Sports are so generous. Not only do we get the plays and games that make our blood rush and our stomachs churn, we also get to ponder how legacies and legends would be affected if a bounce, coach’s decision or a referee’s call had gone the other way. That’s how the “What If?” game works.
For the next little while, Sportsnet.ca is going to run an ongoing “What If?” feature, crafting alternative histories stemming from events big and small. This time, we asked, “What if Alex Ovechkin had been born two days earlier and been eligible for the 2003 NHL Draft instead of having to wait for 2004?”
What actually happened
To be eligible for the NHL Draft, a player must have his 18th birthday by Sept. 15 of the year the draft is being held in. If you’re getting selected in 2020, you must be 18 by this coming Sept. 15.
Alex Ovechkin — born Sept. 17, 1985 — missed that cut off by two days in 2003 and had to wait for the 2004 edition of the draft to have the Washington Capitals take him first overall. In 2003, the Florida Panthers won the draft lottery and held the No. 1 pick. When the big day landed, Panthers GM Rick Dudley moved down two spots, trading the top selection and a third-rounder to the Pittsburgh Penguins for the third overall pick, a second-rounder and Swedish forward Mikael Samuelsson.
The first three selections in 2003 became Marc-Andre Fleury to Pittsburgh, Eric Staal to Carolina and Nathan Horton to Florida. Twelve months later, ‘Ovie’ went first overall ahead of Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh) and Cam Barker (Chicago).
What could have happened
People do crazy things for love and generational athletes. As such, Dudley tried to convince the NHL that if you subtracted the leap-year days that had been added to the Gregorian calendar during the course of Ovechkin’s lifetime, he actually turned 18 by the required date, so the Panthers tried to draft him in the ninth round in 2003.
I suspect the lawyer in Gary Bettman respected the ingenuity, but the commissioner in him said, “Not a chance, bud.” Had Ovie been born a couple days earlier, though, Dudley could have just strolled up to the podium and taken a franchise-altering player first overall.
Possible hockey re-writes
• Before we get to the teams, let’s focus on the man. During the course of the current NHL campaign, it became clear Ovechkin has a real chance to catch Wayne Gretzky for the all-time goal-scoring crown (Gretzky leads Ovie by 188 goals). Consider, though, that Ovechkin missed an entire season thanks to a lockout in 2004-05; another 41 per cent of a year in 2012-13 due to more labour strife and may well lose the rest of this season due to a global pandemic.
Oh yeah, and had he been born a couple days earlier, he could have added an entire NHL season to his resume in 2003-04. Even in the Dead Puck Era, you have to think Ovechkin would have been good for 30-plus goals as an 18-year-old freshman. He’d be that much closer to ‘The Great One’ in a pursuit marred by some bad luck.
• I hear what you’re saying: “Would Ovie have put up such crooked numbers without his Caps running mate, Nicklas Backstrom?” Fair ask. That said, the Cats actually had a little something cooking in 2003. Ovechkin would have stepped on to a team with centre Olli Jokinen coming off a 36-goal performance in his age 24 season; 2002 third overall pick Jay Boumeester about to start his sophomore season and, most importantly, Roberto Luongo just hitting his stride as a Vezina-calibre goalie. All those players were gone from South Florida a relatively short time later as the losing continued. The goal-scoring and good vibes Ovechkin brings wherever he goes could have completely changed the course of the franchise.
• As for the Capitals, they hit the jackpot in 2004 when they won the lottery with the third-best odds of doing so. (By the way, the two teams with a better chance than Washington were a Chicago club that was soon drafting Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and a Pittsburgh squad that was on the precipice of taking some guy named Sidney Crosby — how about those What Ifs?) Had Ovie been off the board in ’04, the Caps would have still made out pretty well with Malkin as the top pick that year. A 1-2 of Malkin and Backstrom down the middle may not have defined a generation in D.C. the way Ovie did, but you have to think that’s the spine of a very competitive club.
• The really interesting squad in this make-believe scenario is Pittsburgh. If the Pens draft third in 2003, they might watch Ovechkin go first and Marc-Andre Fleury go second to Carolina, leaving them with Eric Staal. (Don’t forget, goalies were drafted absurdly high during that brief, somewhat-bizarre period in history that saw Rick DiPietro go first in 2000, Kari Lehtonen go second in 2002 and Luongo taken fourth in 1997.) While landing Staal to eventually be a 2C behind Crosby and ahead of brother Jordan, what if — with Malkin gone — the Pens left the ’04 draft with bust defenceman Cam Barker? We’ll assume they would have figured something out during the entire Crosby era, but those runs to the 2008 final and 2009 Cup would be in serious jeopardy if you swap Staal and Barker for Fleury and Malkin.
• The 2003 draft class is already heralded as one of the best ever and its case just gets that much better if Ovechkin headlines it. By the way, a similar dynamic exists for the vaunted 2015 draft, which would have included Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews had the latter — you guessed it — been born two days before the Sept. 17 birthday he shares with Ovie.
• Though an extra season would have helped Ovechkin in his chase for Gretzky’s record, we would have lost out on something truly special had Ovechkin and Crosby not entered the league together in October, 2005. It’s hard to overstate how face-melting it was to have both super rookies land at the same time and immediately begin tearing up the NHL, helping everyone turn the page and look forward after the lost season.