What if ... Ottawa landed Gary Roberts at 2007 trade deadline? (NHL Alternate History)

(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 Graeme Nichols on the Ottawa Senators! Enjoy!)

By Graeme Nichols

They are two words that, when used on their own, are similar to the projected outlook of the Montreal Canadiens under Marc Bergevin: “pretty bland.”

When used in conjunction to discuss pivotal sports moments however, the two words can be used to construct a fantastically bizarro alternate sports reality that closely resembles the one created by World Vision’s distribution of inaccurate championship T-shirts to third world countries. By transforming events or circumstances to produce a more favourable outcome, ‘What if…’ questions not only make for excellent barroom fodder but they form the basis for an excellent #NHLAltHistory series on Puck Daddy.

When I was asked to come up with a definitive ‘What if…’ moment in Ottawa Senators history, I expected the process to be easier than identifying bad Peter Chiarelli decisions.

The truth is that for a franchise that is celebrating its 25th year of existence, the Ottawa Senators have had more than their fair share of ‘What if…’ moments.

What if the National Capital Commission allowed the Senators’ first owner, Bruce Firestone, to build a downtown arena on its federal lands?

What if the San Jose Sharks took the Senators up on their proposal to “turn the turtle derby into a horse race” during the 1992-93 season? Or what if the Senators pulled the trigger on any of the various trade proposals that the Quebec Nordiques made to acquire the first overall pick? Or what if the Senators simply elected not to draft Alexandre Daigle? Any of the above possibilities could have resulted in the Senators landing Chris Pronger, Paul Kariya or even Peter Forsberg instead.

That’s not the only personnel move that could be scrutinized.

What if the Detroit Red Wings followed through on the trade that allegedly would have sent Steve Yzerman to the Senators? What if the Senators didn’t give Pavol Demitra away to the St. Louis Blues for 25 games of Christer Olsson? What if Marian Hossa was recognized as long-term fixture and was never traded him for Dany Heatley?

What if Zdeno Chara was inked to a long-term contract and Wade Redden was the one to leave as unrestricted free agent in 2006? What if John Muckler’s amateur scouting staff drafted Central Scouting’s highest rated European skater in Anze Kopitar instead of reaching on Brian Lee (Central Scouting’s 15th ranked North American skater) when the organization was gift-wrapped a 2005 top 10 pick through the league’s weighted lottery system following the 2004-05 lockout?

What if it really was Cody Ceci for Jonathan Drouin, straight up?

What if Dominik Hasek elected not to play in the 2006 Olympics in Turin or never got hurt while there?

What if Daniel Alfredsson was traded to Los Angeles Kings for Craig Conroy in 2006? Or what Alfie didn’t leave the organization twice in the past four years?

What if certain pre-game events never happened?

Or what if certain in-game events never happened?

What if Matt Cooke never deprives us of a healthier and even greater Erik Karlsson?

Like what if Riccard Persson doesn’t board Tie Domi in game six of the 2002 Eastern Conference semifinals?

Staked to a 2-0 lead and holding a 3-2 series lead, the Senators dominated the Leafs territorially – outshooting them 8-1 — before Persson received a five-minute major and a game misconduct for sending that Neanderthal head-first into the boards. Not only would the Leafs score two power play goals during Persson’s penalty, they would go on to win game six and eventually, the series. The demons from the one-sided Battle of Ontario would be gone.

Or what if “hard to handle” was just the title of a Black Crowes song and not the words that Patrick Lalime uses to describe Joe Nieuwendyk’s wrister from the left circle?

It’s also easy to dream of what could have happened had the trio of Wade Redden, Karel Rachunek and Martin Havlat didn’t completely butcher a New Jersey Devils rush in the last three-minutes of play during game seven of the 2003 Eastern Conference final.

Curse you, Jeff Friesen!!!

And most recently, what could have happened had Viktor Stalberg been a little harder on the puck and was able to disrupt the pass at the blue line which eventually led to Chris Kunitz’s double-overtime winner in Game 7 of this year’s Eastern Conference Final.

All of the aforementioned events or transactions could have drastically altered Senators history and possibility culminated with a Stanley Cup win or two.

For the purpose of this piece however, I wanted to focus on general manager John Muckler’s inability to land Gary Roberts at the 2007 NHL trade deadline.

As the Senators headed towards the February 27, 2007 deadline, the second place Senators sat more than 10 points back of the Northeast Division leading Buffalo Sabres. With blown opportunities, detrimental injuries and bad luck marring Ottawa’s postseason success over the previous few seasons, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk reportedly pressed Muckler to acquire Gary Roberts in a trade.

Having lost four playoff series to the Leafs in five seasons (1999-2000 through 2003-04), Senators fans and the Melnyk with his Toronto roots, were quite familiar with Roberts.

