The Big “What If”: The Neely Trade, Part I

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This is Part I of a two-parter on the Cam Neely Trade. Part II will come next week.


January 12th, 2004

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS

The Boston Bruins were set to face off against the Buffalo Sabres, but before they played the game, the home team was set to honour a club legend.

Cam Neely may not have had a long career, but when he did play, he was deadly. It was with the Bruins that Neely became the first player to be known as a “power forward”, using his size and strength to his advantage to grab goals. And grab goals, he did; in each of his first five seasons with the Bruins, Neely would score more than 30 goals, topping out at 55 in the 1989-90 season. A dirty hit from Ulf Samuelsson in 1991 would derail Cam’s career from then on, but even with far less game time in the rest of his career, he still managed to be a force, going so far as to score 50 goals in 49 games in 1993-94. Neely would retire in 1996 due to a hip condition unrelated to the Samuelsson hit, having only played 726 games in his career. With the Bruins, he scored more than a point per game, and as of the writing of this article (January 2019), he still sits 5th in team goals with 344.

And to think, Vancouver was willing to give up on him for Barry Pederson.

Now, there is a bit more to it than just that. Firstly, it was actually Neely AND a 1st-Round Pick in 1987 (used on Glen Wesley, who would go on to be a key player for Boston as well) for Pederson. Secondly, despite how lopsided the trade would end up becoming, there was actually a bit of logic to it. Barry Pederson was still young (25 years of age at the time of the trade), and was one of Boston’s better players at the time, with 417 points in 379 games over the course of his career up to that point. Neely, who was celebrating his 21st birthday on the day of the trade, was stuck in the Vancouver depth chart behind captain Stan Smyl and leading goal-scorer Tony Tanti. Unless something happened to either of Smyl or Tanti to keep them out long-term, Neely was bound to be stuck behind them for at least the next few years.

Neely’s trade to Boston set the stage for his ascension to NHL stardom, and very nearly gave the Boston Bruins a Stanley Cup on two occasions, in 1988 and 1990. But how would things gone had that trade been erased from the history books? Would Boston still be in either of those Stanley Cup Finals? Would Vancouver, with Neely in their line-up, have gone on to win the Cup they missed out on in 1994? And most importantly, how long would Cam’s career last in the NHL without having to face off against Ulf Samuelsson in the 1991 playoffs?

WHAT IF THE CAM NEELY TRADE NEVER HAPPENED?

WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: The first thing that has to be kept in mind is the circumstances that made Neely expendable in the first place. As mentioned, the Comox, BC native was behind Smyl and Tanti on the Canucks’ depth chart, and seemed to be getting marginally worse by the year. His 31 points in 56 games in his rookie year was an okay start, but he would not pass the 40-point mark in either of the next two campaigns, with Neely playing over 70 games each year. In those two years, he had recorded a combined -55 rating; even if he was playing on some bad Vancouver teams, and even if he was regularly playing against the likes of the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, it was still among the lowest ratings on the Canucks. He was clearly not favoured by coach Tom Watt, and with fellow right winger Tony Tanti still only 22, Vancouver was set for a while on that flank.

As for Barry Pederson, he was still young, having turned 25 in March. In the 1985-86 season, he produced at nearly a point-a-game pace in his first full year back from having a benign tumour removed from his shoulder. In addition to his impressive return, he was also a regular in voting for the Frank Selke Trophy as best defensive forward, and a former junior stand-out in BC. For a team that needed an extra offensive spark down the middle, Pederson looked to be an excellent option. Furthermore, he was coming up to the end of his contract with the Bruins, and the Canucks may have felt the need to act immediately before Pederson hit the market as a restricted free agent – at which point they may have had to give up even more to sign him to an offer sheet.

So, what would have to change for this trade not to happen? Well, the change of heart might have to come from Jack Gordon, then the General Manager of the Vancouver Canucks. Gordon was part of the management team that had selected Neely 9th Overall in 1983, and could possibly have some attachment to him, even if the head coach didn’t feel the same way. As such, Jack might feel that Neely, as disappointing as he may have been, as too much to give up in any trade for Pederson. And if Neely and a 1st-Rounder wouldn’t do it, then it was certainly not worth it to give up even more for Pederson in restricted free agency.

