In an alternate Capitals universe…

The year is 2020. A worldwide pandemic halted the sports world, but after four months, some have slowly crept back. The Nationals opened the 2020 MLB season and their title defense against the New York Yankees on July 23. The Capitals and Wizards started their respective playoff pushes this week. The threat of another shutdown continues to linger, and the plug could be pulled on any of these sports at any time.

As society tries to re-enter normalcy, constant changes and restrictions remind us just how far from normalcy we are. We have gone one-third of a year under these conditions and there’s no clear end in sight. In a perfect world, this would all be behind us.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. So many things have gone wrong this year, it’s hard not to think “what if,” about a lot of things. All that fixation on the hypothetical led me to think about even crazier “what if” scenarios. And thus the most recent series for The Wildcard was born.

“In an alternate universe…” will take a look at a world in which each Washington team got a major player they missed out on. We started with the most recent (and most realistic) scenario with the Wizards and followed with the Washington Football Team. We’ll continue to move back in time (and even further out of the realm of possibility) as we look into how a single player would alter life as we know it.

Capitals win the 2005 NHL Draft lottery, draft Sidney Crosby a year after Alex Ovechkin

Original Photo Credit: NHL.com; Jersey swap by Joe Pohoryles

Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby is the defining individual rivalry of the past 15 years. There hasn’t been much animosity between the two players themselves, but when you have back-to-back top picks that play for rival teams and have developed into two of the best and most marketable players of their generation, comparisons will be made.

As of the 2020 playoffs, Ovechkin has the edge in individual accolades — he won the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year over Crosby and has three Hart Trophies as MVP compared to Crosby’s two — but Sid the Kid holds the lead in the most important category of all: he’s got three Stanley Cups compared to Ovi’s one.

No matter how their careers end up, both are first-ballot Hall of Famers and are among the greatest to ever play the game. That much is certain. However what if these two generational talents played on the same team, or even the same line? It actually could have happened, and it would have been made for quite the duo.

The 2005 NHL Draft Lottery

The Capitals drafted Ovechkin first overall in 2004, but his rookie season would have to wait, as the 2004-05 NHL season was canceled due to a lockout. With no results from that season to determine which teams deserved the best odds in the 2005 lottery, the NHL turned to a set of rules to determine the lottery odds.

You can read the full story here, if you’re so inclined, but it essentially boiled down to this:

  • Every team started with three lottery balls
  • If a team appeared in the playoffs within the past three seasons, it would lose a ball
  • If a team received the number one pick within the past four seasons, it would lose a ball

As a result, only four teams had not appeared in the playoffs in the prior three seasons nor had a first overall pick in the prior four seasons — the Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins — so each had three lottery balls.

Every other team had one or two; the Capitals made the playoffs in 2003 and had the first overall pick in 2004, so they only had one lottery ball. The odds of winning the first overall pick again in 2005 were low… but not impossible.

Of course in real life the Penguins won, people claimed it was rigged to bring Pittsburgh back to relevancy, and we have recent NHL history as we know it. But if the Capitals got unbelievably lucky and won the first overall pick for the second year in a row, it would give Washington the most talented pair in NHL history.

The 2005 NHL Draft

The Capitals originally took Sasha Pokulok 14th overall in 2005, but if they had the first pick and selected Crosby, how would the rest of the draft work out? If we give Pittsburgh the second pick and bump every team down a slot while keeping the players in their original draft positions, here are some notable selections at the top of the draft:

1. Washington Capitals – Sidney Crosby, C

2. Pittsburgh Penguins – Bobby Ryan, RW

5. Minnesota Wild – Carey Price, G

11. Vancouver Canucks – Anze Kopitar, C

12. Los Angeles Kings – Marc Staal, D

The 2005-06 NHL Season

Ovechkin won the Calder Trophy with 52 goals and 54 assists, while Crosby finished second, scoring 102 points (39g, 63a), just four points fewer than Ovi. The next-highest scorer on the Capitals that season was Dainius Zubrus with 57 (23g, 34a), so imagine a team having two 100-plus point scorers as the top producers by far, and both happen to be rookies who were selected with back-to-back first overall picks.

