Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Crosby: A Ping Pong Ball Away From Anaheim

The 2007 NHL draft is now only a month away, and it got me thinking. What if the ping pong balls had bounced a different way two years ago?

July 22, 2005: The NHL lockout officially ends, and a lottery system involving all 30 teams is set up. Pittsburgh, as you might remember, comes away with the #1 pick and wins the 'Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes'. Eight days later on July 30th, they make it official and the second coming of Mario Lemieux commences in Pittsburgh.

Anaheim had the second pick in that draft. It wasn't because they had the second worst record, giving them the second best chance at the #1 spot. In any other year, that would usually be the case, but because the NHL had to throw something together quick after the lockout, it wasn't.

In '05 the league came up with one hell of a contraption for the lottery, involving all 30 teams. Usually, only the non-playoff teams from the previous season are involved in the lottery system. It just so happens that when you skip an entire season, everyone is a non-playoff team from the previous year.

What am I getting at?

Let's get back to the original question.

The though of these guys playing alongside Sidney Crosby is downright scary.
Robert Laberge/Getty Images
What would the NHL be like if one ping pong ball had gone the other way and Anaheim ended up with the top pick in 2005, putting Pittsburgh in the #2 slot? Never has one spot in the draft mattered this much. The consequence would have been Sidney Crosby skating around on the Pacific coast, helping to start what could be a dynasty in Anaheim. On the other end of the continent, the Penguins almost certainly would be playing in a different city right now. Kansas City? Maybe not, but one thing is for sure. Definitely not Pittsburgh.

Think about it.

Crosby has been an instantaneous superstar, averaging 111 points in his first two NHL seasons. At only $800,000 a year, there's no doubt Brian Burke would have found a way to squeeze him in under the cap. Imagine him centering a line with Penner and Perry on the wings. Or maybe he or Andy McDonald would be shifted to left wing so that he could play on a line with McDonald and Selanne? Either way, Anaheim's already talented core of forwards just added an 111 point producer. Instantly, he becomes their number one forward.

Honestly though, it could have started a dynasty. The Ducks made it to the finals this year without Sid the Kid, and they could certainly win it all without him. Obviously, you still can't overlook the impact he would have. A line of Crosby-McDonald-Selanne is almost on par with Alfredsson-Heatley-Spezza.

Last year, the Ducks lost the Western Conference Final in five games to Edmonton, but were only outscored by a 16-13 margin. A little Crosby would have gone a long way in that series, maybe even taking the team all the way to the Cup. Right now, we might be talking about the Ducks quest for a Stanley Cup repeat.

The other major implication of Crosby going to Pittsburgh, and not Anaheim, is that he may have singlehandedly kept the Penguins in Pittsburgh. This is a similar argument to the one all those conspiracy theorists make about how the NBA fixed the '85 draft, allowing Patrick Ewing to go to the beleaguered New York Knicks, immediately restoring power in one of the league's storied franchises.

I'm not saying that the NHL fixed the draft for Pittsburgh. I'm also not saying that I'd be surprised if Gary Bettman actually did that.

The point is, Crosby had the same impact on the Penguins that Ewing had on the Knicks.

Both were previously dominant franchises, that now found themselves at the bottom of the standings. Both were mired in mediocrity in the financial department as well.

The Knicks had made it out of the first round three times between 1974 and 1984 and managed to win only 71 games in three seasons from '84 to '86. The story was similar in Pittsburgh, as the Penguins finished last in the Atlantic Division in all three seasons prior to Sid's arrival, and hadn't had much playoff success since winning their last cup more than a decade earlier. They got into the playoffs consistently between '92 and '01, but only managed to make the Conference Finals twice, losing both times. Everything finally hit rock bottom after that run.

The effect Crosby had on Pittsburgh economically was the same Ewing had on the Big Apple. Crosby, dubbed the next Gretzky/Lemieux/insert-legend-here, was sure to put butts in the seats no matter where he landed. If he was half as good as everyone said, he would certainly be doing that for years to come. With the Penguins on the edge of bankruptcy and voters refusing to fund the new arena that the team so desperately needed, he was the closest thing to a sure fire marketing tool. Not only that, his contribution on the ice had been so substantial that the Penguins pulled one of the biggest turnarounds in NHL history during his second year. This season, the team nearly doubled it's point total from '05-'06 going from a meager 58 points to 108. After all, there's nothing that grows local support faster than a winning team. With that winning record, came a new arena deal and a new lease on life in the Steel City.

So, did Sid the Kid really save the city of Pittsburgh and hinder the start of a Ducks dynasty? It's debatable, but I believe there's quite a case for it. Did Gary Bettman fix the '05 lottery to save the NHL's most endangered team? Probably not. One thing's for sure, history tells an interesting story when you let ping pong balls decide it.


  1. "At only $800,000 a year, there's no doubt Brian Burke would have found a way to squeeze him in under the cap"

    Sorry to break you down, but Crosby's cap hit (like other rookies with incentives) factors in his incentives. Anaheim would have had to clear out $3.7 million for him (source:

    Did the NHL rig it? We'll never know. I'd like to think since they had an independent auditor and give them the benefit of the doubt that they didn't.

    Would the Penguins have left Pittsburgh without Crosby? Impossible to know. Crosby gave the team's performance (and attendence) a shot in the arm which really turned the pressure up on the PA government to work with ownership to iron out a deal. Without Crosby maybe Lemieux sells the team after the lockout and they do move.

    Either way, the Penguins would still have an unrivaled core of young talent if they got the #2 pick and took Jack Johnson or Bobby Ryan to go along with Staal, Malkin, Whitney, Fleury, etc.

  2. But I do agree with your point, if the ball bounces the other way and Anaheim wins the lottery, they'd be absolutely terrifying this season with Crosby in their lineup to join Getzlaf, Perry and Selanne.

  3. To be fair, if the Ducks had landed Crosby, it's not clear they would have been in a position to land Pronger, who in my opinion has been the real key to their run to the finals this year.

  4. You're completely right James, I dropped the ball on that one. So yeah, they would have had to clear A LOT more space. With ~1.4 in room this season, that would mean getting rid of, I'm just going for the best fit here not really thinking it through, Todd Marchant. He's 2.5 against the cap or else they'd need to get rid of a few cheaper players. Obviously I'd rather have Crosby than Marchant, but it does make things a hell of a lot more complicated.

    Add all that in and it amounts to what Ricky said, the Ducks might not have room for Pronger at all, among other things. That being said, it's still possible they could have made this run without Pronger and with Crosby, but now I'm really stretching the 'what ifs' and I'm just going to stop before my head explodes. =)

    Thanks for the comments guys, always appreciated.