As the off-season begins, rumblings behind the scenes in Vancouver suggest that a trade is in order. According to one local source, Canucks head coach Tom Watt has implored GM Jack Gordon to make a move for impending RFA Barry Pederson of the Boston Bruins, and negotiations would begin in early June. The price reported by one Boston reporter is young winger Cam Neely and a 1st-Round Pick in 1987, a price which would turn out to be too much for Vancouver GM Jack Gordon to deal with. Negotiations come to a standstill, and by Draft Day on June 21st, no deal can be reached.

Cam Neely, having just celebrated his 21st birthday, is still a Vancouver Canuck. When reached for comment later in the month, he states that he doesn’t concentrate on the rumours that surrounded him, and is instead focused on making himself a better player. It doesn’t change the fact that he is now the centrepiece in a political tug-of-war between GM Gordon and coach Watt. As for Barry Pederson, he very briefly becomes a restricted free agent, but is quickly re-signed by Boston, who cannot afford to lose any ground in a competitive Adams Division. His signing ruffles feathers in British Columbia, as local media fires a few shots at Jack Gordon for not going after the former Victoria Cougar.

FROM VANCOUVER’S PERSPECTIVE

1986-87: Going into the 86-87 season, there is more dread than excitement in Vancouver. They will once again be stuck in the middle of a race between them, the Winnipeg Jets, and the Los Angeles Kings for the last two playoff spots in the Smythe Division. While the Jets are mired in their own slump, the Kings have just drafted promising young centreman Jimmy Carson, and were ready to give Luc Robitaille some NHL time. If things go much the same way as the previous season for the Canucks, they were unlikely to finish 3rd, and had to hope that the Jets faltered in their own bid for a post-season spot.

As expected, the Oilers and Flames are 1-2 in the Smythe, but it is Winnipeg that ends up 3rd, thanks to the coaching of Dan Maloney and the heroic goaltending of rookie Pokey Reddick. Los Angeles, with their new dynamic duo of Carson and Robitaille, were now ready to be competitive, and had claimed the last playoff spot with 70 points. The Canucks were now stuck on the outside looking in, as their decision not to go after Barry Pederson doesn’t work out. Pederson puts up another 70-point season with the Bruins, while Cam Neely, once again relegated to the 3rd line, only manages 36 points. His goal total rises to 18, but Rich Sutter, with his 20 goals and 113 penalty minutes, is starting to do Neely’s job better than him.

Despite their point total improving to 64 points, the Canucks end up last in the Smythe. The majority of Vancouver’s season is stained by a war of words between GM Jack Gordon and coach Tom Watt, and by the end of the campaign, owner Frank Griffiths had heard enough of them. Both Gordon and Watt would be sacked at the end of the season; Bob McCammon would take over as head coach, while former Los Angeles bench boss Pat Quinn would join the team as President and GM. Quinn’s first order of business would be at the 1987 NHL Entry Draft, where he would use the team’s 3rd Overall Pick on Portland Winter Hawks blue-liner Glen Wesley.

1987-88: With Winnipeg and Los Angeles seemingly out of reach for the time being, the 87-88 season is centred around building up the younger players on the team. One player in particular gets singled out by the new management team: Cam Neely. GM Pat Quinn publicly states that Neely has the potential to “reshape how the game is played”, and instructs Bob McCammon to put him on one of the top two lines, as well as giving him some extra power play time. The move works; Neely only plays 69 games, but manages 42 goals to lead the team. His size and work ethic differentiate him from many of the top players of the day, and a new term is invented to describe him, “power forward”.

The emergence of both Cam Neely and Glen Wesley leads the Canucks to improve their point total once more, but more importantly, they are back in the post-season. Though tied with Los Angeles with 68 points, the Canucks hold the tiebreaker advantage, allowing them to advance to the playoffs. Vancouver is slated to face the Calgary Flames in the first round, and it is expected that the NHL-leading Flames would win in either four or five games. Indeed, Calgary would sweep, utterly dominating the young Vancouver team in four games. Kirk McLean, who had been acquired from New Jersey in the off-season, had helped the team reach the playoffs with his solid play in goal, but he would be pulled on two occasions against Calgary – more “mercy pulls” than because of poor play.

