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

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This is Part II of my article on a hypothetical scenario on what would happen had the Vancouver Canucks not traded Cam neely to the Boston Bruins. For Part I of this article, covering both the prelude to the point of divergence, as well as the Canucks’ fate following the change, check it out here.


FROM BOSTON’S PERSPECTIVE

1986-87: As far as Boston is concerned, any rumours about a deal with Vancouver in June pass by as standard off-season fare; with no deal made, and Barry Pederson still in a Boston Bruins uniform, any supposed trade talk doesn’t matter anymore. In local media, writers at the time argue that there would be no point in making such a deal, anyway, considering the state of the Adams Division at the time. In 85-86, the first and last places in the division were separated by only 12 points, with Boston in the middle of a five-team pack. The primary sentiment among Boston hockey writers was that the Bruins could not afford to give up top players for picks or prospects, and trading a former 100-point guy for someone who hadn’t cracked 40 in the NHL would be seen as foolish.

The urgency that came with being in the Adams Division would claim the coaching job of Butch Goring, who would be fired only 13 games into the season after a poor start. Former Bruin Terry O’Reilly would be hired as head coach for the rest of the year, and would at least right the ship enough for the team to work their way back into playoff contention. As it would turn out, the decision to re-sign Barry Pederson would turn out to be quite a good one, as he leads all Boston forwards with 76 points; the team leader, with 95 points, is defenseman Ray Bourque, who would be named co-captain in light of his importance to the team.

Boston would finish 3rd in the Adams Division with 83 points, setting up a first-round clash with the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal had just come off of a Stanley Cup victory, earned in large part due to the efforts of young goalie Patrick Roy. Roy would once again be the goaltender of choice for the Habs in this series, and it was beginning to look like his performance in the past playoff campaign was no fluke. He would record a .913 SV% for Montreal, while the Boston duo of Doug Keans (.810 SV%) and Bill Ranford (.855 SV%) would prove no match. The Habs would sweep the Bruins in four games, one of only two sweeps in the opening round that year.

Boston would get the 14th Overall Pick in the 1987 Entry Draft, selecting defenseman Stephane Quintal from the QMJHL’s Granby Bisons.

1987-88: Terry O’Reilly had swooped in to bring his team back to respectability after a tough start the previous year, but now, he was going to have to prove he could go a full season with the same results, or better. The Bruins, despite the fact that a former club legend was guiding them, could not seem to respond quite well enough, falling well behind the Canadiens in the Adams. In a move to make the team more competitive, Boston would deal Geoff Courtnall, Bill Ranford, and a 2nd-Round Pick in 1988 to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Andy Moog. Moog, stuck behind Grant Fuhr on the Oilers’ depth chart, would immediately become a starter for Boston, playing six games and recording a solid .901 SV%.

The move was important for Boston in terms of being competitive, but it wasn’t quite enough to secure 2nd in the Adams Division. They would be tied with Buffalo with 85 points, but tie-breaking procedures would give the Sabres home-ice advantage in the opening round. Buffalo would get out to a great start, winning the first two games, but a 6-3 win for the Bruins in Game Three would turn the series around. Boston would win the next three to take the series in six games. Next up was Boston’s old foes, the Montreal Canadiens, who had finished with the 2nd-best record in the NHL; Boston was now going on 45 years without beating the Habs in a playoff series.

45 years, apparently, is a good time to end a drought. Though Montreal would take the first game of the series at the Montreal Forum, the Bruins would claim the next four, stunning the Habs 3-1 in Game Five at the Forum to complete the series victory. Having slayed a dragon, the Bruins were now in the Conference Finals against the New Jersey Devils. New Jersey were in their first season with Lou Lamoriello as General Manager, and had brought in Jim Schoenfeld to great effect. Schoenfeld would become a focal point of the series after his tirade at the officiating crew in Game Three, which spawned the infamous line, “have another doughnut!” The series itself would be a see-saw affair, with both sides alternating victories throughout; with home ice on their side, the Bruins would win Game Seven, advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.

With the Stanley Cup on the line, Boston would face off against the Edmonton Oilers – a team beginning to show some cracks. Already, Paul Coffey and Andy Moog had been dealt out, and rumours were even beginning to swirl that even a player like Wayne Gretzky could be next. Despite the turmoil in Edmonton, they were still one of the strongest teams in the league, and the Cup Final showed it perfectly. The Oilers would sweep the series, but strangely, needed five games to do so; Game Four would be called off due to a blanket of fog at ice level, followed by a power failure.

Despite being “swept” by the Oilers, there was optimism in Boston, and a belief that the team was now a serious contender once again in the Wales Conference. They had not only gotten to the Cup Final, but had done so by beating the Montreal Canadiens in the second round, a team they hadn’t beat in the post-season since 1943. The feeling was that with one more piece to add to the puzzle, the Bruins would be able to hoist the Cup sooner rather than later. Boston would get the 13th Pick in the 1988 Draft, selecting Victoria Cougars winger Joel Savage.

