(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: Derek Roessler and Mike Flanagan of Section328 on the Carolina Hurricanes. Enjoy!)
By Derek Roessler and Mike Flanagan of Section328
When you are a non-traditional market that won a Stanley Cup in your first 10 years of existence, do you even need to do a look into an alternate universe? Isn’t the Stanley Cup being paraded through Raleigh, NC the alternate universe nightmare of every maple-blooded Canadian already?
Well, if anyone is up for the challenge of taking the golden ticket of changing one moment in Hurricanes history, it’s us.
As we sat down to ponder the options of what we would do with this new found power, a litany of thoughts immediately sprung to mind: What if Peter Karmanos never moved the team from Hartford? What if Igor Larionov didn’t score that triple-overtime goal in 2002? Or what if Jim Rutherford drafted Erik Karlsson instead of Zach Boychuk?
All of these pale in comparison to the soap opera like drama of February 1998 and what could have been.
Section 328 Theatre is proud to present “A Phone Call Between Friends”
February 15th, 1998
Dateline: Detroit, Compuware HQ
Setting: Swanky corner office of CEO, IT magnate, and current savior of hockey in North Carolina, Peter Karmanos
Peter Karmanos: Betty, get Jimmy on the line for me. (sips on a CheerWine and wonders where this has been his whole life)
Betty: Mr. Rutherford is on line 2
PK: Jimmy, I have an idea.
Jim Rutherford: Pete, I’ve told you that Big Caesars is a horrible business idea.
PK: No, listen to me. I think we can finally get that Illitch fella.
JR: Seriously Pete, if this is another pizza scam I’m gonna stop picking up your calls.
PK: Let’s offer sheet Fedorov
JR: (Stunned Silence)
JR: But… PK… that’s against “the code”
PK: I just moved a team from Hartford to a basketball hotbed with a cavernous half full building 100 miles from where we actually call home. Do you think I’m worried about “the code”?
JR: Pete, is there anyway that would make Fedorov want play in Raleigh/Greensboro/wherever we are today?
PK: Hell with it. Throw a metric crap ton of cash at him. He’s a Russian. I hear in Russia cash buys you, so make the deal Jim.
JR: I mean, we could throw like $7M per season at him, that would surely make him at least interested.
PK: Jim, you’re not listening. My goal isn’t to sign Fedorov, my goal is to put the screws to that SOB down the street and his damn little pizza pizza guy too.
JR: Well, signing Fedorov would give us some clout in the area. It would definitely be a boost for ticket sales. But all those draft picks we would have to give up, it’s just not worth it. I’m confident that I can turn each and every first round draft pick in the next five years into a surefire NHL stud.
PK: I’ve had my lawyer draw up an offer sheet, Jim. I’m sending it over via that new fax machine we had installed in your office.
PK: The phone printer over in the corner.
JR: Oh… ok. Hold on, something is coming thru. HOLY MOTHER OF OFFER SHEETS Pete! That’s a $12M signing bonus. That’s basically a $38M contract offer. Can we afford that?
PK: Don’t worry about. My sons have a trust fund they’re not currently using.
JR: No way the league lets us get away with this, Pete.
PK: I’ve got an arbitrator that my buddy Trump told me about. I’ll get my way. That Don guy has a way of making things happen.
JR: Are you sure Mr. Karmanos? If this fails, we’ll be laughing stocks and pariahs at the next NHL meeting. Plus, we’ll never get any of those sweet square pizzas again.
PK: Make the deal Jimmy. Make the deal.
(Fedorov in Carolina would have been strange, but not Fedorov in Columbus strange.)
The fallout from this is no big secret in the NHL: The Hurricanes struggled to make money, especially right after moving to North Carolina, and Peter Karmanos and Mike Illitch probably weren’t sending each other birthday cards. You can read more about the history between these two men here.
