One of the juiciests “what ifs” around involves the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks in the 2004 draft lottery. Weirdly enough, the actual future would be favorable for all three franchises, who have pretty much been the most successful regular season + playoff teams around, and combined to win seven of the 15 Stanley Cups since awarded from the 2004 entry draft.
But, back then, it was all unknown. For a team that’s commonly derided as “always won the lotteries” or “needed top picks to get good”, the Pens really weren’t as favored in the lottery as the lazy narratives might remember. As we mentioned, Pittsburgh traded up from the No. to the No. 1 pick in 2003, and by virtue of being the worst team in the NHL in the 2003-04 season, the Penguins had the best chance at winning the draft lottery. And it would be Chicago with the second best odds, followed by Washington.
In reality, Washington won the draft lottery, and moved from the third pick up to number one. They would take Alex Ovechkin and re-define their franchise. The Pens were happy to secure Evgeni Malkin and the ‘Hawks really got the raw deal, moving from pick two to three, and not taking a future Hall of Fame Russian out of this draft.
There would be an even bigger implication at play — if you can even imagine — than a cosmic switch of no Malkin and adding Ovechkin for the Penguins. The 2005 draft lottery for Sidney Crosby had the following rules:
Three lottery balls each were assigned to teams which had not qualified for any of those playoffs and received no first overall picks in that period. Teams which had one playoff appearance or first overall pick in those years were given two lottery balls. All other teams received one lottery ball.
In the real world, the Penguins “received” no first overall picks (they traded Florida to jump up for Marc-Andre Fleury, the Panthers received the pick), so Pittsburgh got three lottery balls. If, in this world where they win the 2004 lottery, they would have only had two balls in 2005. So instead of a 3 out of 48 shot to win the first pick (6.25%), it would have only been a 2/48 (4.16%) chance. That reduction could have sent Crosby to a different team....Or, maybe not. The Pens still would have had two chances, and they did win it. All we know is one of the Pens’ three balls one, and if they surrendered one (by hypothetically winning the 2004 lottery) that means the Caps gain one ball. Which means there would be a 33.3% chance, if the same ball won in the 2005 lottery that Crosby would have been....
Gah, can’t finish that sentence.
Crosby would have been....
Oh jeez, stop scrolling, you don’t want to see it.
Ok, ok, we need a chaser.
Anyways, back on track, there would be a 33.3% chance that Crosby wouldn’t have been a Penguin if the same ball won in 2005 if the Pens won in 2004, but that also means there’s a 66.6% chance that Crosby would still be a Penguin....Along WITH Alex Ovechkin.
Now that would truly be something, the top two scorers since the lockout on the same team. The best goal scorer, the best passer together. What a world that would have been.
But also in this “what if” world, the Penguins as we know them could really look a lot like the Washington Capitals, as crazy as it sounds by having Ovechkin, and not having Malkin or Crosby.
The real kicker would come in the 2006 alt-world draft to play out the chain even further. Pittsburgh still would have finished poorly with 2005-06 Ovechkin scoring about the same as Crosby — meaning the Pens still pick second overall but don’t have a glut of centers.
Would they have picked Jonathan Toews or Nicklas Backstrom at that point? Or stuck with Jordan Staal? Pittsburgh’s former GM Ray Shero was very enamored by Staal, but he fit the mold of a power second/third line center. Toews and Backstrom had more upside for a scoring line, would that have changed the calculus at what would suddenly become a position of need at center?
It’s a lot to take in. A team built around Ovechkin has benefited from his 700+ goals and has won three Presidents Trophy’s and one Cup. Despite injuries, the unmatched Crosby+Malkin center depth has earned the most regular season wins since 2005-06 three Cups and four SCF appearances. Save Chicago (and maybe LA), any other team would gladly change places with how the last 15 years have panned out.
So, in the end, it’s a win/win scenario. The Pens add Ovechkin to their core of Fleury, Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang, Ryan Whitney the 2006 high pick and eventually players like Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin and the like and still win a lot of games. If Crosby was still a Penguin too, that’s only another big chip to add to the equation.
The uncertain future would be that of Malkin, if the lottery played out differently in 2004. We all know Chicago eventually made it, but in the mid 2000’s and the dreadful ownership of Bill Wirtz, that wasn’t a sure thing. Most of the players that took the Blackhawks to the top (like 2007 first overall pick Patrick Kane) weren’t in place yet.
One of the most meaningful twists of fate though certainly went down in the spring of 2004. The Pens lost that lottery, but the consolation prize was still a future MVP and hall of famer in Malkin. That’s really fortunate considering many first overall picks don’t pan out as well as Malkin did. Further, losing this draft helped the Pens the following year where fate would send Pittsburgh to the stratosphere by winning the chance to draft Crosby. Knowing that, even a “loss” in the draft lottery still ended up being a very positive day for Pittsburgh.