1988-89: The Bruins had done just about everything they needed to do to claim the Stanley Cup. They took down Montreal, a feat that had previously seemed impossible. They survived a controversial series with New Jersey that saw replacement officials take to the ice for Game Four. But even having done all that, they still couldn’t take down the Oilers. Thankfully, they would be less of a problem going forward, as their former superstar, Wayne Gretzky, was now in Los Angeles following a blockbuster deal. If the Bruins could make it through the Wales Conference again, a Cup was easily within their reach.

All of the hope that Bruins fans had would slowly be seeped away by the half-way point of the season. Boston would reach that point in 4th place in the Adams, with Quebec nipping at their heels for the last playoff spot. Bourque found himself forced to carry the load for a struggling Boston side, as players like Andy Moog and Barry Pederson underperformed. Moog was now in a battle for the #1 goalie spot with free agent signing Reggie Lemelin, while Pederson would go on to register only 41 points in 66 games, his worst total in a full season since entering the NHL. Bourque himself would miss 20 games, and the Bruins looked a much worse team for it, winning only 3 games with him out of the line-up.

The Bruins would, thankfully, finish strong at the tail end of the season, eventually clinching the 4th-place spot in the Adams with 74 points. They would be matched up once more with Montreal, who were once again near the top of the league standings. They had made moves to become a powerhouse in the past year, including adding young blue-liners Jyrki Lumme and Petr Svoboda, as well as trading for scorer Russ Courtnall. Montreal was not going to lose to Boston again, and made sure of it with a four-game sweep. So sure were the Habs of a series win that they played back-up goalie Brian Hayward in Game Four, which he would end up winning thanks to an OT goal by Svoboda.

Boston was beginning to fall apart, and changes would need to be made soon if they were to stay competitive in the Adams Division. Their first move would be at the 1989 Entry Draft, as they would use the 8th Overall Pick on Jason Herter, a Canadian defenseman playing at the University of North Dakota.

1989-90: After a miracle season in 1988, the Bruins were falling back down to Earth the next year. Things were going to have to change soon if the Bruins were to stay a contender, and it would be Terry O’Reilly who would leave first. O’Reilly, whose son was living with a serious liver disease, would resign in order to better take care of his son, with former Bruin teammate Mike Milbury taking his place. In addition to the new coach, the Bruins would sign four players in free agency who would go on to play on the team that year, as well as trading for Dave Christian and Dave Poulin mid-season.

All of the moves Boston made, however, just didn’t seem to make Boston a contender again. They would once again be stuck battling in the middle of the Adams pack, as for another year, Ray Bourque was forced to carry the weight of the team on his shoulders. His 84 points in 76 games was enough to lead the team, as no forward could really match his offensive production. Of particular concern for the Bruins was the declining play of Barry Pederson; now reduced to 54 games of work, Pederson would manage only 31 points, another full-season career low.

Boston was back in 4th place in the Adams Division, managing only 85 points. They would be pitted against the surging Buffalo Sabres in the first round; Buffalo had improved steadily since the two sides squared off two years ago, with youngster Pierre Turgeon blossoming into a 100-point player this year. In addition to Turgeon, the Sabres had some very good goaltending from the tandem of Daren Puppa and Clint Malarchuk, with Puppa getting the nod as playoff starter. He would prove almost impenetrable throughout the series, but for a slip in Game Four, which ended in a 4-1 Boston victory. Game Five saw Puppa having more trouble in goal, but his team came through for him to secure a 5-4 win. Boston was out in five games, and things were beginning to look dire for them.

The Bruins would end up with the 14th Overall Pick in 1990, and elected to go with some toughness. They would draft Brad May, a high-scoring, highly-penalized winger from the OHL’s Niagara Falls Thunder.

1990-91: The Boston Bruins were in free-fall mode. When once, they were a sure bet to at least advance one round in the playoffs, they were now fading into the ranks of the mediocre – the teams that could make it to the post-season, only to stumble embarrassingly over the first hurdle. Now in his second season, Mike Milbury was beginning to take heat from the local media for failing to restore the Bruins to what many in the state felt was their rightful place as a constant Cup favourite. With one somewhat disappointing season already under his belt, another poor year would likely cost him his job.

That poor year wouldn’t come immediately. Once again, the Bruins were not quite at the pace of the top teams, but thanks to the regression of the Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens, they were at least in the conversation for top spot in the Adams Division. Long looking for some scoring support, Ray Bourque would be pushed for the team scoring lead by centreman Craig Janney, who would put up 92 points to sit a pair behind the star blue-liner. The two carried the bulk of the scoring load for the Bruins, who also benefitted from some solid goaltending by Andy Moog (2.87 GAA and .896 SV% in 51 games).

