This is the second part of my Vegas-Style Redraft of 1974. If you didn’t see the first article, or want a refresher on the new teams, check out the first part here.
October 9th, 1974
Maple Leaf Gardens, as usual, didn’t have a single empty seat in the house. That’s the way it always seemed to be for the Leafs, no matter who the team was facing. Tonight, there was just a bit more intrigue than usual in the stands, as the Leafs were facing the Kansas City Scouts, a team making their NHL debut. The Scouts were favoured by most hockey writers to be the better of the two expansion sides due to the fact that they picked first in each round of the Expansion Draft; with the established teams allowed to protect less players than usual, some writers even had the Scouts making the playoff quarter-finals in their first season.
Indeed, the larger talent pool that Kansas City had to choose from played into their hands, and they were able to get some prime players early on. They had Ed Van Impe, believed by some to be the best D-man available, as well as Ted Irvine, who many argued was the top forward up for grabs. With relaxed goalie rules, the Scouts were able to select some NHL-calibre goalies as well, with former Maple Leaf Dunc Wilson set to make the start against the team he was plucked from. Eddie Johnston, who also played with the Leafs in the 73-74 season, was the back-up, and though he was still NHL-worthy, he was about to turn 39 years old, and likely wouldn’t get too many starts.
In addition to the players from the Expansion Draft, the Scouts made a few moves to bring in some extra talent via drafts and trades. The 1974 Amateur Draft saw the Scouts get Wilf Paiement at the #2 spot, and there was talk of him competing for a first-line spot early on. Also brought into the team was centre Walt McKechnie, who had played the previous three years with the California Golden Seals. After being claimed by the New York Rangers in the Intra-League Draft, he would be sent to the Scouts in exchange for Derek Sanderson, who had refused to report to Kansas City after being claimed in the Expansion Draft.
The opening night line-up for the Scouts would look like this:
F1. Ted Irvine – Walt McKechnie – Wilf Paiement
F2. Fred Stanfield – Germain Gagnon – Claude Larose
F3. Denis Dupere – Murray Oliver – Doug Roberts
F4. Doug Rombough – Pete Laframboise – Chuck Arnason
D1. Ed Van Impe – Keith Magnuson
D2. Gary Bergman – Dale Rolfe
D3. Pierre Bouchard – Bart Crashley
G1. Dunc Wilson
G2. Eddie Johnston
1974-75: With one of the strongest expansion sides in NHL history, head coach Bep Guidolin proclaims that a playoff spot is a possibility for the Scouts before the season gets underway. As the days go by in 74-75, Guidolin shows that there is a little bit of merit to his words. The team plays some strong defensive hockey, with the duo of Ed Van Impe and Tracy Pratt proving to be the two linchpins of the blue line. Though Dunc Wilson struggles out of the gate (and is eventually traded for Pittsburgh goalie Denis Herron), Eddie Johnston shows that he still has some stopping power at the age of 39, posting a .895 save percentage in 36 games.
Despite the strong play in their own zone, the Scouts are unable to create much of their own offence, as many of their top players are left searching for points. Walt McKechnie, acquired in the off-season for Derek Sanderson, struggles mightily with Kansas City, putting up only 6 points in 53 games before being traded to Detroit. Despite the lack of attack, some players have solid seasons, among them Guy Charron, who himself had been acquired from the Red Wings earlier in the campaign. Charron would end up notching 42 points in 51 games with the Scouts. Chuck Arnason would lead the team with 58 points, while George Ferguson wouldn’t be too far behind with 49.
Despite Bep’s bold prediction, the hopes of Kansas City becoming a playoff team immediately would not come to fruition. The Scouts would miss out on the post-season, finishing 4th in the Smythe Division with 73 points. They would get the 4th Overall Pick in the 1975 Draft, using it on Medicine Hat D-man Bryan Maxwell.