No doubt each player would have finished with more points had they played on the same line, but would playing together hurt their chances at winning the Calder? Ovechkin won by a wide margin in real life, but how would the voting go when comparing two teammates? Splitting the votes between the two would lead to a narrow victory for one of them, or possibly hurt both of them by allowing a rookie from another team to beat out the star duo.

Frankly the split votes dilemma would affect them more in the Hart Trophy race, as both players were the best rookies by far in 2005-06, but it’s something to keep in mind as their career goes forward. It would be a good problem to have from a Capitals fan’s perspective, but it may have meant Ovechkin would have one less trophy in his case.

The Caps finished 29-41-12 that year, and while adding Crosby to the group would have resulted in more wins, it likely still wouldn’t have been enough to reach the playoffs (relying on two guys who can’t even drink legally in the United States will only take your team so far).

With a better record, the Capitals would not have picked as high as fourth overall in the 2006 Entry Draft, where they originally selected Nicklas Backstrom. Ovechkin, Crosby AND Backstrom would have been an absurdly unfair core, so it only makes sense that they would miss out on Backstrom in the scenario in which they get Crosby.

Rivalries/Legacies

With Ovechkin and Crosby as teammates, they wouldn’t be the major player rivalry in the NHL, so who would be? The first pair that comes to mind is Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. Both are Russians who were drafted right next to each other to rival teams. Without Crosby as the number one guy in Pittsburgh, Malkin would undoubtedly be the big star for the Penguins, and unlike Crosby, Malkin had legitimate personal beef with Ovechkin.

Crosby and Malkin could conceivably be the rivalry, as both are centers and would likely be the top dog on their respective teams, but there’s just so much more background with Ovechkin that Ovi-Malkin makes more sense.

And would Crosby be the main guy? As an all-time great duo, they may as well be looked at as 1a and 1b… but who is 1a? Crosby was anointed as “The Next One” by Wayne Gretzky, but would Ovechkin’s goal-scoring make him the top guy? When you take Stanley Cups out of the equation — which you would in this case since they would have the same number as long as they played on the same team — who has the better career?

How would their careers be impacted when playing with each other? Would both their legacies take a hit since they played with each other? For example, some people argue Jerry Rice posted great career numbers in part because he had Joe Montana and Steve Young throwing him passes. Rice is still considered an all-time great among players at any position, as Ovechkin and Crosby still would, but would their greatness take away from each other in the eyes of some? After all, some would argue Montana was the one who benefitted from Rice’s presence, so it could go either way.

Then of course there’s the state of mind that both sides of the Montana/Rice argument are invalid, and both are all-time greats at their position who elevated each other. This seems to be the best way to look at things, but there will still always be the debate over who is 1a and who is 1b. I’m not so sure I can answer who each would be. (I gave Crosby the ‘A’ in the jersey swap because I’m partial to Ovechkin, who I still give the ‘C’ in this universe, but it could theoretically be swapped).

Stanley Cups

And now for the fun part. Crosby has three Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh, while Ovechkin has one, but often had the talent and supporting cast capable of winning several more. How many would the two have won together?

It’s important to recognize that the rest of the Capitals’ roster would look different in this universe, as the presence of Crosby would alter the team’s draft positions in subsequent years. We already know Backstrom would be out of the picture, but what about key players like John Carlson, Braden Holtby, Evgeny Kuznetsov and others? Would the players drafted in their place be a competent supporting cast, or would it be a Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl situation we see currently going down in Edmonton?

Then there’s the Chicago Blackhawks in the west. Assuming they still wind up with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and co., do the 2010s Blackhawks and Capitals become hockey’s version of the Celtics and Lakers in the 1980s? With Pittsburgh not as strong without Crosby, who in the Eastern Conference would the Caps consistently clash with in the postseason?

