene is the team’s #1 centre, and Ottawa hopes that he will be one of the shining lights that leads the team in the 2010s.
One draft, however, sticks out in particular: 2008. That year, the Sens made a move up the order so they could select Erik Karlsson. Karlsson would go on to become a world-class offensive defenseman, and arguably the best blue-liner in the game by 2013. Now, instead of Karlsson, the Sens get Alex Pietrangelo. By no means is Pietrangelo bad; he’s just not Erik Karlsson. Very few defensemen in the game can really match what Karlsson gives a team, and without his creativity, Ottawa loses a major weapon – and their future captain following the departure of Daniel Alfredsson. (Of course, Jason Spezza held the “C” for a brief period of time, but it may as well have been transitional.)
So, how does this team look on opening day of the lockout-shortened 2013 season?
Milan Michalek – Matt Duchene – Daniel Alfredsson
Alex Galchenyuk – Kyle Turris – Drew Stafford
Guillaume Latendresse – Ryan Strome – Colin Greening
Riley Nash – Zack Smith – Chris Neil
Sergei Gonchar – Alex Pietrangelo
Chris Phillips – Andre Benoit
Eric Gryba – Patrick Wiercioch
The forward core is, in a word, respectable. Milan Michalek is starting to suffer the effects of injuries, and Daniel Alfredsson is pushing 40, but Matt Duchene can certainly be a first-line centreman if he can stay healthy and consistent. The second line of Turris, Galchenyuk, and Stafford provides both energy and skill, with Galchenyuk making the NHL right out of his first training camp. Ryan Strome gives the Sens a respectable third line, and the fourth unit has some serious sandpaper in the form of Zack Smith and Chris Neil. The third man on that unit is Riley Nash, who was dealt to Ottawa in a deal for the Sens’ 2nd-Rounder in 2010, used on Martin Marincin. Nash gives the Sens an added depth piece; he won’t set the world on fire, but will still give a good effort all over the ice.
Defensively, Ottawa is a team of has-beens and not-ready-yets, held together by the team’s arguable star, Alex Pietrangelo. Sergei Gonchar and Chris Phillips are both well past their prime, but still offer something at the NHL level. Eric Gryba and Patrick Wiercioch are basically forced into service by the team’s lack of options, but both look to be ready to contribute in the big league early on. Andre Benoit is the stand-out, and not in a good way; he would be brought back to the Sens after a somewhat poor year with Spartak Moscow in the KHL.
In goal lies Ottawa’s biggest strength. Craig Anderson may not have his consistency yet, but when he is on, he is ON, as evidenced by his first half-season in Ottawa in 2011. Even if he doesn’t stand on his head every game, he is still an NHL starter, a 1a option at worst. Behind him in the depth chart is Ben Bishop, recently acquired from St. Louis; Bishop goes into the 2013 season at 26 years of age, and he showed okay stuff as the bench option last year. And even if he struggles, Ottawa has Robin Lehner available as a third-string goalie. Lehner showed flashes of brilliance in 2011-12 in five games with the Sens, and could well be a starting option, whether in Ottawa or elsewhere.
AROUND THE NHL
THE ISLANDERS FROM 2013-TODAY: The Islanders expect to be a force for much of the mid-2010s thanks to their centre tandem of Tavares and Spezza, and with a good start in 2013, Islanders fans have hopes of a serious playoff run in the shortened season. Unfortunately, things don’t go to plan for the Isles early on, as Jason Spezza is forced to only five games due to a herniated disc. Even with their centre duo temporarily weakened, the Islanders sneak in to the post-season, but don’t last long. At the very least, though, New York has shown that they can be a competitive team – not world-beaters, but solid enough that post-season hockey is an expectation rather than a hope.
The next few years see many hopes for a potential Cup run dashed. In building up for said run, Garth Snow acquires Thomas Vanek, only for the team around him to implode. Vanek is dealt out at the 2014 trade deadline, in what would end up being a net loss for New York. The lack of success on Long Island prompts Jason Spezza to ask for a trade in the 2014 off-season, and he would be dealt to Dallas for prospects – none of whom would turn out anywhere near as successful as Spezza. (Not every move Snow makes in this period is bad; he manages to ship out an overperforming Andrew MacDonald before he could be given a heavy contract, and without Nino Niederreiter, he never makes the deal to bring Cal Clutterbuck to New York.)
