The Big “What If”: Savard over Wickenheiser, Part II

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This is Part II of my series examining what would happen if the Montreal Canadiens selected Denis Savard instead of Doug Wickenheiser in the 1980 Entry Draft. For Part I of this series, detailing Montreal’s side of this change, click here.


FROM CHICAGO’S PERSPECTIVE

1980-81: For a Chicago team that has just won the Smythe Division, the addition of a projected #1 centre is very much welcomed. Doug Wickenheiser isn’t expected to be an immediate impact forward, but many fans are predicting him to be the natural replacement for Stan Mikita, with the added advantage of being much bigger than the Black Hawk legend. Coach Keith Magnuson, who has just taken the job after ending his playing career, tries his best to calm down the hype around the 3rd Overall Pick, saying that it may take time yet for Wickenheiser to find his game at the NHL level. The Regina native would spend much of the pre-season in the bottom six, but expectations are that he would be in the opening day roster.

As Magnuson had predicted, Doug would struggle in his rookie year as an NHL player. Though he would play all 80 games, he wouldn’t get key minutes in many of them, finishing with 14 goals and 29 points. Chicago as a team would not go through the same struggles, though, as seven players would manage more than 50 points – Tom Lysiak’s 76 leading the way. As was the case for so many years, the Hawks would rely on the goaltending of Tony Esposito to keep them in games; the 37-year-old goalie would put up a .890 save percentage, which may have been his worst since entering the league, but was still 16 points above the league average.

Chicago would slump to 4th in the Smythe, and 14th in the NHL, with 73 points. They would have a preliminary round clash against the St. Louis Blues, who had finished tops in the Smythe Division thanks to their dynamic offence; led by 104-point scorer Bernie Federko, the Blues had finished 2nd in the league in goals, just behind the New York Islanders. Of course, for all their attacking talent, St. Louis also boasted a great goalie of their own in Mike Liut, who had made the jump from the WHA to the NHL brilliantly, and would just miss out on a Hart Trophy that year. All in all, the Blues were simply better in every way, and it was no surprise that they would sweep the Hawks in three games.

For Doug Wickenheiser, it was a somewhat tough first season in the NHL, but he still had a lot of time to go before being called a “bust”. For the rest of the team, however, there were major warning signs. The club had just lost one of their “heart and soul” players in Mikita due to retirement, and now it looked like Tony Esposito was about to reach the end of his career as well. General Manager Bob Pulford knew the time was nigh to find an eventual replacement for his star goalie, and would go about getting one in the 1981 Entry Draft; with the 8th Overall Pick, the Hawks would select goalie Grant Fuhr from the WHL’s Victoria Cougars.

1981-82: The Black Hawks were finding themselves having to adjust to a new league, both on the ice and off of it. The game was becoming much more offensively-minded, and for a team that was struggling to score, those changes could leave them in the dust. The good news for Chicago, however, was that they were now moved to the Norris Division with other offensively-challenged teams like Toronto and Detroit, and with a new playoff format, Chicago could be virtually guaranteed a post-season berth so long as they just kept their heads above water in the standings.

The big hope for Chicago this year was that Doug Wickenheiser could now step into an advanced role and become the talisman that the team needed, now that he has gotten his feet wet in the NHL. Though Wickenheiser did play every game once more, and managed 55 points in his sophomore season, he wasn’t quite good enough to lead the team just yet; that honour would go to defenceman Doug Wilson, who would manage 85 points, including a remarkable 39 goals. Of course, Wilson’s success only highlighted the lack of major scoring punch on this team, as only Mark Osborne of Detroit had a lower total (67) among team leaders in the Norris. And just to add even more misery, Tony Esposito would play 52 games of horrid hockey, his .868 SV% actually falling below the league average.

Thanks to the utter ineptitude of the Leafs and Red Wings, Chicago would still find their way into the playoffs, finishing 4th in the Norris with a paltry 67 points. This would mean a clash with the Division-leading Minnesota North Stars, and the dangerous duo of Bobby Smith and Dino Ciccarelli. Bob Pulford, who had taken over as the head coach following the resignation of Keith Magnuson, was quietly confident that his team could at least give the North Stars a fight, but few were predicting Chicago to win the series. Surprisingly, win was just what they did, eliminating Minnesota in four games; sure, Tony Esposito had to step in following Murray Bannerman’s debacle of a Game Three (letting in seven goals on 28 shots), but the job was done nonetheless.

Chicago was now set up against the team that had knocked them out of the post-season a year earlier: the St. Louis Blues. The Blues had stacked up for this playoff run, acquiring Guy Lapointe and Glen Hanlon at the trade deadline, but the Hawks had an ace up their sleeve, too. After a quiet first round, Doug Wickenheiser would come to life in the series against St. Louis, scoring five goals to lead his side. Esposito would also come through in the clutch, playing three games and recording a .942 SV%, as well as two wins. To everyone’s surprise, Chicago would win another series, eliminating St. Louis in six.