Notable Trades (that happen differently in this timeline):
Kansas City Scouts trade D Ted Harris to the Philadelphia Flyers for cash
Kansas City Scouts trade F Claude Larose to the St. Louis Blues for cash
Kansas City Scouts trade F Doug Roberts and a 1976 4th-Round Pick (used on Mike Liut) to the Washington Capitals for D Larry Giroux
Kansas City Scouts trade D Bart Crashley and D Larry Giroux to the Detroit Red Wings for F Guy Charron
Kansas City Scouts trade G Dunc Wilson to the Pittsburgh Penguins for D Jean-Guy Lagace and G Denis Herron
Kansas City Scouts trade F Pete Laframboise to the Pittsburgh Penguins for D Ron Jones
Kansas City Scouts trade F Fred Stanfield to the Washington Capitals for F Norm Gratton and a 1976 3rd-Round Pick (used on Tom Rowe)
Kansas City Scouts trade F Denis Dupere to the St. Louis Blues for F Garnet “Ace” Bailey and F Stan Gilbertson
Kansas City Scouts trade F Walt McKechnie and a 1975 3rd-Round Pick (used on Neil Lyseng) to the Detroit Red Wings for F Hank Nowak and F Earl Anderson
Kansas City Scouts trade F Doug Rombough and a 1976 2nd-Round Pick (used on Brian Sutter) to the St. Louis Blues for F Craig Patrick and F Denis Dupere
1975-76: After a solid inaugural season, hopes are high in Kansas City that the team can make the playoffs this time around. Unfortunately, those hopes fade within weeks, as the Scouts struggle in the first half of the campaign. Bep Guidolin is sacked after 45 games, and after a short stint from former Red Wings legend Sid Abel, the team settles on Eddie Bush to take over the coaching job. Bush leads the team to a horrendous 2-22-8 record to close out the season. Despite a solid season from Guy Charron (71 points in 78 games), the team around him is littered with too many past-their-prime players, and the team finishes dead last in the league with 44 points.
The poor play on the ice has a major effect on the Scouts’ bottom line. Attendance craters, to the point where some home games late in the season draw less than 3,000 fans. After only two seasons, there are actually worries that the team is in grave danger of already being re-located. A season ticket drive was conducted by the Scouts after their season concluded, resulting in only 2,500 ticket beings sold. With the future of hockey in Kansas City now looking bleak, the ownership group looks for anyone to get the team off their hands. A group led by Jack Vickers buys the Scouts, and on July 15th, 1976, the team is moved to Denver to become the “Colorado Rockies”.
The Scouts’ last order of business in the NHL is the 1976 Amateur Draft. Because the team can’t make a deal with Pittsburgh that sees the two sides swap 1st-Rounders, Kansas City holds on to the 1st Overall Pick, which they use on promising defenseman Rick Green.
Kansas City Scouts trade cash to the Washington Capitals for G Rocky Farr
Kansas City Scouts trade a 1978 2nd-Round Pick (used on Steve Christoff) to the Washington Capitals for the rights to F Henry Boucha
Kansas City Scouts trade D Bob Paradise to the Washington Capitals for a 1976 2nd-Round Pick (used on Greg Malone)
Kansas City Scouts trade F Stan Gilbertson to the Pittsburgh Penguins for F Harvey Bennett, Jr.
1976-77: Despite being in their debut year in Denver, the Colorado Rockies were not able to attract too many fans early on. Those who took the slightest interest in hockey knew that the team had failed badly in Kansas City; it was one thing for a team to be built from scratch, but it was another for a team to come out of the gate weak, and be unable to survive in their current location after only two years. Johnny Wilson, formerly head coach of the WHA’s Cleveland Crusaders, was tapped to become the bench boss for the Rockies, and evaded any questions about the team’s previous failures, or their viability in Colorado. His primary concern, he argued, was what happened on the ice.
What happened on the ice was, for the most part, more of the same-old, same-old. Losses were frequent, but there was at least some sign of promise. Wilf Paiement, now in his third season in the NHL, had a break-out year, racking up 41 goals and 81 points to lead the team by a wide margin. Blue-liner Tom Edur, who had played under Wilson in Cleveland the previous year, would mark his debut NHL season with 32 points in 80 games, as well as a team-leading +14 rating. Rick Green would jump straight to the NHL following his 1st-Overall selection, showing brief flashes of the talent that Kansas City/Colorado scouts had seen in him. His 15 points in 45 games wasn’t too bad, but his -20 rating would certainly be early cause for concern.
Despite the hope for the future, the team surrounding the young players just wasn’t up to par, and time still remained before this team could even think about being a playoff threat. The Rockies would finish their first season in Colorado right where they left off, at the bottom of the Smythe Division with 61 points. After only a season, Johnny Wilson was canned, to be replaced by former Birmingham Bulls coach Pat Kelly.