Though Boston would actually finish with one less point than the previous year (84 points), they would move up to 2nd in the Adams, setting up a playoff re-match with the Buffalo Sabres. Boston was hungry for revenge against the team that eliminated them the previous year, and looked to set a physical tone from the opening game. The strategy backfired, as Buffalo took the opening game at the Boston Garden. From then on, however, the Bruins would dominate, punishing a helpless Buffalo side over the next four games to win it in five. That physical style worked wonders against Buffalo, but wouldn’t work against Montreal, who were well prepared for the “Big Bad Bruins”. The Canadiens would win the Division Final in five games, sending Boston home.

Boston had at least cleared the first hurdle, but were still not able to get back to being true Cup contenders. Coach Mike Milbury would resign, with Maine Mariners bench boss Rick Bowness hired to replace him. The Bruins would pick 15th in the 1991 Entry Draft; having drafted for toughness last time, they would go for talent this time around, selecting Alexei Kovalev from Soviet League champions Dynamo Moscow.

1991-92: The Bruins were beginning to fall down in the standings, and now looked to be a team facing a re-build in the near future. At the very least, being grouped in a division with the Quebec Nordiques (who had failed to sign Eric Lindros to a contract after drafting him) virtually guaranteed the Bruins a playoff spot, so long as they were at least respectable in the standings. Instead of just limping in to a post-season berth, however, Boston spent much of the season in a battle with Buffalo for 2nd in the Adams Division, and by the half-way point, the two sides were tied in the standings. Both of them would have to look up at Montreal, who were separating themselves from the pack with ease.

Not wanting to relinquish their hold on 2nd in the Adams, the Bruins would make a major trade in 1992, sending Craig Janney and Stephane Quintal to the St. Louis Blues for Adam Oates. Oates was a late bloomer in hockey, having become a true top centreman with the Blues at the age of 27, but his talent was undeniable, as he was coming off of two seasons of over 100 points. He would provide a spark as the team’s #1 centre, putting up 30 points in 26 games down the stretch with Boston. The man who was once in that position, Barry Pederson, would come back to Boston in a trade with Hartford, who had signed him in the off-season; not even a return to Boston would spark Pederson, who would only manage 9 points in 32 games with the Bruins.

Boston would barely hold on to 2nd in the Adams Division with 76 points, setting up yet another clash with the Buffalo Sabres in the first round. Much like the series a year ago, Buffalo would take the opening game, followed by Boston winning the next three. The Sabres, however, had learned from 1991, and were not willing to go down without a fight. They would win Game Five by a score of 2-0, then clobber the Bruins 9-3 in Game Six. The deciding game, however, would go to the Bruins, who would hold on for a 3-2 overtime win thanks to a goal by rookie Brad May, which would be punctuated by Bob Wilson’s now-iconic call:

“Oates to May, passes Svoboda, passes Draper, SCORES! Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Brad May wins it for Boston! The final score, the Bruins 3, the Sabres 2! Boston is moving on!”

May’s goal had given the Bruins an emotional boost like no other. Now playing against Montreal in the Adams Division Final, they would come out of the gates full of energy, with even the Adams-leading Habs unable to match them, try as they might. Though Montreal kept the games close, Boston would find a way to prevail in the end, sweeping the series. Their disposal of the Canadiens put the hockey world on notice, including their Conference Final opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins; even with the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, and the one and only Mario Lemieux on their squad, the Pens were not ready to let the Bruins beat them. The Penguins would do to Boston what the Bruins had done to Montreal, sweeping them in four.

Despite some middling regular season results, the Bruins were back to being a formidable playoff team, and the acquisition of Adam Oates seemed to be making a difference. Oates would lead the Bruins by a wide margin in playoff points with 19, and amazingly, only 5 goals. He was clearly making the players around him better, which made anyone on his line a potential scoring threat. He was identified as one of the new talismans of the team alongside Ray Bourque, and would almost certainly be the #1 centre going forward.

The Bruins would get the 11th Pick in the 1992 Draft, taking blue-liner David Cooper from the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL.

1992-93: The Bruins went into the 1992-93 season as potential Adams Division winners, and possibly even Cup contenders, thanks to the duo of Adam Oates and Ray Bourque. There were, however, some wrenches being thrown into the plans; not only was Montreal loading up for another Cup run (adding Vincent Damphousse and Brian Bellows in the off-season), but Quebec had made a franchise-defining trade, getting several players from Philadelphia in exchange for the unsigned Eric Lindros. Strangely, Rick Bowness, who had led to the team to the Conference Final the previous year, was not retained as head coach, replaced by Brian Sutter. Sutter would be in the unenviable position of having to establish himself in what was becoming a competitive division.