Now it was for real. Getting out of the Norris Division would be a walk in the park compared to facing the Vancouver Canucks, who had eliminated Calgary and Los Angeles to get to this point. Though they were similarly weak offensively to Chicago, the Canucks had a hell of a goalie in Richard Brodeur, who was brilliant in the post-season up to this point. Everyone was expecting a tight series thanks to the goaltending match-up, and for the most part, it started off that way, with Chicago’s Game Two win being the only game to end with a margin of more than two goals. Unfortunately for the Black Hawks, the energy they had expended in keeping the other games tight would run out in Game Five, as Vancouver would win 6-2 to seal the series victory and advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

The 1982 playoffs had proved to Chicago that as long as they could get hot at the right time, there was always a path to the Campbell Conference Final in the Norris Division. The news would be even better for the Hawks next year, as the Winnipeg Jets were set to move over to the Smythe Division to take the place of the Colorado Rockies, who would pack up for New Jersey over the off-season. If Chicago stayed where they were, they might as well have a playoff spot earmarked for them over the next few years. Of course, very few teams would be satisfied with “okay”, and Chicago knew they had work to do to return to their glory days.

Chicago would have the 7th Overall Pick in the 1982 Entry Draft, selecting centre Ken Yaremchuk from the Portland Winter Hawks.

1982-83: Though their regular season may have gone poorly, the Chicago Black Hawks showed that it hardly matters when you can have a fantastic post-season. And now, with Winnipeg now moved to the Smythe, only one team in the Norris would miss the playoffs; even as much as Chicago had regressed over the past couple of years, they were never going to be bad enough to drop out of a playoff position outright. Orval Tessier would be brought in to coach the Black Hawks, having won a Calder Cup with Chicago’s AHL affiliate in New Brunswick a year ago.

Tessier certainly helped the team find their offensive spark. The young duo of Al Secord and Steve Larmer would have break-out seasons, with Larmer’s 90 points and Secord’s 54 goals both leading the team. Doug Wilson, Darryl Sutter, Tom Lysiak, and Doug Wickenheiser would all manage at least 60 points, with Wickenheiser reaching that total for the first time in his short career. In goal, Murray Bannerman would be the 1a, playing just 41 games compared to Tony Esposito’s 39, but registering a very good save percentage of .901 – almost 30 points above the league average.

The Black Hawks were back on top of the Norris, earning 99 points to barely beat the Minnesota North Stars. A re-match with the St. Louis Blues was on the cards, but the tables were turned heavily; not only were the Blues stuck in 4th place in the Division, but they were a team in disarray, having been bought by Ralston Purina, and now looking on the verge of re-location to Saskatchewan. Though St. Louis would win Game One, Chicago would recover, taking the next three to move on to the Norris Final against the North Stars. That series wouldn’t be much tougher for the Hawks, as the North Stars would only be able to claim a single game out of five.

Once again, Chicago was on to the Campbell Conference Final, but this time, they were taking on a truly formidable foe in the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers had the young phenom Wayne Gretzky, who had just become the only player ever to record over 200 points in a season in 1982, and nearly repeated the feat this year. The sheer offensive mastery of Gretzky and his cohorts was evident over the first two games, as the Oilers would score a total of 16 goals en route to two victories, prompting Black Hawk coach Tessier to claim his team needed “heart transplants”. Though Chicago tightened up defensively, it wasn’t enough to win either of the next two, as the Oilers would advance to the Stanley Cup Final in a sweep.

There were certainly positives to take out of this season, especially the fact that the Hawks had the regular season success to match up with their playoff exploits. But now, a new problem was emerging; even if the Black Hawks could emerge out of the Norris, they were still going to have to play the winner of the Smythe, and if the Oilers had shown anything from their domination of Chicago, it was that getting past that hurdle would be virtually impossible. Orval Tessier, despite winning the Jack Adams Award, would have criticism lobbed his way for his tirade on the star players, with Doug Wickenheiser seemingly being the biggest target of his attacks.

Chicago would end up with the 18th Overall Pick in the 1983 Draft. Wanting some extra defensive depth, the Hawks would select Bruce Cassidy from the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s.

1983-84: Business as usual was about to change for the Chicago Black Hawks. Arthur Wirtz, the long-time owner of the team, would pass away in July of 1983, with his son Bill taking over. Bill Wirtz was no stranger to the club, having served as president of the team since 1966, and having been a key part of helping the merger between the NHL and WHA take place. While fans were unsure as to what impact Bill would have as the owner of the team, more cynical minds would point to the time that Bobby Hull left the team for the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets in 1972, feeling that it was unlikely that the younger Wirtz would pay top dollar to keep star players on the team.

The team that Orval Tessier had criticized for lacking heart got some grit in the form of D-man Behn Wilson in the off-season, but even that wouldn’t be enough to wake up a struggling group. Bob Pulford would take drastic measures in trying to get this team back in contention, trading centre Doug Wickenheiser to St. Louis in exchange for Perry Turnbull, but even that didn’t work, as Turnbull’s 13 points in 40 games with the Hawks were nowhere near good enough. In goal, Murray Bannerman was cemented as the team’s #1 goalie, if not due to his own good play, then due to Tony Esposito’s disastrous year (a 4.84 GAA and a .858 SV% in 14 games).

Chicago, ever the favourites to advance out of the Norris as usual, didn’t even make the post-season, losing out on a tie-breaker with Toronto. It seemed like half of their top players sustained injuries over the course of the year, and those who didn’t were utterly disappointing. Despite the horrid result on the season, neither Bill Wirtz nor Bob Pulford were committed to firing coach Tessier, as they believed with a healthy squad, the Hawks still had a good chance of making another good run. The one big change that would have to be made was finding a permanent replacement for Esposito, who seemed likely to hang up the pads after his embarrassing season.

