(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: The great J.J. From Kansas from Winging It on the Detroit Red Wings. Enjoy!)
By J.J. From Kansas
Looking at the Red Wings’ history for strings to tweak, there’s no shortage of big-moment options to set our own Biff-Tannen-owns-the-whole-town alternate future in place.
We could go back and leave Ted Lindsay on the team, allowing the formation of the NHLPA a little earlier, and perhaps squeeze another Cup or two out of The Production Line II. Or we could visit June 1997 and erase limo driver Richard Gnida from the scars of our collective memory, giving the then-30 year old Vladimir Konstantinov back the last 5-plus years of his career (while simultaneously taking away Chris Pronger’s undeserved Norris Trophy win).
We could perhaps WABAC ourselves to 1988 and convince Wayne Gretzky to listen to his wife instead of his dad, forcing a trade to his favorite childhood team to mentor a young Steve Yzerman instead of putting California firmly on the hockey map. Although, Wayne Gretzky not being a Red Wing is still a huge part of one of my favorite hockey memories.
Speaking of Yzerman, we’ve got a whole slew of what-ifs that fans have been kicking around for ages:
What if the Islanders hadn’t scooped up Michigan kid and Red Wings target Pat LaFontaine with the third overall pick in 1983?
What if the Wings had pulled the trigger on Yzerman for Alexei Yashin in 1995?
What if Ken Holland stepped aside to let Yzerman take over as general manager before losing him to Tampa?
We could (and will) drive ourselves nuts kicking any of those around, but I want to talk about the what-if that’s followed us around for eight years now, and will still be around the team’s neck and in the fans’ heads for another three:
What if the Red Wings had signed Marian Hossa instead of Johan Franzen in 2009?
To appreciate the ripples of choosing a do-over on an important signing decision in the Wings’ past, we should first take a look back and remind ourselves how it happened.
Hindsight may be 20/20, but if anything the years since 2009 have taught me, it’s that it’s also probably looking through a fogged visor or something. Marian Hossa was a July 2008 Christmas present for Wings fans, who had no expectation the single-season record-holder for points in Atlanta Thrashers history was coming to sign with them, looking to avenge a Cup Final loss by their hands just weeks prior.
Hossa was already an established great at 29 and would go on to score 40 goals on Pavel Datsyuk’s wing while driving up hope that the team would be able to keep him on a longer term. Franzen, meanwhile was the guy who had earned the nickname “The Mule” from Steve Yzerman himself and was still fresh off a cup run during which he set a franchise record for most goals in a series (9 against Colorado in round 2) and most goals in a playoff run (13 total).
Very few people doubted Hossa would be the better player of the two, but the writing was on the wall for the future and Franzen was both the home-grown guy and the more affordable playoff monster. The Red Wings were faced with a flattening cap and the uncomfortable reality that between Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa, and Johan Franzen, the team would only be able to sign two.
The easy refrain from 2017 is that this wouldn’t be a problem if Ken Holland would stop giving out awful contracts, but that wasn’t really the case more than one lockout ago. Probably the worst contract on the Wings’ books back then was Kris Draper making $1.58 million with one year left to go (although Brad Stuart’s deal was one year too long). Remember, this was back when Dan Cleary had knees, so his $2.8 million cap hit was fine for a guy who averaged just under 40 points over the course of that deal.
From that point, Franzen has played only half of the games and given them 218 points. Hossa, meanwhile has given 641 games (87%) and provided 473 points, 73 of which have been in the postseason.
So what happens if Detroit goes against the Red Wings Way™ and cuts Franzen loose to sign Hossa to the bigger, longer, backdivier deal? Let’s take a look:
The difference here is in the regular season. Detroit gets 57 games out of a rehabbed Hossa and 30 more goals because of it. With the stronger finish, the Wings end up in the 2nd seed and draw Vancouver in the 2nd round while Chicago takes on the Sharks. Detroit handles the copycat team while Chicago takes out the squad put together specifically to beat the Red Wings. Detroit and Chicago end up in a Western Conference Final rematch from the year before, but without Hossa to drag Toews around, the Wings come out on top before reliving history with a sweep over the Flyers in the Cup final.
