It’s “what if” week on SBN, as you’ve probably noticed, and as a big fan of alternate timelines and the small wrinkles that can drastically change the course of history, I’m a big fan.
Such as, on the surface was does Nathan Horton and the Florida Panthers have to do with the Pittsburgh Penguins becoming the most successful NHL team post-lockout? You wouldn’t think there’s much of a connection.
But there’s a HUGE connection.
Heading into the 2003 NHL entry draft, the Panthers won the draft lottery and were choosing first. The Carolina Hurricanes had the second overall pick. The Pens had pick No. 3.
2003 was a very, very good draft — perhaps even the NHL’s best ever collection of talent. But there wasn’t really a Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid clear-cut number one overall, franchise cornerstone player identifiable on draft day.
It emerged through the lead up of the draft process and scouting that Florida’s top target was forward Nathan Horton. It was a poorly kept secret that Jim Rutherford and the ‘Canes had Eric Staal at the very top of their board. Pittsburgh was interested in goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
To make sure nothing crazy happened, the Pens traded with Florida. It was a pretty modest return, Pittsburgh gave up NHL forward Mikael Samuelsson and picks #3 and #55. Florida gave up picks #1 and #73. (Also ironically, and fittingly as it goes with the NHL draft, the Pens later pick ended up being better. Pittsburgh took Daniel Carcillo at 73rd, a player who would see 429 games of NHL action and be a useful forward on championship teams. Florida drafted forward Stefan Meyer at 55, who only played a total of 20 NHL games, scoring zero goals).
Anyways, in reality it worked out to make everyone happy coming out of the draft. All three teams at the top of the board got “their guy”, with Pittsburgh walking out with Fleury, Carolina getting E. Staal and Florida getting Horton.
...But, here comes the hypothetical twist....What if Florida wasn’t enamored with Nathan Horton? What if he wasn’t their guy?
Florida did have a young Roberto Luongo on their NHL roster, so a fit for Fleury was never there. (Though they did end up trading Luongo after three more seasons, so it’s not like he was ever stable or their management always made wise decisions). Still, the real monkey wrench to throw into the equation would be if Florida at No. 1 wanted Eric Staal.
That creates a lot of fall out. Carolina had drafted Cam Ward in the first round in 2002, but Fleury on the board could have been tempting. So too could a trade down at this point, especially since the most preferred option by Carolina (Staal) would hypothetically already be off the board.
Pittsburgh was concerned enough that the Canes MIGHT trade to a team (who would have wanted to beat the Pens to the punch on Fleury) that the Pens cut out the middle man and eliminated all chances of that by trading up to No. 1 with Florida. You don’t do that for no reason at all. Carolina trading out to a mystery team (Columbus at #4? Buffalo at #5? San Jose at #6?) could have dramatically changed the course of the NHL’s future depending on where Fleury ended up. Marc-Andre Fleury a Columbus Blue Jacket, could you even imagine? Yuck.
What would a Fleury-less future look like for the Pens? It’s easy to perhaps see them signing goalie free agent Nikolai Khabibulin in 2005 after the lockout ended, since Pittsburgh did sign a ton of veterans in the frenzy (Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, John LeClair). Khabibulin ended up in Chicago in reality, and actually played a ton of games until the 2011-12 season. Could he have been a veteran answer for the Pens? Goalies bounce around a lot, and without Fleury (who played 691 regular season games between 2003-17) there would have been a LOT more fluidity in net for the Pens, no matter what happened.
No matter what, it feels very weird to just wipe away Pittsburgh’s all-time leader in goalie games played, wins and shutouts in just a single stroke. But that could have happened if Florida didn’t want Nathan Horton in 2003.
Epilogue: In the end, Carolina was thrilled with the results, Staal would go on to lead the team just a few years later in 2006 in playoff points in a run to the Stanley Cup. Staal would total 775 points in 909 career games in 12 seasons with the Canes, second highest in Hartford/Carolina franchise history behind only Ron Francis.
It obviously ended up great for Pittsburgh, with Fleury becoming the most accomplished and important goalie in franchise history, and due to his endearing personality was one of the top teammates and most popular players among fans too. Like Staal, Fleury got his big Stanley Cup moment in the decade of the 2000’s making the big save on Nick Lidstrom in 2009, just one of three Stanley Cup seasons Fleury would play a part in.
..And then you have Florida. Poor, poor Florida. Despite coming into the draft with the No. 1 pick and leaving with the player they wanted (plus Samuelsson and a draft upgrade), the Panthers had the worst outcome. Horton would score 295 points in 422 career games with Florida, he developed into a solid 60ish point-per-season player. Which is nice, but tough to live up to being the defacto top choice in a draft year that produced first round forwards like Staal, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Jeff Carter, Ryan Kesler, Zach Parise and Dustin Brown. (And, again, that’s just in the first round. And just the forwards, which says nothing of Ryan Suter, Brent Burns and Brent Seabrook who were also first round selections).
Florida would get impatient and look to move on from Horton in 2010 and traded him at that draft to Boston for defenseman Dennis Wideman, the 15th overall pick (who became Derek Forbort in LA after a draft trade that brought Nick Bjugstad to FLA) and the 90th overall pick (who became forward Kyle Rau). Florida would go onto trade Wideman within a year for a minor leaguer and another future third round pick that never made it to the NHL. Needless to say, unlike Carolina and Pittsburgh, Florida did not have any brushes with the Stanley Cup due to the 2003 draft. The story also ended sadly for Horton, as major back injuries ended his career by 2014. CapFriendly estimates his career earnings at north of $62 million, thanks to fully guaranteed contracts (which he still is getting paid through the end of this 2020 season), so that’s at least a nice consolation.
And, also in a weird twist as briefly touched upon, the key to the 2010 Horton trade was the pick that became Nick Bjugstad, whom Florida later traded in 2019 to Pittsburgh to bring it all full circle. Hockey can be funny like that.
At the end of the day, the Pens went in picking third but found a way to get their guy — and it all worked out. That’s a fortunate twist of fate considering the high stakes of the talent-loaded 2003 draft that history has clearly marked winners and losers because of the outcomes.