Chicago would have the 4th Overall Pick in the 1984 Entry Draft, but not for long; they would make a trade with the Los Angeles Kings, moving up one spot in a deal that saw minor-league goalie Bob Janecyk join the Kings, as well as L.A. getting an extra pick that year. The Black Hawks would use the 3rd Overall Selection on Eddie Olczyk, a winger from the U.S. National Team Development Program.

1984-85: Orval Tessier had gotten a reprieve for missing the post-season in 1984, but it was very unlikely that he would get the same treatment this time around. Virtually the entire team came into camp healthy, and the Hawks had a bright young goalie prospect in Grant Fuhr, who would have the inside track on replacing Tony Esposito. Also joining Chicago this year was Lucien DeBlois; traded to the Hawks for Perry Turnbull, DeBlois had finished his last campaign with 79 points for the Winnipeg Jets, and he was very likely to get the #1 centre job alongside Secord and Larmer.

DeBlois, like Turnbull before him, was a massive disappointment. He would play only 51 games for Chicago, putting up only 23 points in that time. It honestly seemed as if Steve Larmer was virtually alone in generating offence for the Black Hawks, as he would lead the team with 46 goals and 86 points. In goal, Murray Bannerman would get a majority of the playing time, recording a respectable .883 SV% in 60 games. His new back-up Fuhr would show that he was equal to the task, putting up a .884 SV% in 27 games in his rookie season. The two goaltenders were virtually the only reason that Chicago was competitive at all, as Orval Tessier would be sacked mid-season, with Pulford taking the reins once more as an interim coach.

And despite, all the disappointment, all the poor efforts, Chicago still ended up 2nd in the Norris with 72 points. The combined awfulness of the Maple Leafs, Red Wings, and North Stars turned out to be just enough to give the Hawks home-ice advantage in the first round. That first round would be a quick affair, as Chicago made short work of the dreadful Red Wings two earn a three-game sweep. Expecting another easy series against Minnesota, however, the Hawks sat back in Game One, losing 9-5. The loss was enough of a wake-up call for Chicago to take the next two, but that, in turn, led the North Stars to return the favour; Minnesota would win the next three, all by one-goal margins, eliminating the Black Hawks in six games.

With so many poor teams in their division, Chicago had remembered that as long as they could just be good enough, they were guaranteed a post-season spot. Of course, fans still wanted more, and it wasn’t going to be enough just to be the best team in the Norris. It had been almost 25 years since the team had claimed the Stanley Cup, and with the Smythe being so strong, it looked like that drought would be continuing a while longer. Having once again taken over mid-season for a dismissed coach, Bob Pulford would be staying behind the bench this upcoming year, taking a dual role as GM and head coach.

The Black Hawks would have the 9th Overall Pick in 1985, selecting winger Craig Duncanson of the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves.

1985-86: Going into the 85-86 season, expectations weren’t exactly high for the Chicago Black Hawks. They were no longer the easy choice for the Norris champions, having not reached the Campbell Conference Final in a couple of seasons, and even if they got to that level, the Smythe was so stacked that there was almost no point in playing the series. For Chicago fans, there was only hope; hope that Troy Murray could replicate his success from last year, hope that Al Secord could get healthy again and produce like he used to, and hope that Murray Bannerman could keep opposing shots at bay enough to secure points for his side.

The first and second hopes were realized. Murray would set a career high in points in his third full season, leading the team with 99. Secord, too, bounced back; not only did he play 80 games, but he finished second on the team in goals, his 40 trailing Murray’s 45. And they weren’t the only ones in form, either, as Ed Olczyk (79 points) and Steve Larmer (76) both pitched in, and the defensive duo of the Wilsons, Doug and Behn, both cracked 50 points (64 and 51, respectively). The biggest disappointment came in the form of Bannerman, who played 48 games and recorded a .869 SV% – three points below the league average. Grant Fuhr proved much better, though, putting up a .890 SV% in 38 games.

Despite improvement across the board, Chicago was still struggling against top teams from other Divisions. They would earn 74 points, which put them 3rd in the Norris, and set up another series against Minnesota. The North Stars had shredded Bannerman in the last series between the two teams, and GM/coach Bob Pulford wasn’t willing to let them do so again; this time around, Grant Fuhr would get the start. The strategy worked poorly, as Fuhr would allow 11 goals in the first two games, forcing Pulford to turn back to Bannerman. This didn’t work, either, as Bannerman would once again be shelled in a 7-1 loss in Game Three to complete a Minnesota sweep.

There were positives and negatives to take from their result this season. On one hand, the Black Hawks now had diversity in attack, able to rely on any of three wingers to score for them, as well as new star centre Troy Murray. But for all the offensive production, there was now a clear goalie controversy, as Bannerman had shown himself unable to keep up the performances of past years. It now looked like Grant Fuhr was the man to go to for the next campaign, as the 1981 1st-Round Pick would finally get his chance to be a #1 goalie at the NHL level.

