What If... the Canucks won the first NHL Draft Lottery? (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: Kent Basky of Nucks Misconduct on the Vancouver CanucksEnjoy!)

By Kent Basky

There are a lot of do-overs one could ponder as a fan of the beleaguered Vancouver Canucks. From Nathan Lafayette finding post late in Game 7 back in 1994 against the Rangers, to the entire Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore incident (I’d rewind that one to before the original hit and not have any of it ever happen), to a number of moments in 2011 where that series got away against the Bruins, the Canucks’ history is one plagued with a combination of poor decisions and almost comical bad luck.

I have always believed that if one thing had to be changed with this team, you need to go right back to the beginning: The Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal.

It was the site of the 1970 NHL Amateur Draft and with the league doing its second expansion after doubling in size in 1967, they decided to use a roulette wheel to determine who would get the first overall pick.

As we all know, the Canucks lost that spin. The Buffalo Sabres went on to draft Gilbert Perreault, who along with Rene Robert and Rick Martin would form the French Connection line and give the expansion Sabres legitimacy and Finals appearances during their heyday.

But what if the spin had gone in the Canucks favour…?

Being the cynical Canucks fan that I am, my first thoughts were that even with that first pick, they would have chosen Dale Tallon anyway. But let’s try and explore this in the true alternate history spirit, shall we?

The Canucks choose Perreault, and while he wouldn’t have had the outstanding line mates he eventually had in Buffalo, the Canucks are instantly better with the future Hall Of Famer in their lineup.

Perrault’s 38-34-72 output in his rookie season was impressive; although to be fair to Tallon, putting up 14-42-56 as a rookie defenseman was not exactly a bust, even in that era.

The other option to explore is what if they had still lost the spin, but rather than choosing Tallon went with a different pick?

Here’s where you can see the Canucks laying the foundation for a history of poor scouting choices, passing over some pretty good players.

The next two selections belonged to the Boston Bruins. They chose Reggie Leach and Rick MacLeish, both of whom would be traded to Philadelphia later on (Leach came to the Flyers in a deal with the California Golden Seals) and become huge parts of their back to back Stanley Cup wins in 1974 and 1975.

Another name in that first round sticks out like a sore thumb: the No. 8 pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Darryl Sittler. Sittler of course, would go on to be the Captain of the Leafs and also would be named to the Hall of Fame. Oddly enough, after playing one season in Detroit following a trade from Philadelphia, the Canucks offered a one-year contract to Sittler, who chose to retire instead.

There’s one more that got away from them in that draft, down in round No. 5. The Los Angeles Kings took G Billy Smith with the 59th pick. Smith would be nearly unbeatable in 1982 as the Islanders swept the Canucks to win their third consecutive Stanley Cup. And like Sittler and Perreault, he would also be named to the Hall of Fame after the end of his career.

The mistakes made on that first draft set the course for the Canucks, and while they’ve had some genuine great choices, the ones that they missed over the years were downright shocking. Sure, it’s all hindsight and stuff, but let’s point out some of the more glaring flubs made by the team’s brain trust:

1971- The Canucks take Jocelyn Guevermont third overall, leaving Rick Martin to be taken at No. 5 by the Sabres. Then in the second round, they selected Bobby Lalonde, leaving Larry Robinson for the Montreal Canadiens to snag with the 20th pick.

1972- The Canucks are at it again, selecting Don Lever third overall. The next selection? Montreal, who took Steve Shutt. They also could have had future HOF’er Bill Barber, who went at No. 7 to the Flyers.

1973- No 3 pick again, and this time, the Canucks take Dennis Ververgaert, rather than Lanny McDonald. Other notable picks from that round: Bob Gainey, Rick Middleton and John Davidson.

1974- This is an interesting year, as the Canucks had no first-round pick. They did manage to screw up in the second-round though, by taking Ron Sedelbauer (Bryan Trottier had been taken in the previous pick by the Islanders) and thus missing out on Mark Howe. To be fair, the Canucks did snag Harold Snepsts in the fourth round. Snepsts would go on to be a fan favourite, and a big part of the 1982 playoff run. Another great part of the ’74 draft was in the 11th round. Buffalo’s 183rd overall pick was deemed to be invalid by the NHL, after it was learned that Taro Tsujimoto of the Tokyo Katanas was in fact, not a real player.