They would get the 2nd Overall Pick in 1977, using it on Canadian defenseman Barry Beck.
Colorado Rockies trade F Harvey Bennett, Jr. to the Philadelphia Flyers for cash
1977-78: After the discarded hope of the Kansas City days, there was a bit of belief that this would be the year that the Colorado Rockies finally broke their playoff duck. It wasn’t going to be easy, but teams around the NHL were starting to fall off the pace, leaving a clear distinction between the powers of the league and the doormats. Colorado was still closer to the latter category (if not firmly in it), but there was enough to suggest that the team could at least muster a post-season spot with so many teams beginning to fail badly. Of particular interest to Rockies fans was the team’s blue line, which featured two top draft selections in Barry Beck and Rick Green, as well as a breakout star in Tom Edur. And, of course, the team had a star forward in Wilf Paiement, who could carry the scoring load all on his own.
Of the top three defensemen, only rookie Barry Beck could deliver on his promise, and how. Beck would finish with 60 points in 75 games of work, just missing out on the Calder Trophy to the Islanders’ Mike Bossy. Rick Green would struggle, picking up only 19 points in 60 games, while Tom Edur was strangely traded to Pittsburgh 20 games into the campaign. (As an aside, Edur would retire the following season, choosing to become a Jehovah’s Witness instead.) Where they faltered, John van Boxmeer would make up for them, finishing with 54 points. Among the forwards, Paiement was once again the clear star, but now he had a bit of support thanks to sophomore centreman Greg Malone, who would finish with 43 assists and 61 points.
The lack of forward depth behind Paiement and Malone would nearly punish the Rockies, but by the time the season was over, they had made it over the line with 70 points, good enough for 2nd in the Smythe Division, as well as being enough to claim the last playoff spot. Their “reward” was a preliminary round date with the Philadelphia Flyers, which ended almost as fast as it started. Despite the sweep, it was a relief for the team to finally make it to the post-season in the first place.
The Rockies would have the 6th Overall selection in the 1978 Amateur Draft, using it on Kingston Canadians blue-liner Behn Wilson. The presence of Wilson, as well as the development of Barry Beck, was bad news for former 1st Overall Pick Rick Green. Green had stagnated somewhat in his own development, and with younger defensemen surpassing him on the depth chart, he was now expendable. He, along with forward George Ferguson, would be dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins for veteran blue-liner Dave Burrows.
Besides the on-ice moves, however, a significant off-ice move was made, as Arthur Imperatore would buy the Rockies that year. His intention was to move the team to New Jersey, but the NHL put a stop to his plans for the time being. New Jersey, at the time, did not have a suitable arena for NHL play, and though one was being constructed, it would be a while yet before it was complete (see the Rocky Hockey paragraph).
Colorado Rockies trade G Eddie Johnston to the Chicago Black Hawks for cash
Colorado Rockies trade F George Ferguson and D Rick Green to the Pittsburgh Penguins for D Dave Burrows
1978-79: After their first playoff berth, Colorado fans were hungry for more. The team had a good mix of developing young talent and veteran leadership; they weren’t exactly a powerhouse just yet, but there was enough of a foundation to build on. With only five teams set to miss the playoffs in 78-79 thanks to the merger of the North Stars and Barons, the chances for Colorado to qualify were even better. They would get off to a terrible start, necessitating the firing of head coach Pat Kelly. Aldo Guidolin, cousin of former Scouts coach Bep Guidolin, was brought in to take the reins, and immediately, the team got back on track.
Though players like Barry Beck and Wilf Paiement started to slip a bit, there were others to pick up the slack. Jack Valiquette, acquired from Toronto in October, would end up with 57 points in 76 games, a career high for the young centreman. Greg Malone, previously the team’s designated playmaker, would find a scoring touch in his third year, scoring 35 goals to lead the way for the Rockies. Finally, 1978 draftee Behn Wilson would crack the line-up in his first year, and would end up leading the way in both plus-minus (+14) and points by a defenseman (45). His play was so good that he finished 4th in Calder Trophy voting for rookie of the year.