The Hawks had a good collection of playmaking blue-liners, but a late-season injury to Behn Wilson meant that there would likely be a need for another skilled D-man very soon. GM Pulford would think toward the future, using the 9th Overall Pick in the 1986 Draft to take Brian Leetch from Avon Old Farms in the Connecticut high school system. Leetch had earned attention for scoring 160 points (70 goals, 90 assists) as a blue-liner, but he wouldn’t show his stuff at the NHL level just yet, instead committing to Boston College.

1986-87: The era of the Chicago Black Hawks was over. The era of the Chicago Blackhawks had begun.

The name change would come thanks to a discovery by an unknown person within the Hawks’ organization, who found out that the team’s name was originally spelled as one word rather than two. With this revelation, the team would revert to the original one-word variation “Blackhawks” from then on. The name change was just one example of the weirdness that was the 1986 off-season, as Chicago had also become the first team ever to sign a restricted free agent, poaching defender Gary Nylund from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Though he wasn’t as offensively blessed as someone like Behn Wilson, who would not play this season due to injuries sustained late last year (against the Maple Leafs, no less), Nylund certainly had Behn’s toughness, and would hopefully add some spine to the blue line.

Of course, “spine” hardly mattered when your team had no scoring at all. Wayne Presley, in his first full year as an NHL pro, would lead the team with a measly 32 goals, and only three other players (Al Secord with 29, and Steve Larmer and Troy Murray with 28) would break the 20 mark. Doug Wilson could only manage 48 points this year, followed by Bob Murray at 44; Gary Nylund, meanwhile, would only record 27 points, but managed 190 penalty minutes. In his first year as a starter, Grant Fuhr was good, but not great, recording a .881 SV% in 46 games – just three points above the league average that year.

The absence of Behn Wilson might have been a bigger blow than the ‘Hawks anticipated. Chicago would not only finish bottom of the Division, but dead last in the NHL with 55 points. The result would be the catalyst of major changes in the Chicago locker room, as Bob Pulford would resign as head coach, eventually being succeeded by former Calgary assistant coach Bob Murdoch. Captain Darryl Sutter, meanwhile, would hang up the skates after injuries derailed his season; his retirement was yet another symbol of the changing times in Chicago, following the retirement of Tom Lysiak a year earlier.

The Blackhawks needed a new star, and they needed one quick. They would have the 1st Overall Pick in the 1987 Entry Draft, taking centre Pierre Turgeon from the QMJHL’s Granby Bisons. Though Turgeon had put up an impressive 154 points in 58 games with the Bisons, the hockey world at large likely knew him best as the only Canadian player who would not leave the bench during the infamous “Punch-Up in Piestany”, the bench-clearing brawl that ended the 1987 World Junior Championships.

1987-88: The Blackhawks really had nowhere to go but up. They may have finished last the previous year, but knowing the Norris Division, there was bound to be one or two teams that would join them near the bottom of the standings. Chicago also had a few advantages on their side, as not only did they have a potential #1 centre in Pierre Turgeon, and a future anchor man in Brian Leetch, but they would also get Behn Wilson back from injury. The ‘Hawks were quite bullish on their chances, and Bob Pulford wasn’t going to just wait around; he would make a trade to get former 50-goal scorer Rick Vaive from Toronto, as part of a deal that saw Steve Thomas and Bob McGill join Chicago, with Al Secord and Eddie Olczyk going the other way.

While Bob Pulford wanted results quickly, Bob Murdoch couldn’t deliver them. Vaive may have scored 43 goals to lead the team, but only he and Steve Larmer (41 goals) broke the 40-point mark, and only they and Troy Murray managed more than 20. Pierre Turgeon showed minor flashes of brilliance, but mostly struggled to match the pace and physicality of his new league, recording only 42 points in 76 games. With Murray Bannerman now gone, Darren Pang was brought in to back up Fuhr, but the diminutive Pang would end up stealing the starting job, playing 45 games and recording a .891 save percentage.

In any other Division, ranking 3rd-last in the NHL would have been a disaster. But the Blackhawks were in the Norris, and their 56 points still put them ahead of both Toronto and Minnesota for 3rd place in the Division. This meant that despite being so horrible in the regular season, Chicago would have a shot against St. Louis in the first round. They, too, were terrible, finishing 15th in the NHL, but that was still good enough for 2nd in the Norris, meaning that one of these two teams would actually move on. The Blues would win the first two games, as Chicago coach Murdoch let both his goalies play one game each. He would stick with Game One loser Darren Pang, who managed to win Game Three, but the Blues scored 11 combined goals in the next two contests to win the series.

The result of the 87-88 season showed a clear gulf between expectations and results, and Bob Murdoch could not live up to the standards that General Manager Pulford had set for him. Murdoch would be fired, and replaced by former Philadelphia head coach Mike Keenan. Keenan had made the Philadelphia Flyers a very strong regular season team, and had even come close to a couple Stanley Cup Finals, but missed out thanks to the dynastic Montreal Canadiens, who had reached four straight Cup Finals by this point. Keenan’s experience with the Flyers would likely serve him well in what was being called the “Chuck Norris” Division for the increased amounts of fighting compared to the other groups in the league.

The ‘Hawks would have the 7th Overall Pick in the 1988 Entry Draft, selecting winger Martin Gelinas from the Hull Olympiques of the QMJHL.