Despite their third coach in as many years, the Bruins were not going to fall into disarray, especially not with Adam Oates in their line-up. Oates would score 142 points to lead the team, with his 97 assists putting at the top of the entire NHL. Featuring frequently on his line was rookie Joe Juneau, who would put up 102 points in his first full season in the league, earning him Calder Trophy consideration. All in all, pretty much the only weak spot for the Bruins was in goal, as Andy Moog would put up a dismal .876 SV% in 55 games.

As expected, Montreal and Quebec were at the top of the Adams Division, with Boston sitting in 3rd with 99 points. This would set up a clash with the Canadiens in the first round, and if it wasn’t enough that the Habs had Damphousse and Bellows, they had also acquired former 50-goal scorer Gary Leeman mid-way through the year. Without a doubt, Montreal had the advantage; not only could they simply focus on shutting down Oates and Juneau, but they had too many skilled forwards for Boston to do the same to them. The Bruins would be back to being Montreal’s playoff victims, as the Habs would win the series four games to one.

Boston would finish with the 19th Pick in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft. They would grab Landon Wilson, a winger from the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL. That pick, however, was overshadowed by a trade the day before the draft, as the Bruins would send Andy Moog to the newly-moved Dallas Stars in exchange for fellow goalie Jon Casey. (This trade was made to complete an earlier move in which blue-liner Gord Murphy was sent to Dallas.)

1993-94: After a brief resurgence, the Bruins were back to being a playoff stepping stone for the league’s other contenders. As 1993-94 rolled on, they were now at risk of being the post-season punching bag of the entire Conference – now named the “Eastern Conference”. With all of the re-naming and re-aligning (The Bruins were now in the Northeast Division with Pittsburgh, Montreal, Quebec, Buffalo, Hartford, and Ottawa) came a new playoff format, as now, the top eight teams in each Conference, regardless of division, made the playoffs. One of the big takeaways for Boston fans would be that they now had less chance of facing Montreal in the post-season, thus getting a potential roadblock out of the way.

Of course, to avoid that roadblock, the Bruins would have to make the playoffs in the first place. While Ray Bourque and Adam Oates continued to be effective for Boston, the supporting cast was far below their level. Of particular concern was the poor goaltending, which saw Jon Casey get the bulk of the starts, putting up a sub-par .881 SV%, which would match the team’s average for that year. Said SV% was well below the average for the entire NHL (.893), which had been rising over the past few years. In an attempt to qualify for one of the final spots, the Bruins would trade Joe Juneau to Washington for Al Iafrate; the former All-Star D-man would perform pretty well for Boston (5g-8a-13p in 12 games), but by the time he had arrived, it was simply too late.

The Bruins would miss the playoffs for the first time since 1966-67, ending a lengthy streak of 27 years. They would finish 10th in the Eastern Conference with 79 points, 4 behind the expansion Florida Panthers for the last playoff spot. Though the playoff streak had ended, there were no immediate calls for either GM Harry Sinden’s job, or coach Brian Sutter’s. The two would stay in their positions going into the 1994 Entry Draft, where the team would take Nolan Baumgartner with the 9th Overall Pick.

1994-95: Their long playoff streak finally snapped, the Bruins were now looking at a potential re-build. All across local media, rumours began to spring up about looming deals for players like Adam Oates, and even Ray Bourque was the subject of a few hypothetical proposals – a scenario that virtually nobody in the hockey world could have even dreamed of a few years prior. As many trades as local writers and armchair GMs may have speculated on, however, Harry Sinden was not ready to blow the team up just yet. In a press scrum in January prior to the lockout-shortened campaign, he would state that the team was still in “competitor” mode, and there was no need to make rash decisions based on one bad year.

As reluctant as Sinden was to start a re-build, the team on the ice still looked dire at times. They lacked a top goal-scorer, with Alexei Kovalev leading the way with just 13 tallies. Adam Oates and Ray Bourque did all they could to spread the scoring, but nobody could click with them on a permanent basis. Despite this lack of goal-scoring, though, the Bruins seemed to be more competitive than expected thanks to the stellar play of rookie goalie Blaine Lacher, who would come straight from college hockey and post a respectable .903 SV% in his first year of NHL play. Lacher’s efforts in goal salvaged a few key points for Boston, especially important in a shortened season.

Even without much prime talent, the Bruins found a way to barely qualify for the playoffs, grabbing the 6th spot in the Eastern Conference with 51 points. They would be faced with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, the team they had lost to in 1992. This time, there was a small sliver of hope for Boston, even if it came in morbid circumstances; the Pens were without Mario Lemieux this season due to fatigue from his radiation treatments. Even without Lemieux, the Pens were still stacked, with Ron Francis, Jaromir Jagr, Larry Murphy, Luc Robitaille, and Tomas Sandstrom all playing major roles for them. Boston was simply outplayed, even if they weren’t outworked, as despite winning two of the first four, they would lose Games Five and Six, being eliminated at the first hurdle.