The coaching change seemed to be just what the Rockies needed to get out of their early funk. They would finish with 66 points; though that total was 13th in the league, it was 6th among Campbell Conference teams, which meant that they would grab the last playoff spot ahead of the Minnesota North Stars, who had assumed Cleveland’s spot in the Campbell Conference. Colorado would be drawn against the Philadelphia Flyers once more, and the result was the same, with the Flyers taking Games One and Two to eliminate the Rockies at the first hurdle.
The Rockies would get the 5th Overall Pick in what was now being named the Entry Draft, using their pick to select Sherbrooke winger Rick Vaive.
Colorado Rockies trade cash to the Washington Capitals for D Joe Watson
Colorado Rockies promise future considerations to the Washington Capitals for F Don Saleski
Colorado Rockies trade D Bryan Maxwell and F Larry Skinner to the St. Louis Blues for a 1982 2nd-Round Pick (used on Dave Reierson)
1979-80: For two straight seasons, the Rockies have made it to the preliminary round of the playoffs, only to get smacked around by the Philadelphia Flyers. GM Ray Miron felt that a true culture change was needed, and the team would have to be ready to fight back. Despite taking the team to the playoffs as an interim coach, Aldo Guidolin would be fired, with former Boston bench boss Don Cherry taking his place. Cherry had taken the Bruins to a pair of Stanley Cup Finals, losing both times to Montreal. His arrival promised a much tougher Colorado team, emphasized by the season slogan, “come to the fights and watch a Rockies game break out!”
Cherry, however, was far from the only move that was made. Colorado would wheel and deal all season long, with the likes of John van Boxmeer (Buffalo Sabres), Barry Beck (New York Rangers), Wilf Paiement (Toronto Maple Leafs), and recent draftee Rick Vaive (also Toronto) getting moved out. Among the names that came in were former French Connection member Rene Robert, and Maple Leaf fan favourites Lanny McDonald and Dave “Tiger” Williams. Williams, a constant presence at the top of the penalty minute standings, was considered a perfect fit for Cherry’s playing style, and found himself getting first line minutes to protect the team’s remaining stars.
The Rockies had found a winning formula. They would finish in 3rd in the Smythe Division with 77 points, good enough for 12th in the NHL. They would be given a first-round match-up against the Boston Bruins, Don Cherry’s former team. The Bruins were the highest-ranked team in the league not to win their division, and many predicted a quick series, but also a feisty one. Cherry’s team didn’t go down easy, as the two sides combined for three fights per game. Boston was simply too good, though, and would indeed sweep the Rockies in three straight.
Because of a trade made with Montreal four years earlier, the Canadiens had the option of switching 1st-Round Picks with the Rockies, and would exercise that option. Colorado would thus get the 19th Overall selection, using it on winger Paul Gagne. (Montreal would get the 10th pick, using it on Jim Fox.)
Colorado Rockies trade F Rick Vaive and F Merlin Malinowski to the Toronto Maple Leafs for F Dave “Tiger” Williams and F Jerry Butler
1980-81: The Rockies had been an okay team for some time, but now, they had an identity. They may not have been the most skilled team, but they at least had grit to compare with anybody else in the NHL. It’s not like they were bereft of talent, as they had former Toronto sniper Lanny McDonald leading the way, as well as Behn Wilson on the blue line. But one major issue remained for Colorado to fix, and Don Cherry was making noise about it. Following a year with terrible goaltending, Cherry got into a public argument with General Manager Ray Miron about the goalies the GM had acquired, going so far as to call starter Hardy Astrom the “Swedish Sieve”.
Miron would make a trade with Hartford to bring in veteran keeper Al Smith, and it would be Smith who got to start off as the #1 goalie in Denver. Unfortunately, Smith proved to be even worse, recording a catastrophic .835 SV% in 36 games. Astrom wasn’t good by any stretch, but next to Smith, he looked like a brick wall with his SV% of .869 – still a few points below league average. The Rockies would make a mid-season trade to get former Washington expansion draftee Phil Myre, and his .882 SV% was at least an improvement, but by the time he had gotten to town, the damage had been done.
Colorado would miss out on the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, finishing in 5th in the Smythe with 70 points. Prior to the end of the season, it was announced that Don Cherry wouldn’t be back as head coach, which the team took as a bit of an insult. Before the team’s final game that year against Los Angeles, the players would set up in two rows, and form an arch with their sticks for “Grapes” to walk under, as the fans gave the bench boss a standing ovation. Not long after the season ended, Ray Miron would be let go as well, with Bill MacMillan taking his place.