1988-89: There was once a time in the ‘80s when the Chicago Blackhawks could look at the bottom-feeders of the Norris Division and laugh. Now, those bottom-feeders were Chicago’s closest rivals in the standings. In bringing in Mike Keenan, Bob Pulford has attempted to send a message to the Hawks that failure would not be tolerated, but there was a difference between trying to instil a winning mentality, and actually getting this team to win. Early on in his tenure, there would be stories about clashes between the head coach and Pierre Turgeon, who was entering his second season as an NHL player; Turgeon would find himself benched for much of the third period in more than a few games, as Keenan did not trust him to either hold a lead or get the team back into a game.

Another side effect of bringing in the new head coach was his tendency to quickly hook a goalie, leading to all of Grant Fuhr, Darren Pang, and rookie Ed Belfour to get over 20 games each. In 38 games of work, Fuhr would record a 3.83 GAA and .875 SV%, while Pang would put up a disappointing .869 SV% in 35 games. Belfour would post similar numbers to Fuhr (a 3.87 GAA and a .877 SV% in 23 games), but only got three wins on the season due to the lack of offensive support. That lack of scoring would be exemplified by the fact that Steve Larmer would lead the team with 43 goals and 87 points; he would be the only forward to manage more than 21 goals on the year. There was one bright spot on the blue-line, as Brian Leetch would record 71 points, being named the Calder Trophy winner at the end of the season.

Mike Keenan had tried to get his players to buy into his system, but this team still wasn’t anywhere near ready to compete. The Blackhawks would finish dead last in the NHL with 61 points, falling to the bottom spot as the result of tie-breaking procedures. Bill Wirtz had seen enough of Bob Pulford, sacking the General Manager after the season, and putting Keenan in his place – ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure. While the firing of Pulford wasn’t too well received in Chicago, Wirtz would say that he was “sick and tired” of losing, and would take any measure to make his team a contender.

The ‘Hawks would once again have the 1st Overall Pick in the 1989 Entry Draft. Looking for a top forward that would better suit Mike Keenan’s playing style, Chicago would make an unprecedented move; by selecting Nacka HK centre Mats Sundin, the Blackhawks would be the first team ever to use the first pick on a European-born player.

1989-90: Mike Keenan now had the keys to the car in Chicago, and while a few were dreading that he would lead the team nowhere, there were others that felt that his style was just what the Blackhawks needed to break them out of the slump they were in. He would make a quick impact prior to training camp, acquiring goalie Jacques Cloutier from Buffalo in a deal that saw Steve Ludzik go the other way; Cloutier would be the replacement for Darren Pang, who had not impressed Keenan enough to keep his job with the team. Grant Fuhr would earn the other goalie spot on the ‘Hawks, with Ed Belfour electing to join the Canadian national team instead.

Cloutier, as it turned out, would get more action than even he was expecting. Thanks to an injury to Fuhr that would keep him out for most of the season, the former Buffalo netminder would play 65 games, recording a .879 SV% – a single point above the league average. Greg Millen would be brought in near the trade deadline to replace Fuhr, playing 10 games as a ‘Hawk and recording a .880 SV%. Offensively, the team recovered, with Steve Larmer’s 90 points leading the way, and Pierre Turgeon following just behind with 86. All of Doug Wilson, Steve Thomas, and Adam Creighton would collect 70 or more points, with Thomas’ 40 goals leading the team.

It may not be as smooth as Chicago was hoping, but the Blackhawks had skyrocketed up the standings into 1st in the Norris with 86 points. This would mean a first-round clash against the Minnesota North Stars, who didn’t look that bad despite being 4th place in the Division. They had a collection of talent including offensive defenceman Larry Murphy, first-year starlet Mike Modano, and 50-goal scorer Brian Bellows, as well as Jon Casey in net. They proved a tough test for the ‘Hawks, but Chicago held on by the slimmest of margins, winning Game Seven by a score of 5-2 to advance to the Norris Final for the first time since 1985.

Going up against the Blackhawks would be the St. Louis Blues, who had just come off a five-game victory over Toronto. As much talent as Minnesota had, St. Louis had even more; the combination of “Hull and Oates” was positively lethal, with Brett Hull managing 70 goals, and Adam Oates over 70 assists. They also had four other players with over 50 points, three of whom (Peter Zezel, Rod Brind’Amour, and Sergio Momesso) were 25 or under. Though the Blues had gone with Curtis Joseph in goal against the Leafs, they would turn to Vincent Riendeau against Chicago; Mike Keenan would counter with Ed Belfour, but constantly switched in either of former Blue Greg Millen or Jacques Cloutier depending on how the game was going. Belfour would get the ultimate task of winning Game Seven, but hardly needed to do much of anything, as his ‘Hawks would clobber St. Louis 8-2 to win the series.

The Blackhawks were back in the Conference Final, and an old foe stood in their way: the Edmonton Oilers. Many considered it a miracle that the Oilers had even gotten this far, having given up a few of their core players over the past few years, not the least of which was Wayne Freakin’ Gretzky. But even with the team shedding salary, they were still finding ways to compete, with Mark Messier stepping up as a leader, and young Jeremy Roenick (who was acquired from Los Angeles in the famous Gretzky trade) stepping up as a back-up option. That Edmonton team would show flashes of their old dominance, especially in the clinching Game Six, an 8-4 win that harkened back to the previous decade.

