Jim Neveau, Blackhawks Correspondent
It is a question that is posed hundreds of times throughout a person’s life. Past decisions are constantly run through the “what if” wringer, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can often see whether or not the decision that we made was the right one.
“What if” is also a prevalent question in the world of sports. What if Bo Jackson had only played baseball? What if the Portland Trail Blazers had drafted Michael Jordan instead of Sam Bowie? What if the Indianapolis Colts had stayed in Baltimore? There have been so many questionable decisions made in the history of sports that you could fill an entire book on the subject of hypothetical what-ifs.
The world of professional hockey is not immune to the power of hindsight. Whether they are decisions on who to draft, or who to sign, or even what color uniform to wear, every decision made in the NHL is subject to intense scrutiny both at the time it is made, and also later on down the road.
The fine art (or crap shoot, as some fans prefer to call it) of drafting players lends itself to this kind of rigorous examination. There is no concrete way of telling which players will pan out in the league, and which ones will fall by the way side. There is always a certain amount of luck involved, but with the proper amount of foresight, some GM’s just happen to be more adept at drafting quality players than others.
The 2006 NHL Draft provided just the kind of situation that we are talking about. There were a lot of good players available at the draft held in Vancouver, and a lot of the players taken in the first round are making impacts in the league today.
With all of the talent available in the draft pool, there were bound to be a lot of second-guessed decisions, and that’s what we are going to examine here.
The first two picks were Erik Johnson, who went to the Blues, and Jordan Staal, who went to the Pittsburgh Penguins (giving them an impressive three year haul of Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Staal). These two players were the top rated players at defenseman and forward, respectively, so they were certainly no brainer decisions for the GM’s involved.
With the third pick in the draft that year, the Chicago Blackhawks drafted a young center out of the University of North Dakota named Jonathan Toews. Already the captain of the Blackhawks when he was 20 years old, Toews is currently in his third NHL season, and was a stand-out player on the Canadian Olympic team in 2010. He is widely regarded as one of the best two way players in the game today, and a lot of coaches and GM’s would love to have him on their team.
The next two picks, however, reveal where this article is headed. With the fourth pick, the Washington Capitals selected center Nicklas Backstrom, who is one of the league’s leading point scorers and is a line mate with Alex Ovechkin, one of the best players in the game.
With the fifth pick, the Boston Bruins selected right winger Phil Kessel, who had an outstanding season last year before being dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs this season. Derrick Brassard went to the Columbus Blue Jackets and Kyle Okposo went to the New York Islanders with the next two picks.
As you can clearly see, the talent pool was pretty loaded for this draft. Every one of the top five players has made significant contributions to their teams, and all five were on playoff squads last season.
For simplicity’s sake, we will focus our “what-if” goggles on the two players that were drafted immediately after Toews: what if the Chicago Blackhawks had skipped on drafting Toews and had instead drafted either Nicklas Backstrom or Phil Kessel? How much different would their teams be today, and how much different would the arcs of the players’ careers looked?
What If the Blackhawks Had Drafted Nicklas Backstrom?
Backstrom has found a great deal of success playing for the Washington Capitals. He scored 14 goals and added 55 assists during his first season in the NHL, and he followed up his Calder Trophy runner-up year by scoring 22 goals and dishing out 66 assists in the 08-09 season.
This season, Backstrom has 32 goals and 60 assists, continuing his maturation in this third NHL season.
The best thing that ever happened to Backstrom, however, occurred during his rookie season, when veteran center Michael Nylander was injured and Nicklas was bumped up into the first line center role alongside Ovechkin. He absolutely flourished in that spot, and he has remained there ever since.
The real question here is this: would the success that he has experienced with the Washington Capitals have translated to success with the Chicago Blackhawks? There are reasons to expect that it would have.
The first and most pertinent reason is that, like Toews, Backstrom did elect to stay out of the NHL, instead staying in Sweden to play for his club Brynas IF. The Blackhawks likely would have finished with the exact same record that they did, and they would have still been able to draft Patrick Kane the following year.
With Backstrom centering a line with Kane, the duo would have likely emerged as the same type of dynamic teenagers that Toews and Kane became in their first season in Chicago. Backstrom may not have the leadership skills of a Toews, but he certainly is a better passer and is just as good of a shooter.