Colorado would make a draft day trade with Washington, sending the 4th Overall Pick to the Caps for the 15th and 36th Picks. The Rockies selected blue-liner Al MacInnis of the Kitchener Rangers at #15, then picked Victoria Cougars winger Rich Chernomaz at #36.
Colorado Rockies trade a 1981 1st-Round Pick (used on Ron Francis) to the Washington Capitals for a 1981 1st-Round Pick (used on Al MacInnis) and a 1981 2nd-Round Pick (used on Rich Chernomaz)
1981-82: The off-ice turmoil of the past two years, and the dismissal of a popular head coach in Don Cherry, were beginning to take a toll on the Rockies that remained. Bill MacMillan was brought in as GM to right the ship, but the Rockies at this point were more like the Titanic after it had hit the iceberg. After an awful start to the season, head coach Bert Marshall was fired, with Marshall Johnston stepping in as interim bench boss. The players were not immune to the constant changes, as Lanny McDonald was sent to Calgary early on in the season in a trade that saw Bill MacMillan’s brother Bobby join the Rockies. The younger MacMillan did produce well in Colorado (50 points in 57 games), but not only was he unable to measure up to Lanny at this point in his career, but his efforts came far too late for Colorado to make any headway in the standings.
Colorado had lost their identity, and soon lose their will to play. They would finish dead last in the league with 50 points, in what would be their last season in Denver. The plans that former owner Arthur Imperatore had put on hold so many years back – to move the Rockies to New Jersey – were now back in place. The team had undergone two ownership changes since Imperatore, but John McMullen, a New Jersey-based shipping magnate (and owner of the MLB’s Houston Astros) was ready to move the Rockies once and for all. The Rockies would go into the 1982 Entry Draft without an official team name, but were referred to as “New Jersey”.
Earlier in the year, Colorado had made a trade with the Boston Bruins that allowed Boston the opportunity to switch 1st-Round Picks in the 1982 Entry Draft. Boston would exercise that right, trading up to the #1 Pick to select defender Gord Kluzak. The team formerly known as the Rockies would get the 18th Pick in return, using it on another blue-liner, Ken Daneyko.
1982-83: The team once known as the “Colorado Rockies”, and as the “Kansas City Scouts” before that, was now the “New Jersey Devils”. It was hoped that for once, the team could find some stability at their new home with John McMullen’s riches and a brand new arena to play in. Locals weren’t rushing the gates for tickets, considering the team they were inheriting was constantly on the outside of the playoff spots. That considered, the Devils’ average attendance of just over 12,000 per game was well ahead of the Rockies in their last season, as Colorado could only manage around 8,500 per game before being moved.
It was quickly obvious that the Devils were not going to be any different from the Rockies or Scouts. Their utter lack of scoring talent would doom the team early on, especially in an era where offence was what decided game more than any other element. Greg Malone’s 61 points would lead the team, a paltry amount compared to every other NHL team, many of whom had at least one 100-point scorer. He didn’t get much help, either, as not a single forward was able to crack the 30 goal mark; Steve Tambellini would set the Devils’ high mark at 25. Players like Behn Wilson and Tiger Williams, once key players in the Colorado days, had regressed heavily. The one player who seemed to show up night in and night out was Chico Resch, who managed to get Vezina Trophy consideration despite recording 31 losses.
The Devils were once again out of the playoff picture. Now in the Patrick Division, they would finish 5th with 61 points. The news would only get worse for New Jersey, as they would enter the draft without a 1st-Round Pick, having traded their pick back in 1981 to the Islanders to get Bob Lorimer and Dave Cameron. New York would use the pick on Peterborough Petes’ centreman Steve Yzerman.
New Jersey Devils trade D Behn Wilson to the Chicago Blackhawks for D Doug Crossman and a 1984 2nd-Round Pick (used on Scott Mellanby)
1983-84: Going into the 83-84 season, there is little hope for the Devils to make the playoffs. They are stuck in a division with the four-time Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders, the still-competitive Philadelphia Flyers, the offensively-gifted Washington Capitals, and the New York Rangers and their plethora of international talent. In contrast, here are the Devils, who haven’t made a playoff appearance since 1979-80, and who have just traded their leading scorer to the Hartford Whalers for a 5th-Round Pick in 1985. The state of the Devils is accurately summed up by Wayne Gretzky following a 13-4 Edmonton win in November, when he calls New Jersey a “Mickey Mouse operation”.