The Bruins would get the 16th Pick in the 1995 Draft, which they would use on goalie Martin Biron of the QMJHL’s Beauport Harfangs. That wasn’t the only noteworthy move the team would make, however, as Brian Sutter would be let go as head coach in favour of former Bruin Steve Kasper.

1995-96: In the shortened season, the Boston Bruins had proved they still have some life, despite a lack of true goal-scorers. Now, the time was nigh for them to prove they could sustain their competitiveness over the course of a full year. Early on, it looked as if the lockout year was an obvious fluke; not only had the team not managed to find a top scorer to complement the two creators in Oates and Bourque, but Blaine Lacher looked utterly lost in his second year of play. In 12 games of work, Lacher would put up a save percentage of .845, well below his total from the previous year.

Boston needed to change something if they were to make the playoffs this year, and that change would come on January 11th. Boston would trade Mariusz Czerkawski, the rights to Martin Biron, and their 1st-Round Pick in 1996 to the Edmonton Oilers for Bill Ranford, giving the team a starter for the time being. Ranford would prove to be okay in black and gold, playing 40 games down the stretch for the Bruins and posting a .894 save percentage. It wasn’t great (the league average that year was .896), but it was at least better than any of Lacher, Craig Billington, or Scott Bailey could manage.

Even getting Bill Ranford wasn’t enough for Boston to make the playoffs, though. They would end up in 9th place in the East with 80 points – a few below New Jersey for the last spot. To make matters worse, they had gone all-in on a playoff berth this year, sacrificing their 1st-Round Pick in the 1996 Entry Draft in the process. (Edmonton would use that pick on forward Marty Reasoner from Boston College.) There were now serious demands from younger Boston fans for Harry Sinden and Steve Kasper to be fired; older fans were hesitant to stir the pot, knowing the work that Sinden had done in making the Bruins a contender throughout much of the 70s and early 80s.

THE BRUINS AFTER TEN YEARS: For so long, the Boston Bruins were a playoff fixture. If you were in the Adams Division, chances were that you were going to face the Bruins at some point in the first two rounds. Now, the team has begun to fall apart. They still have Adam Oates and Ray Bourque under contract, but the players around them simply weren’t up to their level. Far too often, either of Oates or Bourque would make a great pass, only for the shooter to throw the chance away by putting it wide, or at the goalie’s chest. That lack of scoring, combined with the sometimes-awful goaltending that the Bruins get in the 90s, proves to be their undoing.

As for Barry Pederson, the decision to hold on to him become more and more like a mistake as the years go on. At the time, it would be seen as wise (due to the Bruins not wanting to do any type of re-build), but as Cam Neely goes on to be a unique star in the league, and Glen Wesley goes on to be a very capable NHL blue-liner, Boston fans can only look on and think about what they missed out on in those two. Pederson’s decline isn’t immediate, but by the early 90s, he is no longer anywhere close to a point-a-game player, instead occupying a spot on Boston’s bottom six.

As the 1996-97 season begins, Boston’s line-up looks like this:

F1. Ted Donato – Adam Oates – Alexei Kovalev

F2. Brad May – Jozef Stumpel – Steve Heinze

F3. Todd Elik – Rob DiMaio – Landon Wilson

F4. Cam Stewart – Clayton Beddoes – Jeff Odgers

D1. Ray Bourque – Don Sweeney

D2. Barry Richter – Mattias Timander

D3. Steve Staios – Dean Chynoweth

G1. Bill Ranford

G2. Robbie Tallas

The team that once was a terror to play against, especially in the post-season, was now the cement path that better teams would walk all over. Adam Oates goes into this year as the lone star player on a team full of guys who would rarely, if ever, see top-six ice time. There are, however, some bright young players to watch out for, including Alexei Kovalev, who has three 20-goal seasons to his name already, and Jozef Stumpel, who broke out in 95-96 with 54 points, and now looks to be in line to replace Oates as the team’s top playmaker. One noticeable feature of the forward core is the amount of toughness; between Brad May, Jeff Odgers, and the scratched Troy Mallette, Boston fans looking for a fight or two won’t go home disappointed – so long as they don’t actually look at the scoreboard.

The blue line looks similarly barren. On the first pairing is the legendary Ray Bourque, but behind him, there is virtually no one else of real note. Don Sweeney is at least there to provide some defensive presence, but as far as viable NHL defenders go, nobody else really fits the mold. Mattias Timander and Steve Staios both have potential, but neither is ready to really be relied upon full-time just yet (and neither would be able to hold a candle to Bourque, who may be in need of replacement soon at the age of 35). In goal, Bill Ranford is the anointed starter; he is nowhere near the calibre of goalie that is needed in an increasingly defensive game, and has little in the way of insurance should he go down to injury.