Vancouver would have the 7th Overall Pick in 1988, using it on Hull Olympiques winger Martin Gelinas.

1988-89: On one day in August of 1988, the balance of power in the Smythe Division changed massively.

Los Angeles owner Bruce McNall, angry at the Kings failing to make the playoffs, would orchestrate a blockbuster trade on August 9th, acquiring Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton in a deal that took the entire hockey world – and all of Canada – by surprise. Now, the Kings had positioned themselves to be contenders for the next few years, and even without the best player in the game, the Oilers were still strong enough to be a playoff regular. Calgary had shown that they were still a contender as well, which left Vancouver and Winnipeg once again fighting for scraps in the Smythe.

Vancouver, however, didn’t seem to mind too much. While they may not have had the offensive riches of Edmonton and Calgary, or a superstar like Los Angeles, they at least had enough young talent to build on. The key youngsters that had propelled the Canucks to a playoff spot in 1988 – Cam Neely, Kirk McLean, and Glen Wesley – once again proved to be key for the team this year. Neely would set a career high with 75 points, while Wesley would lead all Vancouver blue-liners with 19 goals. McLean, meanwhile, would play 42 games, putting up a stellar .890 save percentage. His back-up, Steve Weeks, was even better, with a .893 SV% in 35 games of work.

Vancouver would once again be left with the last playoff spot in the Smythe Division, but they would at least make life uncomfortable for 3rd-place Edmonton, finishing only a single point behind the Oilers with 83. Once again, the Canucks were pitted against the Calgary Flames, but this time, they weren’t prepared to roll over. The series would go seven games, with Game Seven going to overtime. It was in that OT period that Stan Smyl would nearly clinch the series for the visitors, only to be denied on a breakaway by Calgary netminder Mike Vernon. A goal by Joel Otto would ensure that the Flames would move on; they would eventually go on to win the Stanley Cup that year.

Vancouver would get the 15th Overall Pick in 1989, using it on defender Jason Soules of the Niagara Falls Thunder. Soules, however, would not be the most notable pick for the Canucks that day. In the 6th Round, the Canucks would select promising Soviet winger Pavel Bure, a pick that was surrounded by controversy. The Red Wings had originally intended to select Bure with their 5th-Round Pick, but thanks to a convoluted set of rules regarding drafting players from the USSR, the Wings were told that they had to wait until next year. The Canucks took Bure anyway, and though the pick was declared illegal by NHL president John Ziegler, Vancouver appealed, and their pick was officially confirmed on Draft Day in 1990.

1989-90: The Canucks had to wait some time for Pavel Bure to join them, but they still managed to get two Russians on their roster for the 89-90 season, and not just any Russians, either. Vancouver had secured the services of both Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov, two members of the legendary “KLM Line” that had dominated in both domestic and international competitions. Despite their promise, the two proved somewhat underwhelming in their first year with the Canucks. Larionov would only register 44 points in 74 games that year, while Krutov would only manage 34 points in 61 games. Krutov would also earn scrutiny due to his noticeable weight gain, eventually leaving after one season.

The Russians were not the only players underperforming, however. Several key players, including the wing pair of Stan Smyl and Tony Tanti, would decline on the stat sheet. (Tanti would eventually be traded to Pittsburgh in January alongside Rod Buskas and Martin Gelinas.) Also declining somewhat was Glen Wesley, who would only manage 39 points this year despite getting top-unit minutes alongside Paul Reinhart. Seemingly the only player to improve at all was Cam Neely, who now had no competition for the top-line right wing spot, and made sure of it with career highs in goals (55) and points (92).

Vancouver was back near the bottom of the pack, but at least managed to hold off Los Angeles for the last playoff spot, finishing with 79 points. This would pit them against the Calgary Flames once more, and also set up a clash between the two Vancouver Russians (Krutov and Larionov) and their old linemate, Sergei Makarov. Makarov would have the last laugh, as his Calgary side galloped to a four-game sweep. After being so close to an upset last year, the Canucks were once again relegated to “also-ran” status.