The Devils had some talent available, and their first defensive pairing of Doug Crossman and Al MacInnis wasn’t that bad. But for each bright spot in the line-up, there were five dark spots. Players like Bobby MacMillan and Don Lever were on the wrong side of thirty, and their games were declining. Depth blue-liners like Phil Russell and Bob Lorimer were proving themselves unable to keep up with the rest of the league, seeing their plus-minus ratings drop below the -20 mark. The aging goalie duo of Chico Resch and Ron Low were stuck trying to bail out their team on multiple occasions, and were rarely able to do so.
New Jersey would finish 2nd last in both the Patrick Division and the NHL, only beaten to the 1st Overall Pick by the blatantly tanking Pittsburgh Penguins. With Mario Lemieux out of their sights, the Devils would have to settle for taking Kirk Muller with the 2nd Pick.
New Jersey Devils trade F Greg Malone to the Hartford Whalers for a 1985 5th-Round Pick (used on Bruce Racine)
THE SCOUTS/ROCKIES/DEVILS AND THE NHL
THE FIRST TEN YEARS: It seemed like things were going to go so well for the Kansas City Scouts, but by the end of the second season, the plans were already underway to move the team to Colorado. And after a few seasons in Denver, the team would be moved once more, this time to New Jersey. For a league hoping to provide some stability in contrast to the World Hockey Association, it would look rather embarrassing. Thankfully for the NHL, the WHA was no more, with four of their last franchises absorbed by the victorious league. But even the relaxed expansion rules provided no major benefit for the team known as the Devils, a club now derided by the game’s star players.
Their opening year line-up proved somewhat competitive, but not enough to really make a dent in the league. But from then on, a combination of poor luck, poor draft choices, and unbelievably poor asset management would doom the team to failure. For a brief period of time, the Rockies would break the mold, looking to make some post-season headway, but even that couldn’t last; off-ice tensions between General Manager Ray Miron and head coach Don Cherry would torpedo any hopes the team had of building a consistent identity. The team would revert to being a bottom-dweller in the NHL table before being shipped off to New Jersey, and so far, not even a change of locale can alter their standing in hockey.
Going into the 1983-84 season, the final line-up looks like this:
F1. Mel Bridgman – Pat Verbeek – Jan Ludvig
F2. Don Lever – Aaron Broten – Bob MacMillan
F3. Paul Gagne – Dave Cameron – Tiger Williams
F4. Yvon Vautour – Mike Antonovich – Tim Higgins
D1. Doug Crossman – Al MacInnis
D2. Phil Russell – Murray Brumwell
D3. Bob Lorimer – Dave Lewis
G1. Glenn Resch
G2. Ron Low
The forward core is bereft of top-end talent. There are players like Bob MacMillan, who is far removed from his peak (which included a 100-plus point season with Atlanta), Tiger Williams, who had one solid season before reverting to a depth player, and Pat Verbeek, who has promise, but is still far too raw to live up to it. Mel Bridgman is a pretty decent player himself, but his 61 points would be considered paltry for a team-leading scorer, especially in the high-scoring 1980s. The rest of the forward roster is filled with players who offer little on either side of the puck.
Defensively, New Jersey doesn’t look too horrible, but lacks a true impact blue-liner. Doug Crossman is a pretty solid two-way defender who came over in the Behn Wilson trade, and has staked a claim as a top-pairing guy by default. Next to him is rookie Al MacInnis, who shows potential to be a superstar defenseman when he hits his prime. The four behind them are a collection of players who are acceptable at the NHL level, but there are no real stand-outs. In goal, the duo of Chico Resch and Ron Low are still forced to hold down the fort well into their 30s, and there is still a couple of years before any of their draftees (Chris Terreri, Craig Billington, and Kirk McLean) are NHL-ready.
COMPARED TO THE OTL: Let’s get the obvious fact out of the way: Yes, the Scouts still move. Twice.