Like Vancouver, all of Boston’s bolded players came via the draft. Brad May joins the team first thanks to the 1990 Entry Draft, while Alexei Kovalev comes a year later. In 1993, Landon Wilson would be next, followed by minor-leaguer Nolan Baumgartner in ’94. The team’s draft record could be called somewhat lacklustre, as they miss out on some good NHL players in this new timeline, including Bryan Smolinski and Glen Murray. Heck, they even miss out on Dmitri Kvartalnov (who would have a fantastic rookie season with Boston before flaming out the next year in the OTL) in favour of David Cooper (who would never sign with the team that drafted him, instead debuting with the Maple Leafs in 1996-97). The only time they draft a solid NHLer other than Kovalev comes in 1995 when they get Martin Biron; even then, they trade him to the Oilers in the Bill Ranford deal, before Biron has even played an NHL game.


ON THE HOCKEY WORLD AS A WHOLE

THE CANUCKS FROM 1997-TODAY: The Canucks of the late 90s are, for the most part, a team trying to hold on to their glory days of the earlier part of the decade. The talent is still there, with so many top wingers, but the results just don’t match. As they see their team slipping down the standings, Canucks’ ownership and management make desperate moves to try and keep the team competitive; they try and sign Wayne Gretzky as a free agent, but Arthur Griffiths’ impatience kills the deal. They actually do sign Mark Messier the next year, but his time with the Canucks turns into a debacle. Eventually, the team trades away many of their better players, sacrificing current results in order to get assets for the future.

As Brian Burke comes in to be the General Manager, he is left with a challenge. In this timeline, without Trevor Linden, the Canucks never acquire any of Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan McCabe, or the pick that becomes Jarkko Ruutu. McCabe, in particular, is key to Burke’s plans, as he is part of the chain of deals that leads the team to getting Henrik Sedin in the 1999 Draft, thus completing the plan of bringing both the Sedin twins to Vancouver. In this timeline, Burke still gets the Sedins, but has to part with Keith Tkachuk in order to make this deal happen.

The early 2000s sees Vancouver try to rise up the rankings, as they build around their budding Swedish stars. The Sedins develop as expected, while the line of Brendan Morrison, Markus Naslund, and Mark Recchi (acquired for Dainius Zubrus in 1999) becomes one of the most feared in the Western Conference. Naslund, in particular, blossoms into a regular 40-goal scorer, going as high as 48 in 2002-03. Under the guidance of Marc Crawford, the team makes a few playoff appearances, but never manages to get past the second round.

During the mid-2000s in the OTL, the Canucks made several moves that would position them for a Cup run in 2011, one of which is now undone in this timeline. Because they don’t get Todd Bertuzzi from the Islanders, they no longer have the primary piece in the deal that lands the team Roberto Luongo from Florida. For much of the later part of the decade, the team has to rely on goalies like Curtis Sanford, Jason LaBarbera, and Andrew Raycroft, all the while waiting for prospect Cory Schneider to develop. Despite having so much talent up front (sound familiar?), the team is still a prime goalie away from being true contenders.

In 2011, the Canucks seem to have all the pieces they need for that elusive Cup run. The Sedins are at their peak, and they have several supporting players to back them up, including Ryan Kesler, Christian Ehrhoff, and Alex Burrows. Cory Schneider, meanwhile, has been thrust into the NHL as a rookie starter, and fared okay for himself, but by the playoffs, even being “okay” isn’t enough to get the team past the Chicago Blackhawks, who have become Vancouver’s post-season nemesis. The next few years are a recurring story of a team that has all the pieces, but just seems unable to put it together.

The faces of the franchise, the Sedins, retire in 2018; they have both broken the 1,000-point mark in their careers, but never managed to get past the second round of the playoffs. By 2019, the team is forced to find new foundations for their roster going forward, having to revamp a team that has not seen the playoffs since 2015. The three most prominent players are all under the age of 25: Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Nikolay Goldobin. Pettersson, a 2017 1st-Round Pick, is electrifying the league in his rookie year, while Boeser already led the team in goals in his first year in the league (2017-18). The one question mark seems to be the poor play of Cory Schneider in goal, as a once-dominant netminder now looks to be well past his prime at only 32 years of age. Will he ever return to being the sure-fire starter of the early 2010s, or will Jacob Markstrom have to keep bailing him out?