The Canucks would have two 1st-Round Picks in 1990. Their natural pick at #9 would be used on defenseman John Slaney, while their second pick (#19, acquired in a trade with St. Louis) would be used to select American winger Keith Tkachuk.

1990-91: Even if they many have managed to beat Los Angeles for the last playoff spot in the Smythe last year, the Canucks knew that L.A. would be back with a vengeance this year. With an angry Kings team, and the only two Stanley Cup champs of the last four years in Edmonton and Calgary still looking deadly, Vancouver fans didn’t hold much hope for the 90-91 season. Indeed, despite the best efforts of new co-captain Cam Neely, who seemed to be carrying the team on his back, the Canucks were mired in a battle with Winnipeg for 4th place in the Smythe. Vancouver’s continued mediocrity was sapping Pat Quinn’s patience, and on January 31st, he would make his move. Quinn would not only fire Bob McCammon, but would take over the head coaching job himself, in addition to resuming his President and GM roles.

Immediately, the effect was felt in the locker room. The Canucks began to climb up the league rankings, slowly but surely. On Trade Deadline Day, Quinn would trade Dan Quinn (no relation) and Garth Butcher to the St. Louis Blues for several pieces, many of whom made instant impacts with Vancouver. Cliff Ronning would put up over a point a game down the stretch, while Geoff Courtnall and Sergio Momesso both put up the exact same numbers (6g-2a-8p) in the final 11 games. The energy injected into the team by the new players would put Vancouver well clear of Winnipeg, as they would clinch the last playoff spot in the Smythe with time to spare.

The Canucks were once again 4th in the Smythe, but this time, they would avoid the Calgary Flames, who had dominated them in the post-season in the late 80s. They were now set for a first-round match-up with the Los Angeles Kings, who had improved drastically since missing the playoffs the previous year. The series against L.A. held special significance for the Canucks, whose team plane was nearly involved in a fatal accident at the Los Angeles International Airport in February prior to a game against the Kings – one they would go on to lose 9-2. Though some Canuck players still had traumatic memories from seeing the disaster in front of them, the team showed no sign of being mentally affected, taking the first three games of the series.

It is not known what captain Wayne Gretzky or head coach Tom Webster said to the team between Games Three and Four, with the series 3-0 in favour of the underdogs. Whatever was said, however, seemed to spark the Kings to taking the next three games, including two at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum. Game Seven would be at the Great Western Forum, with the home team holding all of the momentum. Los Angeles would go on to win the deciding game 7-5, sealing a “reverse sweep” – a comeback from 3-0 down in a best-of-seven series. The feat had only been done twice before in hockey, by the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and the 1975 New York Islanders.

Vancouver would have the 10th Overall Pick in the 1991 Entry Draft, selecting winger Martin Lapointe from the Laval Titan of the QMJHL.

1991-92: The stunning “reverse sweep” of the past season left Vancouver fans angry, and with Pat Quinn now the President, GM, and head coach of the team, he was firmly in the media’s crosshairs. Quinn himself, though obviously disappointed at the result of the series against L.A., seemed unfazed. In an off-season interview, he would proclaim that the only way for Vancouver to go was upward. After all, they had Cam Neely at his peak, a potential #1 centre in Cliff Ronning, and many solid support pieces to back those two up. In addition, the Canucks would officially sign speedy rookie Pavel Bure after negotiating his release from the Central Red Army team. Despite any anger the fans had after last year, Quinn argued that better things were to come for the Canucks.

By the end of the season, Quinn would be proven right, and how. His prized signing Pavel Bure would have an excellent rookie season on a line with Igor Larionov, putting up 60 points in as many games, and winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Cliff Ronning, now the #1 centre, would put up 71 points. After a down year, Kirk McLean would return to form this year, putting up an outstanding .901 SV% in 65 games of work, well above the league average. But for all of the improvement across the board, no player quite compared to Cam Neely, now the team’s sole captain. After a couple of 50-goal seasons, Neely would increase his total to 65 goals in 73 games, good for 2nd in the entire league.