In the OTL, Scouts fans were forced to watch some pretty awful hockey, with no hope of being immediately competitive. The ownership group of the Scouts would watch the crowds at the Kemper Arena dwindle over the course of two years, eventually selling the team following the 75-76 campaign. In this alternate timeline, nothing much changes. Yes, the Scouts are much better, and actually come close to playoff spots, but close isn’t enough. The lack of extra playoff revenue still stings the Scouts’ owners (of which there were thirty-seven), and combined with the attendance drop-off following a poor second year, the team is still doomed to move to Denver.
The second move, from Denver to New Jersey, doesn’t change, either. The plans for an eastward move were in the works after only a couple of years in Colorado. Arthur Imperatore bought the Rockies in 1978 with the explicit intention of moving the franchise, but without any arenas available in New Jersey, the plan was vetoed by the NHL. After a short time of being a playoff team, the Rockies fall back outside of the post-season spots, and a couple of years of this gives then-owner John McMullen the excuse he needs to move the club. In fact, knowing how serious both Imperatore and McMullen were about bringing the Rockies to New Jersey, my guess is that the move would probably happen even if the Rockies were a Cup contender.
With that out of the way, it should also be pretty obvious that the team starts off much better in this timeline with a more lenient expansion draft. During their time in Colorado, they make three playoff appearances; they are swept in the first round of each of them, but it is still two more playoff berths than in the OTL. And even in the seasons in which they didn’t make the playoffs, the Scouts and Rockies at least managed to be somewhat respectable for a league doormat. In their two seasons in New Jersey, the Devils are further away from the basement than they normally would be, but still have little hope of a post-season spot in the near future.
So, why do they go from respectable expansion side, to playoff also-ran, to league laughingstock? The answer is, as I mentioned before, poor asset management. The team makes several trades involving 1st-Round Draft Picks, many of which see the Rockies trade down only to give up on a good player, or even a superstar. The 1980 Rockies miss out on Jim Fox, while the 1981 Rockies give up on Ron Francis. (They did get Al MacInnis that year, so it wasn’t all bad for them.) They trade their 1983 1st-Rounder to the New York Islanders for two depth players, thus missing out on the pick that would become Steve Yzerman. And the picks the do hold on to end up being traded anyway; Rick Green is sent to Pittsburgh in a deal that sees the Rockies get a depth blue-liner in Dave Burrows, while future 50-goal scorer Rick Vaive is dealt to Toronto for Dave “Tiger” Williams, who is known more for his fighting than his scoring.
The team’s poor track record isn’t limited to draft picks being traded away, though. The list of talent that makes their way to KC, Colorado, or New Jersey includes some solid players, and even a future Hall-of-Famer. Defenseman John van Boxmeer breaks out in Colorado, then gets traded to Buffalo for an aging Rene Robert. Van Boxmeer goes on to have a few more very good seasons with the Sabres, while Robert would decline before being shipped off to Toronto. Lanny McDonald would be acquired for former 1st-Rounder Wilf Paiement, then dealt to Calgary in 81-82; the year after he was traded, Lanny would score SIXTY-SIX goals, while neither of his replacements, Don Lever or Bob MacMillan, would manage over 55 points in a year with Colorado/New Jersey.
Having the tools to be a competitive team means nothing unless you know what to do with it. For the first ten years of their existence, the Scouts/Rockies/Devils showed on a frequent basis that they had no clue how to manage their team. High draft picks are traded away, both before and after the picks were used, and star players never lasted long in any of the cities involved. The team is in a constant state of chaos, and the one time that they manage to build a true identity, it gets ruined by feuding between the head coach and GM. By the time the ten-year mark has rolled by, the official nickname of the team matters less than the unofficial moniker: “Mickey Mouse operation”.
THE FUTURE OF THE DEVILS: The team that has been Kansas City, Colorado, and New Jersey seems constantly doomed to be a bottom-feeder in the National Hockey League, a private little circle of Hell for players to avoid. The blue-line pairing of Al MacInnis and Doug Crossman at least allows the team to be slightly less embarrassing than they are in the OTL, but once their divisional rivals in Pittsburgh grab Mario Lemieux, it becomes clear that the Devils are bound to be the last-place team in the Patrick Division for years to come.