1977- After a few years of mediocre draft crops, the Canucks made a legendary screw-up, taking Jere Gillis at No. 4. The No. 15 pick that year? Mike Bossy. They also took a defenseman in the second-round, selecting Jeff Bandura, despite eventual Hall of Famer Rod Langway being available.

1979- After just missing out on future HOF’er Mike Gartner, the Canucks select Rick Vaive. Vaive would become an All Star, and was a decent NHL’er. But the guy they left at No. 8? Ray Bourque. They also passed on Michel Goulet, Kevin Lowe, and um, third-round pick Mark Messier and fourth-rounder Glenn Anderson.

1980- This draft was interesting not because of a mistake, but because of a piece chosen by someone else that would come back to haunt them. The Boston Bruins took Barry Pederson at No. 20. Pederson would go on to be traded to the Canucks in a deal that saw 1983 first-rounder Cam Neely go the other way. The draft this year also saw the HOF’ers chosen before the Canucks even got to their pick: Denis Savard, Larry Murphy and Paul Coffey.

1981- Again, three Hall-bound choices in advance of their pick, but they took Garth Butcher instead of Al MacInnis. They also passed on Chris Chelios, who went in Round 2.

1984- Hall of Famers Patrick Roy, Luc Robataille, and Brett Hull were available but passed on by the Canucks in this draft, but another big future piece was chosen as New Jersey selected Kirk McLean. McLean would be heroic during that 1994 run to the Finals, making one of the best saves in NHL history along the way.

1985- The Canucks would once again make a choice that would doom them down the road, this time in the second round of the ’85 draft. They chose Troy Gamble in the 24th slot (just after New Jersey took Sean Burke). While they missed HOF’er Joe Nieuwendyk two picks later, the pick after would be one they probably don’t talk about enough. With pick No. 28, the Rangers selected Mike Richter, the goalie that bested McLean and the Canucks in the 1994 Finals.

1986- The final nail in the ’94 coffin happened here, as they chose Portland Winter Hawk Dan Woodley instead of Brian Leetch. Leetch, chosen 2 spots later by the Rangers, would win the Conn Smythe in 1994.

1989- The Canucks scouting department was big on Jason Herter, as they took him in the first round. Some guy named Nicklas Lidstrom was taken in the third by Detroit. They do however redeem themselves in this draft with a pretty decent steal in the sixth round: Pavel Bure.

1990- The Crown Jewel of Crap Drafts for the Canucks. With their highest selection since 1970, the Canucks choose Petr Nedved 2nd overall. They chose the Czech over Martin Brodeur, Keith Tkachuk, Derian Hatcher and… Jaromir Jagr.

1991- Originally they had screwed this one up. After just missing Peter Forsberg to Philadelphia, the Canucks would choose Alex Stojanov. He would be traded a couple years later for Pittsburgh’s #16 pick in this draft: Markus Naslund. It remains probably the most lopsided trade the Canucks ever pulled off.

1997- Not a lot of glaring passes for a few years, but then in ’97 take Brad Ference at #10. Marian Hossa would go 2 picks later, and Ference would raise a Cup in Vancouver with the Bruins in 2011.

2002- A pretty big second-round blunder here, as they select Kiril Koltsov. This left Duncan Keith for the Chicago Blackhawks 5 picks later.

2003- Even when they do some great drafting, there are other selections that they passed on where you wonder what might have been had they chosen differently, and 2003 is a classic example. The Canucks took Ryan Kesler in the first round, and I am sure we can all agree that’s a great pick for the Canucks. Sure, they missed out on some real beauties before their pick (Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf and Brent Burns went in the 17, 19 and 20 spots), and they passed on Corey Perry, Patrice Bergeron, Shae Weber, and Corey Crawford in the process. Funny how that all panned out for the Ducks, eh?

2005- The last one I will feature (mainly because this whole thing has been depressing as hell), is the Canucks taking Mason Raymond in the second round. While Raymond had his moments, he was mostly a disappointment in his time with the Canucks. They also left behind Kris Letang for the Penguins, who took him as the first choice of the third round. Ouch.

***

It’s easy to look back, and criticize the Canucks for all these missed opportunities. I don’t purport to know better than their scouting staff but the history is there in black and white. I guess it’s like the Butterfly Effect: We can only speculate what would have been different had they gotten that first bit of good luck at the dawn of the franchise.

Kent Basky is a writer for Nucks Misconduct.

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