As Quinn had predicted, Vancouver was a force to be reckoned with. They would capture the Smythe Division title, and the Presidents’ Trophy, with 107 points, with a few Canadian newspapers picking the Canucks to win the Stanley Cup. First in their way would be the Winnipeg Jets, who claimed the 4th spot in the Smythe thanks to the faltering Calgary Flames and the expansion San Jose Sharks. Though Winnipeg would give the Canucks a scare by taking three of the first four, Vancouver would score a combined 24 goals in the next three to win the series in seven games.

Next up for Vancouver were the once-dynastic Edmonton Oilers. Now without so many of the players that had made them so dangerous in the 80s, the Oilers were on the way down the standings, and for once, were being called the underdogs against a high-flying Vancouver team. Neither side was willing to give an inch on home ice, as the Canucks took the first two at the Pacific Coliseum, followed by the Oilers winning Games Three and Four at the Northlands Coliseum. Games Five and Six were no different, with both Vancouver and Edmonton winning at home; this would mean that the Canucks had the advantage in Game Seven. Indeed, the Canucks would take the series thanks to a 5-2 win, with Cam Neely’s hat trick proving the difference.

Vancouver suddenly seemed destined for a Stanley Cup. They had survived a pesky Winnipeg team, and finally put down a once-powerful foe in Edmonton. Next in their path were the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks were led by the young American star Jeremy Roenick, who had just broken the 100-point mark for the first time in his short career. Backing him up were the likes of former Cup-winning blue-liner Chris Chelios, and top starting goalie Ed Belfour. Chicago was strong, and well rested, which turned out to make all the difference; though Vancouver was able to keep up with the Hawks in the first four games, their fatigue would show in Games Five and Six, both of which Chicago would win. The Canucks were out, tripped up at the Campbell Conference Final.

After the bitter disappointment of 1991, the ’92 playoffs seemed to wash away the old memories immediately. There was once again optimism in the city of Vancouver, with many believing that winning the Stanley Cup was a matter of “when”, not “if”. The Canucks, thanks to their 1st-place finish in the league, would have the last pick in the 1st Round of the 1992 Entry Draft – a pick they would use on Peter Ferraro.

1992-93: When once there was anger and dread, there was now excitement and hope. The Canucks had come so close to a Stanley Cup Final, a destination they had only set foot on once before (1982). The talent Vancouver had was still growing, with Pavel Bure predicted to break the 50-goal mark for the first time in the following season. Even losing Igor Larionov in the waiver draft to San Jose was not enough for writers to predict anything less than a Cup Final appearance for the Canucks. And why wouldn’t they? So long as there wasn’t a grand disaster, the Canucks looked to have a spot in the Final pencilled in already.

If there were any questions about the Canucks’ readiness for a Cup Final, they weren’t going to arise in the regular season. Pat Quinn had a new first unit that threatened to obliterate everyone else in the league, with Cam Neely moving over to the left side, Cliff Ronning down the middle, and Pavel Bure on the right wing. The combination of playmaking, speed, and size worked perfectly; though Neely’s goal total dropped to 51 from 65 the previous year, Bure would break out with 60 goals to lead the team in scoring. Second-line winger Geoff Courtnall added 31 goals and 77 points, while Greg Adams, Dixon Ward, and Keith Tkachuk would both break the 50-point mark. Vancouver not only had a deadly first line, but plenty of secondary scoring, as well.

Vancouver would once again claim the Smythe Division, this time racking up 109 points. And once again, they would square off in the first round against the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets had a new weapon in the form of Teemu Selanne, who had marked his rookie season with an incredible 76 goals. Their other star player, blue-liner Phil Housley, had set a personal best that year with 97 points. If the Canucks had it tough last year, they would be in even tougher this time around, but Vancouver would rise to the occasion, winning the series in six games. Faced with an even more star-studded line-up in Los Angeles, Vancouver was less able to control the series; once Kelly Hrudey took the net for the Kings in Game Two, the series would turn, as the Kings eliminated the Canucks in six.

Vancouver would get the 25th Overall Pick in the 1993 Entry Draft, selecting Miami University forward Kevyn Adams.

