(Ed. Note: It’s the NHL Alternate History project! We’ve asked fans and bloggers from 31 teams to pick one turning point in their franchise’s history and ask ‘what if things had gone differently?’ Trades, hirings, firings, wins, losses, injuries … all of it. How would one different outcome change the course of history for an NHL team? Today: Pete Blackburn, writing free agent and podcaster for ListenToBrunch and Section10Pod, on the Boston Bruins. Enjoy!)
By Pete Blackburn
Despite what you may have heard, I am not God.
I don’t have divine powers. As much as I’d like to, I can’t lasso the moon for Jennifer Aniston. Life isn’t fair.
But Greg has given me the power to play God for a day. Not only that, I’m a time-traveling God – one tasked with changing a specific moment in Boston Bruins history to create an alternate timeline for the franchise.
As one of the NHL’s Original Six teams, the Bruins have a long, rich history. But, as a ‘90s womb-evacuator, I’ve got about a decade and a half worth of material I feel comfortable enough to toy with.
The Bruins have certainly had more than a few regrettable moments in that timeframe, so my choice may come as a bit of a surprise, so first let me explain my thinking.
Give Bruins fan a shot at a do-over and there’s a good chance the majority are going to nullify a trade.
You can take your pick, but I imagine most would revisit the decisions to part ways with Joe Thornton (sent to San Jose in 2005 for Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau) or Tyler Seguin (shipped to Dallas in 2013 for Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser and Joe Morrow).
Waxing either of those deals makes a lot of sense, obviously. Both of those guys were proven offensive stars traded in (or before) their prime. Thornton’s a future Hall of Famer, Seguin’s one of the game’s current elite.
If you look up “bad idea” in the dictionary, one definition is “trading a superstar for two or three good players.” (Find it right next to “pivoting to video.”) Proof of idiocy: Bruins now have exactly zero players in the organization that arrived as a result of those two deals, either directly or indirectly.
I thought about devising an alternate history in which those two trades didn’t happen. Pushing ‘reset’ on Seguin is especially tempting because that wound is fresher and the aftermath is still haunting.
It was the first in a series of moves that caused them to slip from Eastern Conference powerhouse to squatters in league purgatory. After two Cup Final appearances during Seguin’s three seasons in Boston, they have a single playoff series win since.
Yes, Bruins fans might be a happier bunch these days if that trade never happened.
But most Bruins fans have probably already spent way too much time thinking about what life would be like if either No. 19 stuck around in Boston. That fantasyland ticket has been punched over and over and over again.
Instead, I wanted to explore a road less traveled. I thought about other instances – most of them centered around 2013 and everything in its wake — including but not limited to:
What if Jarome Iginla chose Boston instead of Pittsburgh in 2013?
What if Chris Kelly didn’t miss a wide open net and cost the Bruins a big goal in Game 4 of the 2013 SCF?
What if the Blackhawks didn’t score two in 17 seconds?
What if Dennis Seidenberg hadn’t torn his ACL and MCL in ‘13-14?
Toying with any of those outcomes may push the Bruins closer to a second Stanley Cup in three years and lead to a very different series of events in the years following.
But, ultimately, the most thought-provoking reversal I could think of may not result with the Bruins lifting multiple Cups. In fact, it might actually take away the only one they’ve got since the turn of the century.
That brings us to…
WHAT IF MARC SAVARD NEVER GOT HURT?
You likely already know the story, but Bruins center Marc Savard had his playing career cut short thanks to a number of concussions and the scary, lingering effects that terrorized him for years.
Savard’s final concussion came in January of 2011, during a game in Colorado. He was hit clean by Matt Hunwick, his head bounced off the glass, and his career was over at the age of 33.
But, for the purposes of this exercise, that’s not the incident we’ll focus on. Instead, let’s key in on the most notable (and brutal) concussion Savard suffered, the one he says was “the start of some really dark days” — the one handed to him by Matt Cooke 10 months prior.
Though it technically wasn’t a career-ending hit, that incident was the beginning of the end for Savard. He was cleared to play in the second round of the 2010 playoffs (when he famously scored the overtime-winner in his first game back) but he kept battling symptoms of post-concussion syndrome and missed the start of the following season. The follow-up in Colorado sealed the deal.
Here’s how Savard described the aftermath of the Cooke hit in piece he penned for The Players’ Tribune earlier this year:
I had these terrible headaches, and any loud noise or bright light was … I mean, it’s almost indescribable. If you’ve never had a concussion, I don’t know if words can do the feeling justice. Every little noise is like nails on a chalkboard, and you feel this dread so deep down inside your body.
So I pretty much lived a reverse lifestyle. I was in bed all day with the blinds closed, in total darkness, in total silence. Then I would get up at 11 p.m. and watch TV on mute, with the brightness turned way down. If somebody called to check on me, I didn’t want to talk. I can’t really explain it, but everything seemed so….