THE BRUINS FROM 1997-TODAY: The Boston Bruins, by 1996, are a poor imitation of the team that was a constant playoff presence for over 25 years. And while Harry Sinden has tried to keep the team afloat, his efforts of the past few years have failed. So far, the Bruins have managed to avoid a drastic fall down the standings, but 1997 is when that changes, as Boston heads to the trade deadline well out of contention, and in the race for the 1st Overall Pick. Adam Oates and Ted Donato are traded to Washington, with young centre Jason Allison acquired in return, among other assets. Allison would not be the only centreman joining the Bruins, however, as the team would select Joe Thornton with the #1 Pick in 1997.

With Allison and Thornton, as well as new head coach Pat Burns and new GM Cliff Fletcher, the Bruins are ready to ascend quickly up the rankings. Though Thornton struggles early on, he eventually finds his footing when paired with Petr Nedved (dealt to Boston in a trade that sees Alexei Kovalev join the Penguins). For much of the late 90s, Boston is back where the fans feel they belong, in the playoffs. They only manage a single series win in two years before the wheels fall off again, and early on in the 2000-01 season, Burns is fired and replaced short-term by Mike Keenan. Not even Keenan can get the Bruins back on the rails that year, and he, too, is let go. Jason Allison is also cast out, as he is dealt to Los Angeles in a trade that sees Jozef Stumpel and Glen Murray join the Bruins.

The early 2000s sees the Bruins become Joe Thornton’s team. He is now the true #1 centre in Boston, with the likes of Glen Murray and Bill Guerin to support him on the wing. Boston returns to the playoffs for three straight years from 2002-2004, but despite solid regular season play, they are once again a playoff also-ran, forced to be a stepping stone for the true Cup contenders of the East. Thornton sticks around for that period, but once the league resumes play in 2005-06 following a season-cancelling lockout, even he wants out. He gets his wish late in 2005, being traded to San Jose for Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart, and Wayne Primeau.

The Bruins are back to having to re-build, and this time, they plan to do it right. With Peter Chiarelli now in charge as GM, Boston begins to construct what will be the spine of their roster for their next run. Zdeno Chara is brought in as a free agent, while Tim Thomas is anointed as the team’s new starter. The likes of Phil Kessel and Brad Marchand are drafted, adding to a team with young talent such as David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, and Tuukka Rask, who was acquired from Toronto for Andrew Raycroft. That trade would not be the first time that the Bruins would deal with the Leafs; in 2009, Kessel would be sent to Toronto for the picks that would become Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton, and Jared Knight. (Of all the moves that Boston makes, one player they don’t get is Milan Lucic; because they never get Glen Wesley, they never get the pick that becomes Sergei Samsonov, and thus, they can’t make the trade with Edmonton that nets them the Lucic pick in 2006.)

With all of their young pieces, plus the guidance of Claude Julien as head coach, the Bruins are ready to make their next big playoff run, and 2011 is when the stars align. Tim Thomas has blossomed into one of the best goalies in the league, and he would stay hot in the post-season, effectively willing his team into the Stanley Cup Final on his own. In the 2011 Final, Boston would face the San Jose Sharks, forcing a match-up against Joe Thornton, the former Boston 1st-Overall Pick. While the Bruins were certainly motivated for the game, Thornton was up for it just a little bit more, eventually scoring the OT winner in Game Five to clinch the Cup for Boston.

For the first time in 23 years, the Bruins had made the Final, and having had a taste, they wanted more. After a rocky 2012 playoffs, the team would go into the 2013 post-season with Tuukka Rask in goal as their starter. He and the Bruins would go against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who had drafted Rask in 2005. The competitive series would go to Game Seven in Boston, with the Maple Leafs holding a 4-1 lead late in the game. Though Boston would grab a couple of goals to make the game close, the Leafs would hold on for a 4-3 win, eliminating the Bruins at the first hurdle. (Without Milan Lucic to score the 3rd Boston goal of that game, the comeback can’t be completed, thus erasing one of the most triumphant moments in the OTL for Boston.)

For much of the decade, Boston plummets down the standings, eventually missing the playoffs in 2015 and 2016. Both Peter Chiarelli (2015) and Claude Julien (2017) would be dismissed from their respective jobs; by the end of the 2017 season, Don Sweeney was in as GM, while Bruce Cassidy was now coaching the team. Cassidy, as it turned out, would be just what the team needed, as not only did he come in mid-season to rescue a playoff spot for Boston in 2017, but he would lead the team to a second-round appearance the next year. Boston still has many of the players that had guided them to their Cup run in 2011, and with the likes of David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, and Jake DeBrusk, they now had a solid enough mix of old and young talent to build upon.

AROUND THE NHL: Undoing the Cam Neely trade has quite a few effects on the hockey world as a whole, some of those being major changes.