1993-94: Though they had taken a step back in the past playoffs, the Vancouver Canucks were still dangerous. They would now, however, have to deal with a new league alignment, as well as a new playoff system. The Conferences were now Eastern and Western, with two Divisions in each Conference. The Canucks would be grouped into the Pacific Division with the Calgary Flames, San Jose Sharks, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, and the expansion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The Kings had reached the Cup Final in 1993, while the Flames were still a strong club. San Jose was a wild card of sorts, while Anaheim was not expected to have any sort of impact in their debut year. Edmonton, meanwhile, had been fully dismantled, and now had to look to the future.

Vancouver started this season as a favourite once more, and their regular season play matched the predictions. The Neely-Ronning-Bure trio once again proved devastating to the rest of the league, with Neely (66 goals) and Bure (60 goals) both finishing one-two in the league scoring race. When they weren’t on the ice, opposing teams would have to contend with Keith Tkachuk, who would have a break-out season with 41 goals and 81 points. Tkachuk had clearly been learning a thing or two from Cam Neely, and filled the “power forward” role on the second line quite admirably. In addition to the strong attack, the Canucks had a wealth of talent on the blue line, with the duo of Glen Wesley and Jyrki Lumme earning most of the ice time.

The Canucks were once again Division Champs with 100 points. Thanks to tie-breaking procedures, they would be awarded the #1 spot in the Western Conference over the Detroit Red Wings of the Central Division. This put Vancouver against the San Jose Sharks in the first round. San Jose had the duo of former Canuck Igor Larionov and former Flame Sergei Makarov, long-time Soviet line-mates, as well as Latvian goaltender Arturs Irbe. Irbe would be key to this series, as he would steal a few games for San Jose, forcing a Game Seven in Vacnouver. There, the Sharks’ luck would run out, as the Canucks would claim the deciding game by a score of 6-4.

Vancouver had survived another scare, and now had to deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were a missed high stick away from the Stanley Cup Final in 1993. Toronto had a good mix of talent and work ethic, led by the duo of Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk up front, and Felix Potvin in goal. Though the Leafs continued to fight hard, they just couldn’t outmuscle the Canucks, who would win the series in five games. The Calgary Flames, the team that had been impossible for Vancouver to vanquish in the late 80s, awaited in the Conference Final; despite the Flames going up 3-1 in the series, the Canucks would win the next three, breaking their post-season curse against the Flames once and for all.

Vancouver was matched up against the New York Rangers, who boasted several of the veterans that made up the 80s Edmonton dynasty, not the least of whom was Mark Messier. Messier, now the captain of the Rangers, had predicted that his team would win the final two games of their series against New Jersey, in which the Devils held a 3-2 lead. The Canucks would earn a split against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, which only seemed to anger New York; the Rangers would take the two games at the Pacific Coliseum to hold a 3-1 lead in the series. Much as they had done against Calgary, Vancouver would win Games Five and Six, setting up Game Seven at the MSG. The game would go to overtime, but at 7:20 of the first OT period, Mike Gartner would score to end the Rangers’ 54-year Cup drought.

The Canucks had come so close, and many people in the city took the loss hard. Following Game Seven, there were riots across Vancouver, which eventually led to $1.1 million worth of damage, as well as 200 injuries. The events led the city of New York to step up their own security for the Rangers’ championship parade, but thankfully, there were no major incidents. For the Canucks themselves, the focus was now on getting back to the Cup Final. They would have the 23rd Pick in the 1994 Entry Draft, selecting Yan Golubovsky from Russian club Dynamo Moscow.

(Note: During the 94-95 off-season in the OTL, Glen Wesley is traded from Boston to Hartford for a trio of 1st-Round Draft Picks. Now that the Canucks hold his rights, they don’t make this trade; because they are unable to acquire blue-liners like Bret Hedican and Jeff Brown, who they picked up in real life, they cannot afford to lose Wesley, and hold on to him rather than making a trade with the Whalers.)

1994-95: The 94-95 season is delayed due to a lockout which lasts into January. During that time, Vancouver would make a major change. Pat Quinn would resign as head coach, holding on to the President and GM roles; Rick Ley would take his place behind the bench. Ley, an assistant coach under Quinn during the past few seasons, was a signal that while there was a switch of coaches, the team would play much the same way as they had last year. After all, if they were so successful last season with Quinn’s style of play, why change anything?