Even without Jason Spezza, the Islanders start to grab playoff spots once again, recording two straight playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016. In that time, they only manage the one series win, but hope is returning for the club. That hope is only bolstered by the news that Charles Wang would sell majority stake in the team to businessmen Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin, ending an eventful (and sometimes chaotic) time in Islanders’ history. The two new principal owners would have many of the same challenges that Wang had in his time (including negotations for a permanent home for the team on Long Island), but many of the major decisions would likely be fully in the hands of the team president and GM, rather than the owners having direct influence as rumours suggested Wang did.
Indeed, Wang’s tenure as owner was marked by many outlandish decisions. It is unknown how much of the craziness was on orders from Wang, or from his long-time GM Mike Milbury, but the fact remains that no team made decisions like the Islanders did. Chief among them was the move sign RFA Alexei Yashin to a ten-year contract, one which ultimately saw the Russian centreman bought out after five seasons on Long Island. Another notable decision was the move to sign Rick DiPietro for FIFTEEN years; not only did DiPietro not last that long (being bought out in 2013 following a lengthy spell of injuries), but that contract (along with many others like it) helped shape one of the major rule changes made following the 2012 lockout, stating that no player could sign a contract longer than eight years.
Today, the Islanders are back in a familiar hole, having missed the playoffs on two straight occasions heading into 2018-19. There are many more silver linings to find in the clouds this time around; not only does the team have relatively stable ownership, but they have a pretty solid management team going into this new rebuild, led by General Manager Lou Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz, who had just won a Stanley Cup with Washington. One major piece of the puzzle is missing, however: John Tavares. Whether it was due to dissatisfaction in New York, or a desire to return home to live out a childhood dream, Tavares would sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2018 off-season, depriving the Isles of their talisman for the past nine seasons. The road will be an arduous one for both management and fans, but if you had to ask two people to lead the Islanders back to Stanley Cup glory, Lamoriello and Trotz would certainly be near the top of the list.
THE LEGACY OF “MAD MIKE”: If any one figure stands out in the history of the Islanders in the last twenty years, it HAS to be Mike Milbury. Though he held both the positions of head coach and GM during his time with New York, it was as a General Manager that he would make his boldest moves. Unfortunately, those moves proved, for the most part, to be detrimental to the club, sometimes even disastrous. Were you to ask any hockey fan who the worst GM of all time was, quite a few would point to Milbury; indeed, a large portion of those would be Islander fans who had seen their team go from 80s dynasty to laughingstocks for the better parts of the nest two decades.
In this timeline, Milbury, strange as it may seem, has a small part of his image rehabilitated. There’s nothing that can be done in this timeline to rectify the disaster that was the Luongo trade; since the point of divergence happens in 2001, that deal can’t be changed. But Milbury’s other tenure-defining deal, the disastrous trade for Alexei Yashin, is now wiped out in favour of an offer sheet that sees New York give up four 1st-Rounders. None of the 1st-Round Picks end up becoming anywhere near as good as Yashin; the only one who does carve out a respectable NHL career is Eric Fehr, and he does it with the Oilers instead of the Senators. The Islanders hold on to both Zdeno Chara and Jason Spezza, who become impact players in New York. Though Chara leave in free agency some time later, Spezza becomes one of the cornerstones of the team for much of his prime.
With that deal now nixed, the Islanders improve drastically in the early 2000s. Instead of a playoff build that amounted to nothing more than three first-round exits in as many years, Milbury’s attempt to assemble a contender almost works, with New York making a Conference Final appearance in ’04. Now, public perception of his work in the early part of the decade improves, and he really does earn the “mad genius” moniker. He had made several gambles, and aside from a miss here or there, many of them seemed to work out.
Despite the improvement in the Islanders’ fortunes, Milbury eventually finds himself on the hook for one of the most infamous decisions in New York history: Rick DiPietro’s 15-year contract. Now, it should be noted that this deal was almost certain to happen no matter who was the GM on Long Island, as Wang and DiPietro shared a special relationship during the latter’s time there, and the two negotiated the deal on their own terms. Having already made the big commitment to Alexei Yashin, it was unlikely that Milbury would say ‘no’ to the 15-year deal for New York’s #1 goalie. In addition to this, Milbury offers a 12-year contract to Jason Spezza, one which turns out to be not that bad, in retrospect, but does help set the stage for the topic of contract length being one of the major debates of the 2012 lockout.