After 20 playoff games, Chicago was finally bested. They were back at the level that Blackhawk fans were expecting of them, and even though they had been bested by Edmonton once more, it likely wouldn’t be long before the Oilers would sell off another of their key pieces, considering owner Peter Pocklington’s money troubles. That would thus clear the way for the ‘Hawks to finally reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1973. Mike Keenan had proved his doubters wrong, and now had the city praising his name; he would get an extension as both head coach and GM, and now had to live up to even greater expectations.

The Blackhawks’ stunning turn-around was illustrated in their position in the Draft order in 1991, as they had gone from 1st Overall the previous year all the way to the #16 spot. With that pick, Chicago would select Karl Dykhuis, a blue-liner from the QMJHL’s Hull Olympiques.

THE BLACKHAWKS AFTER TEN YEARS: Usually, when a consensus #1 pick drops in the Draft, there’s usually a good reason. In this case, though, it was really hard to find an explanation for Doug Wickenheiser being passed over by Montreal, other than hometown bias towards Denis Savard. Nonetheless, Savard proved to be every bit the superstar that Habs fans were hoping for, while Wickenheiser would never quite match up. Though he developed at a steady pace over the first three years of his career, Doug would end up in conflict with then-coach Orval Tessier after the team’s famous series loss against the Edmonton Oilers; the next year, Wickenheiser would be traded to St. Louis as Chicago continued their search for a successor to Stan Mikita.

And with the relative failure of Wickenheiser, so, too, did the ‘Hawks themselves fail. By the latter part of the ‘80s, Chicago was stuck in a dogfight with the likes of Toronto and Minnesota near the bottom of the Norris Division – a multi-year struggle between teams that only made the playoffs because of the four-teams-per-Division post-season format, and would have been destroyed in any other group in the NHL in that time. Bob Pulford’s stint as head coach is poor, and Bob Murdoch fails to inspire in his one and only year. It takes until Mike Keenan’s second year in charge for the ‘Hawks to return to their rightful place: being the Edmonton Oilers’ Conference Final chew toy.

As the 1990-91 season kicks off, Chicago’s line-up looks like this:

F1. Michel Goulet – Pierre Turgeon – Steve Larmer

F2. Steve Thomas – Mats Sundin – Adam Creighton

F3. Brian Noonan – Troy Murray – Wayne Presley

F4. Mike Peluso – Mike Hudson – Jocelyn Lemieux

D1. Doug Wilson – Brian Leetch

D2. Steve Konroyd – Trent Yawney

D3. Frantisek Kucera – Keith Brown

G1. Ed Belfour

G2. Jacques Cloutier

The ‘Hawks have some offensive depth, even if there is a question mark in the rookie Mats Sundin. The former #1 Pick spent last season in Sweden, and while his 6’5” frame will make him a tough customer, he may still need a bit of time to get used to the skill level of the NHL. There are no question marks about either Steve Larmer or Pierre Turgeon; the former is a consistent scoring leader on this team (usually finishing with around 80-100 points), while the latter is slowly working his way into Mike Keenan’s good graces, if only for his production. The third unit serves as a depth scoring/shutdown line, while the line of Peluso, Hudson, and Lemieux are really just there as enforcers. (They are in the Norris Division, after all.)

Defensively, the Blackhawks will cycle through a few shutdown options, with all of Konroyd, Yawney, Brown, Kucera, and Bob McGill being available for those spots. The only two offensively-skilled blue-liners are Doug Wilson, a long-time veteran of the club, and Brian Leetch, an exciting young player who won the Calder Trophy in 1989. Nonetheless, those two will cause problems for opposing teams thanks to their playmaking skill, with both possessing point-per-game potential. The suspension of goalie Grant Fuhr due to substance abuse issues presents an opportunity to take over the starting job; Ed Belfour’s training camp performance gets him the inside track, while Jacques Cloutier will serve as the back-up. The team also has Greg Millen, Daniel Berthiaume, and Dominik Hasek available if needed.

As mentioned, Mats Sundin is the 1st Overall Pick in 1989, and goes to the Blackhawks in place of Adam Bennett, who would not play for the team until the 91-92 season (and even then, would only make 21 appearances over two seasons before being traded). Pierre Turgeon is also on the ‘Hawks, being selected 1st in 1987 in place of Jimmy Waite. Chicago also gets Brian Leetch in 1986, replacing Everett Sanipass that year. And finally, instead of selecting Tony Tanti in 1981, Chicago gets Grant Fuhr, who would be a mainstay of the ‘80s ‘Hawks. As mentioned, he is not on the roster due to being suspended by the NHL for his cocaine troubles, a suspension that took place in real life.

In addition to those four, Chicago also has Daniel Berthiaume and Allain Roy in the system. Berthiaume is traded to Chicago for Craig Duncanson (who is selected in 1985 instead of Dave Manson), while Allain Roy goes to Chicago instead of Winnipeg; because the Blackhawks never acquire Alain Chevrier in this timeline, they hold on to the 3rd-Round Pick used to select Roy.


