(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: Yahoo Sports Canada’s own Justin Cuthbert on the Edmonton Oilers. Enjoy!)
By Justin Cuthbert
When looking back on the history of salary cap dynamics in the NHL, one of the first casualties to appear on record was Chris Pronger.
Traded from the St. Louis Blues to the Edmonton Oilers two months before the league returned from its lost season, Pronger was shifting from a powerhouse to a team waffling in mediocrity, and didn’t hesitate to sign long term.
What’s a normal summer occurrence nowadays (tight financial parameters forcing the exchange of talent) was a harbinger for the new normal. Sure, there were other factors in play — namely the pending sale of the Blues. But the Pronger deal represented more than that.
Small markets were now in play for superstars, which would begin to redistribute across the league as teams complied with the $39-million salary cap.
At the time, St. Louis had made the postseason in 25 consecutive seasons, with Pronger playing a major role in the last nine. He was named the NHL’s most valuable player once over that span, but there was merely a handful of players – if that – who could match his level of influence over his run of dominance.
A cross between old-school tyranny and new-school mobility, Pronger did it all while patrolling in St. Louis. Few teams wouldn’t have been elevated to postseason contention with Pronger added to the mix. And of course, the Oilers weren’t one of them.
Yet, despite adding the game’s alpha dog, they were only sufficient enough to squeeze into that theoretical majority. The Oilers earned a postseason spot that spring on the second-to-last night of the season and would enter the tournament as significant underdogs to the 124-point juggernaut Detroit Red Wings in the opening round.
That’s when Pronger took over.
Oilers fans were put through the entire gamut of emotion as the hulking defenseman carried the franchise past Detroit and all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final versus the Carolina Hurricanes with one of the more remarkable performances in NHL history, only to demand a trade four days later.
What happened next in Edmonton was a vast progression of self-sabotaging decisions and miscalculations on the part of management, with the failure to grasp the totality of Pronger’s impact being at the root of the franchise’s dysfunction. They tried to keep it all intact with duct tape and glue, but attempts would only delay the inevitable: the Oilers were always destined for a long, seemingly hopeless rebuild.
This brings us to the heart of the matter. What if the Oilers never traded for Pronger, and weren’t ever deceived into believing they weren’t fatally flawed?
Would it have meant their other destiny — the inescapable proliferation of No. 1 picks — would have arrived sooner?
The Oilers were gradually descending to the bottom of the Northwest Division before Pronger interrupted their downward trajectory. After that, and despite a backstabbing exposing their warts, the Oilers managed to maintain some momentum from their run into deep spring with a strong start to the following year.
Soon, however, things would normalize. Edmonton inevitably hit the skids and wound up with one of the league’s worst records one year after representing the Western Conference in the NHL’s championship series.
Inevitably, the club wound up at its certain destination despite the Pronger-led detour.
Here’s where things get interesting.
Edmonton’s 71 points matched the Chicago Blackhawks for the fifth fewest that season, but the club would officially place above Chicago on the strength of total wins. This technicality cost the Oilers a seat at lottery night (a site of extraordinary success for the franchise) because only five teams had a crack at the No. 1 overall pick at that time.
If even a modicum of false confidence or misplaced optimism from the Pronger run accounted for even a single point in the standings that year, it would have been the Oilers — not the Blackhawks — that held the charmed 8.1 percent chance of winning the No. 1 pick, and the rights to draft Patrick Kane.
With that, let’s head further down the rabbit hole.
Had the selection of Kane represented the launch point on the organization’s eye-rolling (but ultimately destined) hot streak at the lottery-ball machine, the Oilers could have made off with Steven Stamkos and John Tavares, too.
Instead, the Oilers continued on a piecemeal teardown before inevitably hitting rock bottom, then spent their three consecutive (and, remember, always inevitable) No. 1 selections on Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov.
It wasn’t until their fourth golden ticket secured nine years after losing Pronger would the Oilers finally turn things around.
Amazingly, with the future so bright now, Oilers fans might not want to change a thing.