The main difference in the way things have turned out since then would have been the development of Kane. Toews is not a center who is constantly trying to feed the puck to a winger who’s shooting at will, so Kane became more of a passer his first two years in the league. Having Backstrom on a line with him would have caused Kane to develop his shooting game first, and with the quality wrister that #88 possesses, it’s likely that he would have had a lot more goals than he does now.
With Kane being more of a scorer than a passer his first two seasons, the line would have likely led Chicago to the same successes that they have had on offense.
The intangible factor of Toews’ leadership, however, has to be taken into account. Without a solid two-way center on the front line, the Blackhawks would have had to rely more heavily upon their defensemen to protect the defensive zone, and the team’s collective back-checking wouldn’t be close to the level that it is now.
The Blackhawks’ style would be more offensive in tone, and Joel Quenneville likely would not have been the right fit to coach such a bunch of players. There’s no telling if Denis Savard would still be the coach of the team if Backstrom had come to Chicago, but the odds are that an offensively-minded coach would have been installed if he had been fired.
Toews would have likely been picked by the Capitals at the number four position, and he would have been an ideal fit for a player who flies around the ice as much as Ovechkin does. He would be able to feed the puck to Alex, and he would also be able to win face-offs with the same consistency that he does now, thus getting the high-flying Washington offense on the right foot more often than not.
Toews’ assist numbers would likely have jumped up quite a bit just by being on the same line as Ovechkin, and the team’s defensive prowess would have improved as well. It would be a slightly different Washington team with Toews in the fold, but the quality of the play would likely be right around the same level.
Overall, the Blackhawks would be right around where they are now, but would be more offensive in scope and less adept on the defensive side of the puck. They would be a fun bunch to watch, but they may have been lacking in the area that leads to Cup success more often than scoring a bunch of goals.
What if the Blackhawks had drafted Phil Kessel?
The second scenario on our hypothetical carnival ride takes us in an interesting direction: if the Blackhawks hadn’t elected to go with a center with their draft pick, and instead taken an American-born winger, how much different would the team’s fortunes have been?
Unlike Toews, Kessel started out the season with the big club in Boston, but he was derailed when it was announced that he had been diagnosed with a form of testicular cancer. He beat the disease, and only missed 11 games because of the illness, even though he had been diagnosed in December 2006 during the NHL campaign.
When he came back, he continued to play hard despite the setback, and was named to the NHL YoungStars Game that year. He also won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, given to a player who displays perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.
After a successful 08-09 campaign, Kessel was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs because of salary cap constraints on the Bruins.
With his career mapped out in three paragraphs, the question is this: would Kessel have had the same career arc if he had been drafted by the Blackhawks instead of Toews?
The first and biggest difference caused by Kessel’s presence on the Hawks would have been the impact on the following year’s draft. If the Blackhawks had still gotten the number one pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, they certainly would not have taken stand-out right winger Patrick Kane. Instead, they likely would have taken the highest rated center in the draft, Kyle Turris, who eventually was picked by the Phoenix Coyotes.
It is mind-boggling to think that the Blackhawks could have had a front line comprised of Phil Kessel and Kyle Turris instead of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but there is still more examination that needs to be done before we get too caught up in the “whew, thank God that didn’t happen” winds.
The Blackhawks likely wouldn’t have had the same impact from Kessel that Toews gave the team when he came down from North Dakota. Kessel is a gifted offensive player, and he is a pretty solid defensive player, but a winger doesn’t have nearly the defensive impact as a center. The team would have taken a pretty sizable hit on defense if they had gone with Kessel over Toews.
In addition, the prospect of getting Turris in the next draft may have been good at the time, but he hasn’t really panned out so far during his limited time in the NHL. He scored eight goals and added 12 assists during 63 games with the Coyotes in the 2008-09 season, his first significant stretch in the league.
The hockey renaissance that has happened in Chicago has largely been a product of Toews and Kane, and with neither of them in the fold, things would certainly be a lot different on the west side of Chicago.
Needless to say, it is a good thing for the Blackhawks that they drafted Toews instead of Kessel. While their skill levels are about the same, the direction that the team would have headed in had they taken Phil and not Jonathan would have led them not only away from Patrick Kane, but also from the acclaim that they have received in the years since they drafted the two youngsters.
What a difference the third pick in the 2006 draft made for an entire hockey revolution in the Windy City.