Firstly, the 1990 Draft going differently leads to a major shift in the fates of a few franchises. The Winnipeg Jets, never having selected Keith Tkachuk, instead have to settle for the next guy in line: Martin Brodeur. Having Brodeur doesn’t make the Jets immediately competitive, but by the time they move to Phoenix, they break out in a big way, becoming a playoff regular for much of the late 90s and early 2000s. This, of course, affects New Jersey as well; they would miss out on the Stanley Cup in 1995, as Chris Terreri proves to be a disappointing replacement for one of the best goalies of all time. The Devils would finally shore up their goaltending position in 1999, acquiring Brodeur’s back-up in Phoenix, Nikolai Khabibulin. Despite the price paid (Colin White, Mike Commodore, and a 2nd-Round Pick in 2001), Khabibulin would prove to be the final piece of the puzzle that made New Jersey a two-time Stanley Cup champion (2000 and 2003).

Of course, this means that the Tampa Bay Lightning never get Khabibulin, which is detrimental to their own Cup run in 2004. Without the “Bulin Wall”, Tampa Bay now has to rely on John Grahame as their starter down the stretch, and come playoff time, Grahame proves to be far too unreliable to lead the team through the playoffs. Despite all of their offensive skill (including the likes of Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and Martin St. Louis), the Lightning would not advance to the Cup Final that year, instead watching as the Calgary Flames beat the Philadelphia Flyers to break an 11-year Cup drought for Canadian teams.

As mentioned earlier, the 2011 Stanley Cup Final is changed, as the Vancouver Canucks are no longer strong enough to make it that far. In their place is San Jose, who win the Cup in their first Final appearance. Three Stanley Cup Finals in a row are changed, in fact, as each of the 2011, 2012, and 2013 Finals now have a new competitor involved. In 2012, the New Jersey Devils would not make the final, as they no longer have Martin Brodeur to lean on in the post-season. Instead, the New York Rangers advance to be the victim of the Los Angeles Kings. In 2013, meanwhile, the erasure of the infamous “4-1” game means that Boston never makes it to the Cup Final; in their place are the Pittsburgh Penguins, and like the previous year, they fail to affect the ultimate outcome, as Chicago still wins their second Stanley Cup in four seasons.

CAM NEELY’S CAREER: Finally, we have to look at the career of Cam Neely, the very centrepiece of this article. The first major effect of this non-deal is that Neely doesn’t have his break-out season in 86-87, still being held back due to coach Tom Watt’s dislike of him. Once Watt is gone, and Bob McCammon is in, however, Neely begins to flourish, exploding for 42 goals and 69 points. From then on, his career passes much like it would in the OTL with Boston, as not only does he become a feared power forward, but also becomes team captain, effectively receiving the “torch”, as it were, from previous fan favourite Stan Smyl.

By far the biggest change in this timeline comes in 1991. Because Cam Neely is now in the Western Conference, he never matches up against Ulf Samuelsson in the playoffs; this means that Samuelsson can no longer deliver the knee-on-knee hit that derails Neely’s career. That, in turn, allows Neely to play the next three seasons without as many long injury reserve stints, instead sticking around his normal average of 72-73 games a year. With all of that extra playing time, Neely continues being a dominant winger, even hitting the 65-goal mark on two occasions (91-92 and 93-94). For much of the early 90s, the #1 centre spot in Vancouver becomes one of the easiest jobs in the world, with both Neely and Pavel Bure to sling passes to.

The hip condition that would eventually claim Neely’s career simply can’t be avoided. It had no relation to the Samuelsson hit, and was not correctable through rehab or surgery. He is still forced to retire in the 1996 off-season, but when one looks back at the winger’s career in this new timeline, one can now make a case that instead of having to wait until 2005 to be enshrined into the Hockey Hall of Fame, he could now get inducted after only two or three years of eligibility. In this new timeline, Neely racks up 489 goals and 826 points, playing only 873 games in the NHL; had he not had hip problems, he could easily go at least another five years, and breaking the 1,000-point mark would be an inevitability.

Cam Neely would hang up the skates in 1996, having become an offensive weapon like few in the NHL before him. He would cast the mold that “power forwards” of the future would follow, including Milan Lucic, who would get to see Neely live on more than a few occasions at the Pacific Coliseum. Cam would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002, alongside Bernie Federko, Rod Langway, and legendary coach Roger Nielson. And finally, in January of 2004, Neely’s #21 would be raised to the rafters in his home province, never to be worn again by a Canuck player. Appropriately, the number would hang right next to Stan Smyl’s #12; as was the case with the depth chart in Vancouver in the late 80s, wherever Smyl was, Neely was right behind him, ready to take over.


Coming next month, I change things up a bit. Many times, including in this article, I’ve examined what would happen if a certain trade were removed from the history books, or altered in any way. Next up, however, I will do the opposite, and examine what would happen if a certain trade ended up taking place. Next month’s article is: What if the Montreal Canadiens acquired Vincent Lecavalier in 2009?

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