The prevailing sentiment among pundits and fans was that Roberts’ leadership, dedication and talent would not only help the Senators immeasurably during its drive to the playoffs and postseason, but have a lasting impact on the team’s younger core moving forward.

The only problem was that Muckler would have to reach a deal with Florida Panthers general manager Jacques Martin to bring Roberts into the fold.

At the time, it was a weird set of circumstances. There was Martin, the coach who was fired by Melnyk and Muckler, holding onto an asset who not only torched his Senators in the postseason but was someone that the Senators desperately coveted.

The speculation at the time suggested that Martin demanded a first-round pick or Patrick Eaves, who scored 20 goals as a rookie during the 2005-06 season.

As the story goes, Muckler balked at the asking price and Martin eventually moved Roberts to the Pittsburgh Penguins for an underwhelming return – defensive prospect Noah Welch, a 2001 second-round pick who wound up playing in only 29 NHL games for the Panthers.

(Note: Muckler’s lone moves at the 2007 deadline involved trading a second round pick to Phoenix for Oleg Saprykin and Andy Hedlund and a sixth-round pick to Washington for Lawrence Nycholat.)

Ironically, the Senators would meet Roberts and his Penguins in the first round of the 2007 playoffs, disposing of them in five games. The Senators continued to steamroll through the rest of the Eastern Conference before meeting their match in the Stanley Cup final.

Despite reaching the Cup final for the first time in modern franchise history, Muckler was fired less than two weeks after its conclusion with reports suggesting that the decision was ostensibly linked to his inability to placate his owner and acquire Roberts.

So what if John Muckler traded for Gary Roberts at the 2007 NHL trade deadline?

For starters, he probably would have kept his general manager’s title.

At the time of Muckler’s firing, it was like a perfect storm of circumstances. His his Senators were beaten and physically dominated by the Anaheim Ducks, a team that the late Bryan Murray was given a lot of credit for building because he was their general manager from 2002 to 2004.

Thanks to the way in which Ottawa was manhandled by a bigger and stronger opponent, the failure to acquire Roberts was magnified.

Had Muckler brought Roberts into the fold, maybe the Senators reach the Cup final and put up a better fight. Having fulfilled his owner’s wishes, maybe Melnyk sees this success as validation that he has a good hockey mind and Muckler is lionized for his part in helping the organization shed its ‘choker’ playoff label and keeps his job.

Eventually Muckler’s poor trade record and his amateur scouting staff’s deplorable draft record still would have caught up with the organization as it struggled to put their 2007 Cup final appearance in the rearview mirror, but maybe it would have been Bryan Murray who would have paid the price as the head coach instead.

(As an aside, this is the job where the Senators constantly place the blame. Since Melnyk bought the team in 2003, the Senators have gone through nine head coaches, including Bryan Murray’s return to the bench in 2008, in the last 14 years. That’s essentially akin to hiring a new head coach every 19 months.)

Without Bryan Murray usurping Muckler and taking over the general manager’s chair, there is no retooling of the Senators’ hockey operations department.

Under Bryan Murray, the Senators hired Tim Murray (assistant general manager) and Pierre Dorion (chief amateur scout) in July of 2007. Both men would go on to become NHL general managers and that probably never would have happened had Muckler retained his job.

Similarly, the organization hired Anders Forsberg as their European scout in March of 2008. Forsberg was the man who spent weeks leading up to the 2008 NHL Draft convincing the Senators that they needed to draft Erik Karlsson.

With Gary Roberts in the fold, maybe the Senators would have been more competitive or put up a better fight in the Cup final. Hell, maybe they even win it.

Imagine that.

Instead of being ridiculed a horrendous draft record and his pitiful trade history that saw the organization regularly flip young assets for poor value, imagine a world where Muckler is revered for helping the Senators overcome the odds. And imagine a world where Melnyk is more than an eccentric owner who suffers from delusions of grandeur. Instead, imagine Melnyk being known as the man who not only saved the Senators from bankruptcy, but is also known as the man who brought a Cup to the nation’s capital for the first time since 1927.

That’s a drastic turn of events.

Even if the Senators didn’t win the Cup in 2007, imagine a reality where: 1) Bryan Murray does not play a significant role in the last 10 years of Senators history; 2) Murray isn’t named to the Senators’ ‘Ring of Honour’; or 3) the hockey operations department and amateur scouting staff aren’t overhauled, so things aren’t put into motion to have Erik Karlsson drafted and instead, the organization continues to draft blue chippers like Brian Lee and Jim O’Brien.

That is pretty messed up.

The Senators inability to land Gary Roberts may have cost the Senators better odds of winning the Cup, but not bringing him into the fold allowed the Senators to not only dump one of the worst general managers in franchise history, but bring in a generational talent who seems destined to go down as the greatest player in franchise history.

Graeme Nichols is the editor of The 6th Sens, a great Ottawa Senators blog.


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