EFFECTS ON THE NHL

MONTREAL’S FUTURE: With Montreal trickling down the standings, and their Stanley Cup Final streak stopped, doom and gloom were predicted for the Canadiens in the 1990s. It wouldn’t be long, local writers argued, before the team was forced to sell off some of their more experienced players, and start over; an almost-unthinkable prospect for a club with so many trophies to their name. 1991 would have different ideas, though, as Montreal would not only advance to the Stanley Cup Final, but luck into a match-up against the hapless Minnesota North Stars, whom the Habs easily sweep. It was confirmation that Pat Burns had the chops as an NHL head coach, and that 1990 was an aberration.

Any hope of a repeat is dashed, though, as Mario Lemieux helps the Pittsburgh Penguins finally make their breakthrough in 1992. Citing media pressure over his tenure, Pat Burns would resign as head coach after that season, eventually heading to the Maple Leafs in the off-season. Former Detroit head coach Jacques Demers would be brought in to take the reins, and proves a worthy successor, bringing Montreal back to the Cup Final in 1993 – one which they would win in five games against the Los Angeles Kings. That win means a second Cup in three years for the Habs, and a good indicator that their dynasty was back in swing.

The middle part of the decade would test those “dynasty” hopes in ways no one imagined. After consecutive second round losses in the next two seasons, Jacques Demers is sacked in favour of Mario Tremblay, who immediately begins renewing old hostilities with Patrick Roy. The feud comes to a head with Roy being kept in for nine goals in an 11-2 drubbing by Detroit; following his removal from the game, Roy tells team president Ronald Corey that it is Roy’s “last game in Montreal”. Patrick would be traded to the Colorado Avalanche mere days later, and helped the franchise, who had just moved from Quebec, to their first Stanley Cup title that year. As an added blow, the Cup Final would be a sweep against none other than Montreal, who, despite all the chaos, managed to find a way past the Rangers, Penguins, and Panthers to get to that point.

The appearance in the 1996 Cup Final would be the final brush with glory for a Montreal team that had been so competitive for so long. An embarrassing, but expected loss to New Jersey in the 1997 playoffs would be the nail in the coffin for Mario Tremblay, as Alain Vigneault is brought in to be the new coach. He gets good results in his first year, managing to make it to the second round against Buffalo, but when the league is re-aligned the next season, Montreal finds themselves on the outside looking in, now having to contend with the Sens, Sabres, Bruins, and a rejuvenated Toronto team that has moved Conferences. The Canadiens’ failure leads to another shock deal, as long-time team captain Chris Chelios is dealt to Detroit in order to pursue another Stanley Cup.

As the NHL enters the new millennium, the Habs are a shell of the team they once were, hardly resembling the dynastic days. Going into the 2000-01 season, they have missed the playoffs two seasons in a row under Alain Vigneault, and with Ottawa and Toronto still flying high, the post-season looks like a tough ask for the near future. Only two players on the roster managed 40 points the previous year (Martin Rucinsky and Dainius Zubrus), but if he is healthy, captain Saku Koivu would likely be on that list, too. Montreal has a pretty decent goaltending tandem in Jose Theodore and Jeff Hackett, with the former likely to be the starter of choice in his second full season on the team.

CHICAGO’S FUTURE: The Blackhawks go into the 90-91 season as somewhat of a favourite for the next Cup, as the team that had last eliminated them in the post-season, Edmonton, was continuing their demolition, with players like Jari Kurri and Mark Messier heading out of town. Though the ‘Hawks would play well in 1990-91 (in large part due to the stellar work of ’91 Vezina winner Ed Belfour), a shock loss in the first round to Minnesota would end their season earlier than expected. That loss would end up furthering tensions between Mike Keenan and Pierre Turgeon, the latter of whom would be traded away to Buffalo for Pat LaFontaine; LaFontaine would be crucial in Chicago’s 1992 playoff run, as the team would advance all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, only to lose to Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That Cup Final appearance would be the beginning of the end for the team, as “Dollar Bill” Wirtz began to tighten the purse-strings, prioritizing profit over on-ice success. Over the next few years, a sell-off would begin, starting with Keenan himself being let go at the end of his contract in the 1992 off-season. Steve Larmer and Brian Noonan soon join their former coach with the New York Rangers, while Dominik Hasek would be sent to Buffalo. It wouldn’t be until the 1994 off-season, however, when the biggest blow was struck; on Draft Day, Mats Sundin would be sent to Toronto in a package deal that also saw 93-94 mid-season acquisition Gary Suter join the Leafs. Virtually anyone of consequence had been traded away in Wirtz’s search for more money, and the fans were starting to avoid the United Center.

Of course, even if they wanted to watch games on TV instead, they didn’t have that option, either. Bill Wirtz had long been an opponent of televising home games, and would not allow them to be broadcasted on regional television. This only hurt attendance further, as fans were only insulted further by the lack of options for watching their team. It’s almost a blessing that they couldn’t watch the Blackhawks in these times, though; they would play awful hockey season after season, with a blip or two along the way (such as in 1996, when they would get to the Conference Semi-Finals, only to get knocked out by the Avalanche in a heated series).

By 2000-01, the ‘Hawks aren’t the contenders they once were, but they’re at least passable. They have a decent first line of Steve Sullivan, Michael Nylander, and Tony Amonte, with the blue-line duo of Brian Leetch and Janne Niinimaa also able to contribute offensively; Leetch, in particular, excels in the attacking zone. The team also has a rugged group of young depth forwards including Ethan Moreau, Chad Kilger, and Dan Cleary, all of whom are already respectable in middle six roles. Robyn Regehr, meanwhile, projects as a future top shut-down D-man, having already seen NHL action as a teenager. In goal, Jocelyn Thibault isn’t the stud he was once projected as, but should be good enough not to completely blow a game for his team.