If we assume the Caps do a good job of surrounding Ovi and Crosby with talent (TJ Oshie could still join the team through a trade), then it isn’t a stretch to say the Capitals would win four or five Stanley Cups, and maybe more. You look at teams like the Islanders in the early 80s and Gretzky’s Oilers right after, and it’s not unprecedented for an incredibly strong core to create a dynasty.

Even more recently, you look at Chicago, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh as teams that won multiple Cups in short spans, and it seems like the sky’s the limit for the Caps in this alternate universe.

With Ovechkin already at MVP form in 2008 and ’09, coincidentally the two years Crosby made his first two Cup Finals appearances in Pittsburgh, we can assume the Caps win at least one of those two years, if not both.

Let’s go conservative and say they lose their first time around, but manage to get their first ring in 2009, just like Crosby did originally. Chicago gets their first in 2010 as the Caps miss the Finals. The Caps make the Conference Finals in 2011 before falling to the eventual champion Bruins in seven games, but then make a return in 2012.

As mentioned earlier, the LA Kings missed out on Kopitar in the 2005 Draft, and while drafting Staal instead would be a fine consolation, and Kopitar wasn’t the entire reason the Kings won in 2012, he did lead the team in points that season. How does missing out on Kopitar affect the rest of LA’s core by the time 2012 rolls around?

We’ll assume the Kings don’t win the Cup, and the Capitals come in to win their second ring. The Capitals go back to the Finals in 2013 but lose to the Blackhawks, but the two teams meet again in 2014, where the Caps get their revenge and win their third championship in the Ovechkin-Crosby era.

Between 2015-2018, the team loses in the second round once, falls in the Conference Finals a different time, but then wins the Cup in the other two seasons. That marks five rings for the great duo, and maybe they’ve stuck together to try and win six or more.

This of course is all conjecture; who knows how the rest of the league would look since the 2005 Draft was altered so dramatically, but the point is a handful of Stanley Cups is well within the realm of possibility for Washington in this universe.

Potential fallout?

Going back to the 1a and 1b argument, does the consensus 1b ever decide to blaze his own trail and try to win on his own? That could limit the number of Cups they win together. The most obvious comparison is Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant’s Lakers, who won three NBA championships in a row before the two stars eventually butted heads, and O’Neal demanded a trade.

Both won at least one more ring without the other — Shaq with Dwyane Wade’s Miami Heat and Bryant twice more in LA — but they easily could have won more championships together. Would a similar situation play out in Washington? Or would they put ego aside and try to win as many Cups and break as many records as possible?

Unlike basketball, where an individual player has a greater impact on the game and the stars are usually better marketed and have larger celebrity profiles, hockey is much more team-oriented. It takes more than one or two superstars to win a championship, and I think both Ovi and Sid would recognize that and stick together as long as possible.

Perhaps one would depart after about 15 years to go to a team that offers more money and more spotlight, but that would be after the championship window had closed in Washington. You look at Crosby and Malkin in Pittsburgh, Kane and Toews in Chicago and even Ovechkin and Backstrom in Washington, and there’s no reason to think Ovechkin and Crosby would fail to recognize the intensely lucky situation of being the two greatest players of their generation and sharing a locker room.

If they were too dominant together it may be worse for the game of hockey; in fact if Washington had actually won the 2005 Draft Lottery, I think the NHL would have rigged it and forced a redraw. Rivalries are great for the sport, and having those two share the ice for 15-20 years wouldn’t be as fun for anyone outside of Washington.

This isn’t a “one that got away” situation as the Caps shared the worst odds in the league for that lottery, but knowing that there was the tiniest possibility that the Capitals could boast the greatest duo in league history and become among the most dominant teams of the 21st century, it’s both sad and fun to wonder what could have been.

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