Sports are so generous. Not only do we get the plays and games that make our blood rush and our stomachs churn, but we also get to ponder how legacies and legends would be affected if a bounce, coach’s decision or 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 out we asked, “What if the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers had not agreed on a 2009 trade that sent centre Scott Gomez to Montreal and blue line prospect Ryan McDonagh to the New York Rangers?”
What actually happened
With captain Saku Koivu about to depart as a 34-year-old free agent, the Canadiens — led by general manager Bob Gainey — decided to aggressively overhaul their roster early in the 2009 off-season.
Future captain Brian Gionta, sniper Mike Cammalleri and defencemen Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek were all signed as UFAs on July 1, 2009. The day before, Montreal traded a 20-year-old Ryan McDonagh, Chris Higgins and Russian prospect Pavel Valentenko to the Rangers for Scott Gomez, Tom Pyatt and ECHLer Michael Busto.
Gomez played three years for Montreal, his production plummeted after Year 1 and the club ultimately used a compliance buyout on him in January, 2013 to get out from his $7.4-million cap hit. McDonagh, meanwhile, developed into a fringe Norris contender in New York, where he served as Rangers captain from October, 2014 through February, 2018, before the re-building Blueshirts traded him to Tampa Bay.
What could have happened
Gomez was just one year removed from a 70-point season when Montreal traded for him, so it’s not like his value was in the toilet. That said, had the Canadiens even agreed to part with a first-round pick rather than an almost-NHL-ready McDonagh, they could have had a top-four defenceman on the left side of the defence corps for the past decade.
Had the Rangers actually not been able to unload Gomez at all — be it to Montreal or any other club — the squad may have missed out on a player who was the team’s top scorer for three seasons.
Possible hockey history re-writes
• First off, McDonagh was Montreal’s first pick in the 2007 NHL Draft at No. 12 overall. The Habs’ next two selections were Max Pacioretty (22nd) and P.K. Subban (43rd). If those three had all played together and reached their full potential in Montreal, would we be talking about that as the best natural hat trick a team has ever pulled off in the draft?
Speaking of Subban, would he and McDonagh have formed an ideal modern-day pair? The left-shooting McDonagh is a low-risk player who takes care of his own end first, perhaps making him the perfect match for a right-shot guy whose eyes get wide at the sight of any daylight up ice.
• Moving Gomez certainly allowed the Rangers some cap flexibility during a time when the team was still throwing around money with all the care of a night-clubbing hedge fund bro.
For background, New York inked Gomez and a 30-year-old Chris Drury to monster deals on the first day of free agency in 2007, before throwing Wade Redden his ill-fated six-year, $39-million pact 12 months later on July 1, 2008. The day after clearing Gomez’s $7.4 million hit in 2009, then-GM Glen Sather turned around and gave Marian Gaborik the biggest UFA deal of 2009 (five years, $7.5 million annually) to come to New York.
Gaborik played three full seasons on Broadway and was by far the most productive player on the team, averaging 0.95 points-per-game during that stretch. From 2009-10 through 2011-12, Gaborik totalled 105 goals and 210 points with New York compared to 21 goals and 108 points for Gomez in Montreal.
• McDonagh hit his stride during a time when the Rangers made the Eastern Conference Final in 2012 and the Cup Final in 2014, and this exercise gets very intriguing when you consider the last team New York eliminated in ’14 before losing to the Los Angeles Kings was Montreal. Hold that thought for now.
The Habs made the final four of the 2010 playoffs and while that was almost entirely due to Jaroslav Halak’s incredible goaltending and Cammalleri leading the post-season in goals without actually playing in the final, it must be noted Gomez had 14 points in 19 contests that spring.
The following year was McDonagh’s debut season and he wound up playing big minutes for a Rangers club that was eliminated in five first-round games by the Washington Capitals. The Canadiens, meanwhile, played the eventual 2011 Cup-champion Boston Bruins to overtime of Game 7 in Round 1. Could a hard-nosed, smooth-skating defenceman with youthful legs have made a one-goal difference in that series?
And how about that 2014 matchup between Montreal and New York? The biggest “What If?” there will always be the fact Chris Kreider crashed into Carey Price in Game 1 of the series, knocking the Habs star goalie out of the playoffs. That said, given McDonagh was the Rangers’ most-used player that spring by three minutes a night, it’s hard to imagine the Blueshirts even make the final four without him. And if you put his monster minutes on the Habs, there’s a good chance that team becomes the first Montreal squad to make the final in two decades.
As it stands, the Canadiens are nearly 30 years removed from their most recent title and McDonagh is on a list with names like Rod Langway, Chris Chelios and Eric Desjardins as top-flight blue-liners the club made the awful decision to move on from.