Of course, none of this matters when fans don’t want to show up to watch. The penny-pinching ways of Bill Wirtz have had an immense effect on attendance at Chicago games; once able to pack the United Center full with over 20,000 per game, locals don’t bother with the team anymore due to their distaste for the owner, and now, less than 17,000 can be expected at a particular game today. With no desire from Wirtz to sell the team, and no outside scandal to force him out, it seems as if Blackhawk fans will have to wait for him to either simply get tired of running the team, or pass away instead. In any case, it’s a sad situation for a storied Original Six team to be in today, and one that doesn’t look to be changing any time soon.

OTHER LEAGUE EFFECTS: With the change in picks, there are several knock-on effects that come as a result. The ‘80s, though, don’t change too much. The major difference in this timeline is that rather than a rotating cast of Boston, Philadelphia, and Montreal challenging for the Stanley Cup in the latter part of the decade, only the Canadiens advance to the Cup Final from 1985-89, winning only one. From the Campbell Conference perspective, nothing changes, due to Edmonton and Calgary being so strong at the time. (There are changes that take place within Edmonton, though, that I will cover in the next section.)

It isn’t until the 1990s when things begin to change a bit. 1991 is the first major divergence, as Montreal gets to the Stanley Cup Final instead of Pittsburgh, facing the lucky-as-hell-to-get-to-this-point Minnesota North Stars. The Habs, as a result, end up winning the Stanley Cup that year. (In addition, it means that we never see Mario Lemieux absolutely clown Shawn Chambers and Jon Casey in Game Two.) The Penguins still advance to the Cup Final the next year, and still face the Blackhawks, with a few different names being on Chicago this time around. The next big change is in 1994; without Brian Leetch on their blue line, the New York Rangers never advance to the Stanley Cup Final that year. Instead, New Jersey takes their place, and wins the Cup that year. The Curse of 1940 lives on to this day, and “NINE-TEEN FOR-TY” chants can still be heard whenever the Rangers play on the road against either the Devils or Islanders.

1996 changes in a couple of noticeable ways. Firstly, with Chris Chelios still a Hab, and playing one of his best seasons, Montreal not only survives the first round against the Rangers, but goes on to the Cup Final against Colorado, only to lose in a sweep. Colorado, themselves, experience some changes as a result of this run. Without Claude Lemieux, the rivalry between the Avalanche and the Red Wings never flares up, instead being a recurring clash between two great teams that respect each other. Instead of the Wings, Colorado develops a heated rivalry with the Blackhawks, as Lemieux delivers a dirty hit on Mike Ricci during their series, which leads to several incidents between the two teams over the next few years.

Beyond that, there are no other major Stanley Cup-related changes that take place as a result. There are, however, changes in the way certain players are seen in this new timeline…

CHANGES IN REPUTATION: The obvious starting point here is the reputations of the two players who now swap places in the Draft: Denis Savard and Doug Wickenheiser. The view of Savard changes very little, as he is still seen as one of the best players to come out of the 1980 Draft, and a shrewd #1 choice by Irv Grundman. Wickenheiser, meanwhile, has his reputation slightly change; as he is no longer a top pick, he is not seen as the huge bust that he is perceived as in the OTL. Instead, he is seen as someone who could have developed into a great player, but had his progress halted by a feud with Chicago coach Orval Tessier before his trade to St. Louis. From then on, his career progress much as it did during the OTL, as Doug never quite lives up to his pre-Draft hype.

The Oilers never drafting Grant Fuhr also has an interesting effect going forward. Now never challenged in the Edmonton crease, Andy Moog takes Fuhr’s place as the backstop of the Oilers’ dynasty years. He plays a majority of the games throughout the decade, and without the frustrations of being stuck in the depth chart behind Fuhr, he never holds out or requests a trade. He sticks with the team, eventually getting dealt to Toronto in the 1991 move that also saw Craig Berube and Glenn Anderson join the Maple Leafs. Those years with the Oilers boost Moog’s profile greatly, to the point where, in 2001, he is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

As for Fuhr, his profile takes a big hit as a result of being picked by Chicago. He is not brought in immediately, as the Hawks have both Murray Bannerman and an aging Tony Esposito. Instead, Fuhr only gets to the NHL as a regular in 1984-85. He spends the latter part of the decade as the Chicago starter, eventually being suspended by the NHL as a result of his cocaine issues. Instead of returning immediately, he spend much of the early ‘90s trying to earn his way back into the NHL, before finally getting a chance with the Kings in 1995. After the short stint in L.A., he signs on with the St. Louis Blues, playing four years before finishing his career in Calgary in 1999-2000. Though he never makes the Hall of Fame, he is still fondly remembered in Chicago and St. Louis to this day.


As those who were present in the discussion in the Part I thread can tell, I haven’t edited this article to exclude Chris Chelios from Montreal, despite the real life circumstances surrounding his 1990 exit.

Anyway, next month, I go back to the Drafting Table, looking at the Phoenix Coyotes at the 2003 Draft: the legendary crop of young players, and the one team that managed to find none of them.

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