As it would turn out, the Canucks would struggle to hold on to 1st place in the Pacific Division for the first time in a while. A big part of this was due to the fact that former #2 centreman Murray Craven would hold out, unsure of his contract status due to the lockout. His absence (and eventual trade to Chicago) left Vancouver with a hole on the second line that nobody could fill adequately enough. Despite that glaring roster gap, the rest of the team managed to be strong enough. Keith Tkachuk, Pavel Bure, and Cam Neely would all score over 20 goals in the shortened season, with Neely’s 27 leading the way. Russ Courtnall would be brought in during the trade deadline to play alongside his brother Geoff, and would put up 18 points in 13 games with the Canucks.

Vancouver, for the first time since 90-91, would fail to win a Division title, settling for second in the Pacific with 51 points. They would finish 5th in the Western Conference, setting up a clash in the first round with the Chicago Blackhawks, who had eliminated them from the 1992 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Chicago, now with several more stars in tow (including Tony Amonte, Joe Murphy, Gary Suter, and former 70-goal scorer Bernie Nicholls), were not prepared to allow Vancouver to advance, and made every game a fight. In addition to a 2-0 Game Two win, the Blackhawks would win three games in extra time, sealing a hard-earned sweep.

The Canucks would make big changes prior to the 1995 Draft in order to reload for another Cup run. Firstly, centre Mike Ridley was brought in from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for Sergio Momesso. Now that they had a true second-line centre, they had the resources to make an even bigger trade, sending Michael Peca, the rights to Kevyn Adams, and their 1995 1st-Rounder to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Alexander Mogilny and a 1995 5th-Rounder. (The Sabres would use Vancouver’s 1st-Round Pick on Jeff Ware, while the Canucks would take Todd Norman with the 5th-Round Pick they received in return.)

1995-96: The Canucks were now offensively stacked like no other team. Their best six wingers were Cam Neely, Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny, Keith Tkachuk, Russ Courtnall, and Martin Gelinas – four certified superstars, and two great supplementary pieces. As fate would have it, the stacking of the wings would be incredibly helpful thanks to major injuries to Pavel Bure (torn ACL) and Cam Neely (degenerative hip condition), which would see them both miss significant time. As a response, Vancouver would add even more wingers, acquiring Esa Tikkanen from New Jersey in November, then Markus Naslund from the New York Rangers in March.

The Western Conference was a massive dogfight down the stretch, with six teams battling for the last five spots. By mid-March, Vancouver had pulled away from the pack to secure their spot in the post-season, finishing 4th in the Conference with 86 points. Their first-round oppponents this year were the Toronto Maple Leafs, who had regressed to being a playoff warm-up for the powerhouses of the West. By the time the playoffs rolled around, the Canucks were still missing both Neely and Bure, but the duo of Mogilny and Tkachuk would fill in well, powering Vancouver to a 3-1 series advantage. Though Toronto would take the next two, the Canucks would win Game Seven at home by a score of 4-3, advancing to the next round.

Next up was one of the big hitters of the West, the Colorado Avalanche. Freshly moved from Quebec, the Avalanche had built their squad on two major trades: the 1992 trade that saw several players join the Nordiques in exchange for Eric Lindros, and the 1995 trade that saw Patrick Roy join the Avalanche from Montreal. It was truly a match-up of Western heavyweights, as both sides boasted a wealth of talent. This was shown early on as the two sides split the first four games, but as the series went on, the fatigue that had set in from the Toronto series would come back to haunt the Canucks, who lost the next two to be eliminated from Cup contention.

The Canucks would have the 15th Pick in the 1996 Entry Draft, selecting Lithuanian forward Dainius Zubrus from the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the COJHL.

THE CANUCKS AFTER TEN YEARS: The Canucks started the mid-80s as the Smythe Division’s slum-dwellers, the poor saps doomed to be used as target practice for the likes of Edmonton, Calgary, and eventually, Los Angeles. By the mid-90s, though, they have become a Western Conference playoff regular, and in 1994, they would come within a goal of hoisting the Stanley Cup. In addition to the on-ice improvement, they had become far more cohesive off the ice, too. At the time of the Neely non-trade, GM Jack Gordon and coach Tom Watt were constantly at odds, with the decision to keep the big winger eventually lighting the spark that put them at war. Now, Pat Quinn holds the GM role, with his former assistant coach, Rick Ley, coaching the team much the way that Quinn himself did in the early 90s.