What’s the word?
I guess the word is daunting. Just the thought of talking to a friend on the phone seemed like a huge mental and almost physical effort. I was so irritable because of my symptoms that it was hard to be around people — even the people I loved. All I wanted to do was rest. And that’s when it becomes a vicious cycle. Because when you can’t get out of bed and do the stuff that makes you happy, you get depressed. And then it’s like you get depressed that you’re depressed. It’s a suffocating feeling.
Savard was never the same player following that incident. With the unfortunate way his career ended, it’s somewhat easy to forget just exactly how great Savard was at his peak, as well as how important he was to the Bruins.
After the Bruins finished last in the Northeast in ’05-’06, Savard came over in free agency (along with Zdeno Chara) and brought promise to a team that hadn’t won a playoff series since 1999.
Savard came to Boston fresh off a career-high 97-point season with Atlanta (RIP) and was regarded as one of the league’s premier playmakers at the time. He didn’t disappoint upon arrival, posting point totals of 96, 78 and 88 in his first three (and only full) seasons with the Bruins. Even with the health issues (he suffered a few lower body injuries in 2009-2010 as well) he finished as a point-per-game player in Boston.
So, what happens if he stays healthy?
Well, consider this: Savard entered 2009-2010 (his age 32 season) with 663 points. That season, he signed a seven-year extension with the Bruins worth $28.05 million (a shade under $4.2 million annually) so let’s assume that contract sticks in the alternate timeline.
In this revised history, Savard doesn’t suffer a concussion in the Pittsburgh game and plays out the remaining 18 games at a point-per-game clip. That puts him at 51 points on the season and 714 for his career.
Savard goes on to play out the remainder of that seven-year contract with the Bruins, retiring after the 2017 season (hey, that’s right now!) at age 39. During that run, he had a couple more 80+ point seasons and All-Star selections and – after being slowed down by a few injuries and good ol’ Father Time – averaged around 60 points per year.
He wraps up his career with 1,124 career points, walking away with a legitimate chance at being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. At the very least, he’s considered one of the greatest playmakers in Bruins history and is beloved by the city for his contributions and passion both on and off the ice.
(That last part still rings true in reality. Boston loved Savard during his time here, and he seemed to love the city and organization as well. If you go to his Twitter page today, his avatar and cover photo are from his time with the Bruins, and the Bruins are the only team he claims in his bio.)
Most importantly, though, Savard hangs up his skates and walks away with his health.
But how does this alternate history affect the Bruins as a whole?
Well, keeping Savard on the roster (and his salary against the cap) likely means that Boston doesn’t trade for Tomas Kaberle at the trade deadline in 2011. It also means that they don’t deal Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart to Atlanta for Rich Peverley (and Boris Valabik…lol) to clear money for Kaberle. It means they may not trade for Chris Kelly, either (though I wouldn’t put it past Peter Chiarelli to go get his mans regardless).
Do the Bruins still win the Cup in ‘11 despite those changes?
That’s the question that tortures me in this alternate reality thought exercise. The Bruins’ top line of Lucic-Krejci-Horton was their most productive that year, so if Savard slots in instead of Krejci, do they find the same success? When Horton goes down in the Cup Final, does a rookie Tyler Seguin slot into that top line and find the same success that Peverley did?
It’s not impossible, especially if Chiarelli still correctly assesses needs at the deadline and Tim Thomas still enters God Mode in the spring. But considering how many close calls the Bruins maneuvered that postseason – and how things seemed to fall perfectly into place — even slightly messing with the composition and chemistry of that team leads way to some doubt.
Still, for the sake of having some fun, let’s say the Bruins trade Wheeler for some defensive help at the deadline, then go into the playoffs with the following top nine forward group:
That…that is intriguing.
Okay, I’m going to gather up the chutzpah to say that they still win it all in 2011. Hell, I’ll even say they go on to successfully win another in the next few years.
Not only does Savard get his name on the Cup, he plays a central role in making it happen. He continues to be a clutch postseason performer and is a key offensive contributor on those Cup-winning teams, claiming a piece of hockey immortality in the process.
The guy most affected by Savard’s extended career in this alternate timeline is David Krejci. The Czech center still posts commendable numbers and contributes significantly but he doesn’t play as large of a role in the 2011 postseason. Then, with Savard and Bergeron ahead of him on the depth chart, Krejci grows hungrier for a bigger role and leaves Boston after his contract expires in 2012.
And, as the icing on the cake to Savard finishing out his career happy and healthy, the Bruins don’t have to dump his contract in a Reilly Smith-for-Jimmy Hayes trade conducted to free up money for… Matt Beleskey.