In an effort to both boost his own team, and extend the lengthiest of fingers to the Red Wings, Peter Karmanos offered a contract to then all-world forward and Red Wings holdout Sergei Fedorov. The deal included a relatively low base salary with a relatively high up-front signing bonus to stick it to Detroit should they match. As the video clearly shows, Fedorov signed the deal with Carolina, the NHL disallowed it, an arbitrator reinstated it, and at the last minute, Mike Illitch and the Red Wings matched, keeping Fedorov in Detroit. But, what if they never matched? Would GMs today still be as hesitant to offer sheet players (related: Ron Francis, please offer sheet Draisaitl).
For the Hurricanes, Fedorov would have joined a forward corps led by Sami Kapanen, Keith Primeau, Gary Roberts, Jeff O’Neill. His addition would have certainly made them a formidable top-six that season. Starting in the 1998-99 season, Hall of Famer Ron Francis could have been serving up beautiful passes to Fedorov. If Francis could make Jeff O’Neill a 40-goal scorer, we don’t think it’s too absurd to think Fedorov could have potted at least 145 goals. Ok, maybe that’s a lot absurd, but the idea of that tandem has led to more than one piece of Hurricanes fan fiction (don’t search for Hurricanes Fan Fic, just don’t do it).
Caption: Maybe this wouldn’t be the last trophy that team put their hands on in 2002.
Not only would Fedorov have sparked that team while in Greensboro, but he would have still been a part of the 2001-02 team that eventually faced Detroit in the Stanley Cup Final(s). That is, if Detroit made the Final(s). Yes, we know that’s probably the most loaded team in history when it comes to hall of fame caliber players, but this is a “what if” column. Fedorov scores in game three instead of Larionov, momentum switches to the Canes up two games to one and the Canes close out the series in game six to win their first Stanley cup. Don’t @ us, just let us live in this fantasy for just a second.
That’s the acquisition side, but what about the compensation Carolina would have sent to Detroit? Five, count ’em, FIVE first round picks. Since sites like CapFriendly weren’t a thing 15 years ago, we’re just going to assume they would have been the 1998-2002 1st round picks. Let’s also assume that each pick would have been lower in the first round because, well, you know, Fedorov would have made the team better. Hypotheticals and assumptions aside, here was what actually happened with each of the Canes’ picks in question:
1998: With the 14th pick, Carolina selects Jeff Hereema. Award yourself one point if you remember any of his 4 career NHL goals.
1999: Carolina takes David Tanabe with the 16th overall pick. Later changed his name to Avi because he felt like D was optional.
2000: On draft day, Carolina trades their pick to Colorado as part of a package to acquire Sandis Ozolinsh.
2001: Drafting 15th, Carolina selects something called Igor Knayzev. He never played an NHL game.
2002: With the 25th pick, Carolina selects one-time Conn Smythe winner and later, perennial albatross, Cam Ward.
So with those five selections, Carolina gained a goalie who had somewhere between one and four good seasons (depends on your personal math), three defensemen who couldn’t play defense, and a forward with fewer career goals than Fedorov had in his worst season… in the KHL.
During the same stretch, Detroit had two first-round picks: Jiri Fisher in 1998 and Niklas Kronwall in 2000. Sure, they’ve been great at drafting Swedes after round five, but maybe five more stabs at it could have yielded some better returns.
So, if on February 24th, 1998, Ken Holland hadn’t matched the offer for Sergei Fedorov, the Carolina Hurricanes would have won at least two Stanley Cups and cemented themselves as the dynasty team of the 2000s. Jim Rutherford would have been considered a genius GM and Peter Karmanos would be a Hockey Hall of Famer by now. Instead, Jim Rutherford flamed out in Carolina, Peter Karmanos is selling the franchise and Mike Illitch helped bring the world’s largest Little Caesars’ location set to open up this fall.
If only Jim had figured out a way to get a high scoring Russian with great advanced stats to join the team, that would have surely turned things around, but that’s a story for another August Puck Daddy series.