This season doesn’t go much different for the Wings. Detroit is tired from all the hockey they’ve been playing and see the same 2nd round exit at the hands of San Jose. However, Vancouver doesn’t take seven games to power through a Chicago squad and their still-Martin-Havlat-having team. This leaves the Canucks refreshed enough to avoid choking away the cup to the Bruins and everybody agrees that it is way better this way.
Rested and refreshed after an extra two playoff weeks off, Hossa goes crazy to once again hit the 40 goal mark and shock the hockey world by being the first winger since Jere Lehtinen to win the Selke. Shea Weber ends up slamming David Backes’ head into the glass and the entire hockey world agrees that it was justified. Los Angeles doesn’t end up with a 2nd-round cupcake and Anze Kopitar disappears under the 42-year old blanket that is Nick Lidstrom, who goes on to win what will be his sixth Stanley Cup and his eighth Norris trophy before he retires to win Dancing With the Stars and a Nobel Prize.
Again, Detroit falls short of the back-to-back due to fatigue (losing in the WCF to Los Angeles), but the Blackhawks again don’t even make the Cup Final. Boston and LA beat the slobber out of each other in what goes down as a supremely-entertaining end to half an NHL season, except Boston wins this one to make up for the cup I took away from them against Vancouver earlier in this alternate timeline.
The Wings move to the Atlantic and still suffer a tough injury-plagued season, but the relative health and leadership of Hossa bolsters the team into avoiding having to trade for David Legwand at the deadline. Detroit handles the Bruins in the first round to shake off the rust of a squad all getting healthy at the right time only to get buzz-sawed by Carey Price in the 2nd round to fulfill the Wings’ destiny of every once in a while getting beaten in the playoffs by a goalie for no reason.
Panic starts to set in among the Red Wings fanbase as it’s now been two straight years without making the cup final and the holes left in the defense by past departures of Lidstrom and Rafalski are starting to show through more-severely with the slight drop in play from their three Selke-caliber forwards. The Wings limp into the playoffs as a still-dangerous squad and get carried through the first three rounds by Petr Mrazek. Unfortunately, Detroit doesn’t have enough left in the tank to take on both the Western Champion Anaheim Ducks (who miraculously find a way to win a game 7 before 2017) AND the refs who have been terribly biased by Ed Olczyk’s weekly NBC segment titled ‘The Red Wings are Cheaters Won’t Somebody Please Stop Them?’ which airs just before all of his favorite horse-racing picks.
2015-16 & 2016-17
The problem here is that the Wings’ sustained success finally catches up with them big-time. They’ve been able to kick the can down the road by trading off a few pieces that weren’t going to make the team for additional decent picks, but by this point, they haven’t drafted Dylan Larkin and the age of the exceptional forward corps has fully caught up. The Wings’ playoff run ends one season earlier (in what is still Jeff Blashill’s first season coaching the team). However, thanks to Hossa being healthier, Detroit has to be much more aggressive with their cap magic. Having never traded for Kyle Quincey and without having signed Mike Green in free agency, the Wings were forced to go younger at defense earlier. This pays dividends in Jakub Kindl’s trade bringing back actual value and the Brendan Smith trade netting them a first-rounder, but ultimately doesn’t help them much in the standings.
Marian Hossa announces he will no longer be able to play hockey due to a severe allergic condition and everybody in the hockey world writes that the Red Wings should definitely be in a total rebuild by now.
So there you have it. All but for the grace of one Ken Holland decision go two more cups for the Red Wings on a timeline which inevitably leads to missing the playoffs anyway.
Is it realistic to say that this is the way things go down with this one tiny decision altered? Hell, I think it’s at least defensible.
Is it realistic to say the Hawks still don’t have a Cup since 1961 just because they didn’t get Marian Hossa in free agency?
Yes. Yes it is.