Milbury’s tenure as Islanders’ GM would come to an end in 2008, after New York fails to make the post-season for the first time in six seasons. His unemployment doesn’t last long, though; he would be hired by the new ownership group in Tampa Bay to become the team’s General Manager in June of that year. After a couple of poor seasons, Milbury would be fired once more, and would make his way to the broadcast booth as an analyst for NBC. Unlike his GM tenures in New York and Tampa Bay, his work with NBC would be met with undivided hatred from hockey fans. Mike may have been a “mad genius” in a team’s front office, but on TV, he was simply “mad”.
THE SENATORS FROM 2013-TODAY: After years of floundering in the depths of the table, the Senators are finally starting to see a ray of hope going into the lockout-shortened 2013 season. Maybe with a hot start, they could at least secure a playoff appearance for the first time since 2003, and if everything goes right, they could even take a series or two. Injuries threaten the Sens’ season, as several AHL players are called up to fill spots while roster players recover; the two main casualties are Milan Michalek and Alex Pietrangelo, the latter of whom would have his Achilles tendon sliced by the skate of Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke in a game in February. (Though the NHL found no cause to suspend Cooke, Eugene Melnyk vowed to hire an investigator to review the incident.)
Ottawa would finally end their playoff drought in 2013, and would even grab a series win after upsetting the favoured Boston Bruins in seven games. They would not be able to repeat the feat against Washington, as the Capitals would take the second-round series in five games. Still, it was a great run for a team that really shouldn’t have gotten that far in the first place, considering all the injuries. It also gave Eugene Melnyk his first playoff appearance as Sens’ owner, and he wanted more, authorizing GM Marc Bergevin to trade two prospects and the team’s 2014 1st-Rounder to Anaheim for sniper Bobby Ryan.
As the mid-2010s continue, Ottawa’s post-season berth in the lockout years looks more and more like a fluke. Coaches come and go, as Bob Hartley gets sacked mid-season in 2014-15, followed by his replacement Dave Cameron in 2016. All the while, trouble starts brewing off the ice, as Matt Duchene gets into several scrapes with management over his contract and playing time, a battle possibly motivated by seeing his linemate Bobby Ryan get a seven-year deal from the Sens’ front office. Even Eugene Melnyk would have his battles to fight, as he continued trying to find a place for the team to play directly in the city of Ottawa.
The team would nearly find themselves in the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, with a ton of credit going to the coaching of Guy Boucher, who was brought in prior to the 16-17 season to replace Dave Cameron. After two brilliant series wins against the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, Ottawa would lose Game Seven of the Conference Final against Pittsburgh in double OT. Once again, there was optimism, and even more was evident when Marc Bergevin made the move to bring in Jordan Eberle from Edmonton for Ryan Strome. Eberle had made his name in Ottawa during the 2009 World Junior Championships, scoring a clutch tying goal against Russia in the semi-finals; Canada would go on to win that tournament, and the moment would launch Eberle to national stardom before he had even set foot in the NHL.
Despite the renewed optimism, 2017-18 would be an annus horribilis for the ages. It would start with Matt Duchene clashing once more with management, and eventually getting dealt to Nashville in a complicated three-way deal also involving Colorado. As the season goes on, the Sens tumble in the standings, and end up 5th-last in the entire NHL. The bad news only gets worse during the off-season, as Marc Bergevin blows up the team with several deals; Alex Galchenyuk and Mike Hoffman are both dealt out, and Alex Pietrangelo, following a trade request of his own, is sent to San Jose. Going into 2018-19, the roster looks to be bare bones, and the team is expected to be back near the bottom of the league standings.
EUGENE MELNYK AND THE OTTAWA SENATORS: Just after the turn of the millennium, the Ottawa Senators were in a bad place. Rod Bryden had run into major financial issues, and the NHL itself had to step in to cover the costs for the team while a new buyer was found. The league’s search for a local buyer came to a conclusion rather quickly, as Eugene Melnyk, a Toronto-born pharmaceutical executive, would step in to buy the Senators in 2003. Melnyk’s acquisition of the club was hailed as the move that would save the Sens, as Eugene had no intention of moving the team anywhere outside of Ottawa.