In 1987, former Hockey East commissioner Lou Lamoriello would be tapped to become the president of the Devils. Lamoriello had experience as a bench boss, but now would be called upon to oversee all hockey matters in New Jersey. He would go on to appoint himself GM of the team prior to the 87-88 season, and despite the questions asked by the greater hockey world about the move, he would go on to bring life to a team that desperately needed it. In just his first season as GM, the Devils would make the Conference Finals, only to fall to Boston in a tense seven-game series.
Over the next few years, New Jersey would be a permanent presence in the playoffs, not quite having what it takes to go all the way. This would change in 1995, as the Devils ride their stacked blue line (and the defensive coaching of Jacques Lemaire) to their first Stanley Cup. That Devils team would be blessed with the likes of Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Phil Housley (acquired in 1994 for Al MacInnis), and Ken Daneyko, while also boasting some strong forwards including clutch scorer/agitator Claude Lemieux, skilled winger Stephane Richer, and 1991 draftee Mikael Renberg. Finally, in goal, there was Martin Brodeur, who would go on to become the winningest goalie in NHL history. Once the embarrassment of the league, New Jersey had now become a juggernaut.
The 90s and early 2000s would continue this way, with New Jersey winning four Stanley Cups in total. Much of the talent that had been present for the first Cup win was still around, with new additions coming in periodically to bolster the squad. Players like Scott Gomez, Simon Gagne, Justin Williams, and Patrik Elias would all grow into stars thanks to the New Jersey development program, cementing the team as a dynasty for much of Lamoriello’s tenure. His time as president and GM would come to an end in 2015, with former Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero brought in to take his spot. Though the Devils had regressed in the 2010s, fans would not forget the fact that Lamoriello had turned a joke of a team into a constant Cup threat (and four-time winner).
ACROSS THE NHL: As a whole, the improvement of the Scouts doesn’t change much, but the improvement of the Rockies has a major effect on a key trade – and briefly hinders an entire franchise.
In 1981, the Rockies made a trade with the New York Islanders to get Bob Lorimer and Dave Cameron. Neither player would go on to be significant pieces for the Rockies or Devils, but the 1st-Round Pick they give up is used by the Islanders to take Steve Yzerman of the Peterborough Petes in 1983. Originally, the Isles took Pat LaFontaine, himself a very good player. Yzerman, however, turns out to be even better, and it leads to New York becoming a fixture in the late rounds of the playoffs throughout the 80s. The most frequent Stanley Cup Final match-up of the decade is New York vs. Edmonton, happening in 1983, 1984, and 1987.
The Islanders do regress in the 90s, and become one of the league’s troubled franchises thanks to ownership issues and the hiring of Mike Milbury as coach, then as GM. As the General Manager, Milbury engineers several poor trades, including sending Yzerman to the Ottawa Senators for Alexei Yashin. Though the Islanders would nearly become a Cup contender for a season or two, the leadership “Stevie Y” shows in Ottawa is enough to elevate the team to a Conference Final appearance in 2003; ironically enough, it is none other than the New Jersey Devils that eliminate them that year.
As for Detroit, they end up with Pat LaFontaine on their roster instead of Yzerman. LaFontaine soon becomes the focal point of the franchise, as the Red Wings rise from the bottom of the table over the next few years. He is eventually traded, with the Wings getting Pierre Turgeon and pieces in return; though Turgeon is around to help the team reach the Stanley Cup Final in 1995, he, too, is traded. Of all the players that can be directly traced to the original LaFontaine trade, only Mathieu Schneider is present when the Red Wings finally win a Stanley Cup in 1998. (Note: Because the Wings don’t win the Cup in ’97, the accident that ends Vladimir Konstantinov’s career never happens, and he sticks around for the next few years.)
In addition to not winning the Cup in 1997, the Wings would fail to win the Cup in 2002. Thanks to the acquisitions that New Jersey makes over the course of the 90s, they are stacked both offensively and defensively, and manage to deny Detroit another championship. The Wings would win the Stanley Cup in 2008 thanks to their history of great late-round drafting, as players like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and the incomparable Nicklas Lidstrom all play key roles in the Wings defeating the inexperienced Pittsburgh Penguins.
Coming next week is Part III of the series, where I look at the Washington Capitals in this new timeline, and answer an important question: Do they still suck badly?