When it comes to the Cam Neely trade, patience seems to have paid off. Following a few years being one of Tom Watt’s whipping boys, Neely develops into the NHL’s archetypal “power forward” under the watchful eye of Bob McCammon and Pat Quinn. On five occasions during his career, he breaks the 50-goal mark, and in two of those years, he scores 65 or more. By the mid-90s, he had become the symbol of the Canucks, a captain that any club could be proud of. 1996, though, is where his luck runs out; after a year of injuries related to a hip condition, Neely would hang up the skates at just 31 years of age. Though he would attempt a comeback a couple of years later, it wouldn’t work out.

But even without Neely, Vancouver is still pretty loaded. Their line-up on opening night of the 1996-97 season looks like this:

F1. Alexander Mogilny – Mike Ridley – Pavel Bure

F2. Martin Gelinas – Mike Sillinger – Keith Tkachuk

F3. Markus Naslund – Esa Tikkanen – Russ Courtnall

F4. David Roberts – Dainius Zubrus – Troy Crowder

D1. Glen Wesley – Jyrki Lumme

D2. Dave Babych – Adrian Aucoin

D3. Dana Murzyn – Leif Rohlin

G1. Kirk McLean

G2. Corey Hirsch

The Canucks’ top six has a clear identity: solid, unspectacular centremen flanked by elite wingers. The sheer talent between Mogilny and Bure makes the first line a deadly combination, with either being called upon to score goals. The second trio has a skilled player in Martin Gelinas and a grinding scorer in Keith Tkachuk, which forces opposing teams to vary how they try and shut that line down, if at all. Though the third line is quite strong, Esa Tikkanen is forced to sub in as the centre, as there are no other options on their roster. The fourth line has some physical punch, with rookie Dainius Zubrus and journeyman Troy Crowder both standing well over 6’ tall, and not afraid to use their size, either.

Defensively, the Canucks have a good mix of vets and young talent. Glen Wesley and Jyrki Lumme have been the top pairing of choice for a couple of years now, while 35-year-old Dave Babych is paired with sophomore Adrian Aucoin on the second pairing. Dana Murzyn and Leif Rohlin make up the third pair, which gets much less ice time in comparison to the other two units. In goal, there is a battle brewing between Kirk McLean and Corey Hirsch. McLean, the hero of the Canucks’ Cup run in 1994, has steadily declined, posting a rather poor .879 SV% in 95-96. Hirsch, who spent 1994 with the Canadian team at the Olympics in Lillehammer, has made a case for the starting job thanks to his solid rookie year (.903 SV% in 41 games), and was the goalie of choice throughout the playoffs.

Of the bolded players, all of them joined Vancouver via the Draft. Glen Wesley was selected with Vancouver’s 1st-Rounder in 1987, and has been a mainstay on the team’s top pairing ever since. Keith Tkachuk was selected in 1990 with a pick that the Canucks had acquired from St. Louis; they would normally have drafted Shawn Antoski, but for Boston regressing in this timeline. Dainius Zubrus comes to the Canucks in 1996, instead of Josh Holden. (All in all, the Canucks don’t do horribly in regards to the draft in this timeline. They do miss out on players like Trevor Linden, Mattias Ohlund, and Petr Nedved, but having players like Tkachuk, Neely, and Wesley makes up for it.)

Finally, thanks to the changes in the 1991 standings, one of the most infamous trades in NHL history is changed. Markus Naslund, originally drafted by Pittsburgh, would now end up a New York Ranger. He would still find his way to Vancouver five years later, but now, instead of sending over Alek Stojanov, the Canucks send over Martin Lapointe, who they draft instead of Stojanov in ’91. In future years, the trade still proves to be a net victory for Vancouver, but Lapointe does manage to be an effective player for the Rangers for a few years, before eventually signing with Boston in 2001.


As mentioned, Part II of this post will come next week, covering the Bruins in this new timeline, as well as the NHL as a whole.

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