Immediately after buying the team, Melnyk would see the Sens miss the playoffs for the first year of his ownership in 2004. Though he made a public guarantee that this would not happen again, the years went by without the Senators making the post-season. To be completely fair to Melnyk, very little of their failures in this timeline could be chalked up to his running of the club, as he appeared to do everything he could to make the team competitive, including re-signing Ottawa favourites Wade Redden and Daniel Alfredsson, the latter of whom would be the long-time captain of the team. Despite Melnyk’s willingness to spend to build a contender, the results could never match his ambitions, and it would take until 2013 for Ottawa to see any sign of the post-season.
The repeated failures would grate on the owner, and by the mid-2010s, a different picture of Eugene Melnyk would emerge. By this point, Melnyk is seen as less willing to spend on the club, as off-ice battles over contracts begin to mar his tenure. Matt Duchene makes several pleas for a long-term contract which go unheard, and he would be traded in 2017. Less than a year later, Alex Pietrangelo, on the last year of his contract, would be traded to San Jose in a deal that would see Ottawa receive prospects and picks in return.
The point of time from the Matt Duchene trade to the beginning of the 2018-19 season ranks as arguably the franchise’s lowest point. Not only does the team play poorly on the ice, but everything seems to go wrong off of it, ranging from the partially dictatorial (Eugene Melnyk firing CEO Tom Anselmi and taking over the vacant role himself) to the sickening (Assistant GM Randy Lee allegedly sexually harassing a male hotel employee) to the outright comical (the Sens giving out McDonald’s gift cards on Fan Appreciation Night and forgetting to activate them). The most controversial moment, however, happens in the lead-up prior to the NHL100 Classic game between Ottawa and Montreal, to be held at Ottawa’s TD Place Stadium. Prior to the game, Eugene Melnyk gave an interview in which he stated that if the attendance did not pick up, he would consider moving the team entirely. The statement would come with major backlash from Senators fans, many of whom had seen the team make only two playoff appearances with Melnyk in charge. Attendance would crater the rest of the year, and rumours persist over the next few months of the owner looking for a stadium deal outside of Ottawa.
So, in this timeline, would the Sens move? Unfortunately, it is too early to answer that question. It is, however, reasonable that what is seen as political sabre-rattling in real life could be a genuine threat in this timeline. In the OTL, the Sens build up a local fan base due to years of playoff runs, and one Stanley Cup Final appearance. Without any post-season success to speak of in the mid-2000s, the Sens are no longer simply a team down on their luck. They are the league’s resident bottom-dwellers, who have only recently managed to emerge from the muck; even then, they can only manage a couple of playoff runs. This has a major effect on attendance in the early 2010s, and the two playoff runs only result in brief spikes in turnout, rather than sustained growth.
The Sens, in the OTL, have been financial middleweights who have been able to stand toe-to-toe with the NHL’s juggernauts over the past fifteen years. This time around, they are much less competitive, and fans are getting impatient. Should the Senators continue to falter in this timeline, it is entirely conceivable that the fans may give up entirely, and attendance could drop to dangerous levels. At that point, Melnyk may well make good on his threats, and take the team somewhere else. Of course, this is all hypothesizing over a fictional future, and it would still take time to even guess the outcome of this scenario.
Is the Yashin non-deal the decision that kills the Ottawa Senators? Of course not. When all is said and done, it may not even decide the Sens’ fate one bit. It is merely a decision that puts the team in a more perilous state than the OTL. Without their #1 centre of the era, and without an All-Star blue-liner, the Senators take drastic steps back, which lead the team to a dark path without playoffs for a decade. The peaks are non-existent, but the valleys are numerous; being so bad in the later part of the 2000s means that they miss out on Erik Karlsson, depriving them of a game-changing talent in the 2010s. Whether the deal was Marshall Johnston’s idea, or Mike Milbury’s, trading Yashin worked out very well for the Sens, and even the four 1st-Rounders that Ottawa would get would not be as helpful.
But even in a worst-case scenario, it could be rather hard to imagine that the Yashin trade outright forces the Sens to move elsewhere, or even fold. Ottawa has been on the brink once before, and if they survived an owner who couldn’t even pay the players, they could hopefully survive Eugene Melnyk.
Coming up next month, a bit of a breather, with my first Little “What If”: What if the Punch-Up in Piestany never happened?