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The Biggest what-ifs in Recent NHL History

Written by Noah Foster

As sports fans, we love to look back on past events and judge what happened, or what we thought should have happened. There are plenty of events in the NHL that fans have been stewing over since they happened. But what if these events never occurred? How would the league look?

What if…….Chicago never trades Panarin? (2017)

Artemi Panarin skates upice during his time on the Chicago Blackhawks. (Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As a Blackhawks fan, this one pains me to write. The Blackhawks traded Artemi Panarin and Tyler Motte to the Blue Jackets for Brandon Saad and Anton Forsberg. Panarin was playing incredible on the Hawks alongside superstar linemate Patrick Kane, winning the Calder trophy in 2016. The Bread Man exploded on the Blue Jackets, averaging 85 points and a +19 rating over two seasons. To make

matters worse for Hawks fans, Panarin has emerged as a prominent leader in New York. He was on pace for over 100 points and 40 goals when the season was halted, and is a dark horse candidate for the Hart trophy this year.

So what if Chicago had held onto the valuable left winger? Well, Chicago has always had a tight cap space, with Seabrook, Toews, Kane, and a few others taking up a lot of room. Panarin's contract in Columbus was a $6 million AAV, and he signed a whopping 7-year, $81.5 million contract with the Rangers. There is a very likely chance the Hawks would have had to trade him in order to make room for their developing players like DeBrincat, Strome, Dach, and others. However, putting cap space aside, this is one of the worst trades the Blackhawks have made in the last decade. Panarin is hands-down the best player on the Rangers and easily a top 15 player in the league, and if he was wearing a Blackhawks sweater now, they would be a scary threat in the playoffs.

What if…….Jordan Binnington is never called up from the AHL? (2019)

Jordan Binnington watches the puck go past him in the 2019 Stanley Cup Finals. (Photo: NHL)

If you're a Bruins fan, you might want to skip this part. Jordan Binnington, the ice-cold rookie sensation, arguably led the St. Louis Blues to a Stanley Cup victory last season. Before he was called up, Jake Allen and Chad Johnson were the two goaltenders on the roster. In his season with the San Antonio Rampage, he posted an impressive 11-4 record, with a 2.08 GAA and 0.927 SV%. He was exceeding expectations while the Blues' goalies were underperforming. This was a perfect storm for St. Louis.

We all know the worst-to-first story the Blues had last year, and there is no doubt Binnington was a crucial part of it. So what happens if he is never called up, and the Blues stick to their two other goalies? I think it is very possible the Blues would have still beaten the Jets in the first round of the playoffs. The Blues defense held the lethal Jets offense to under 30 shots in five out of the six games played, and an average goalie can stop most of those. The Blues did not need a stellar goalie to make it out of that series. However, the high-powered offense of the Stars would have eaten an average goalie alive, even with the defense of the Blues being as strong as it was. Binnington was an anchor against the Stars, and without him there, Patrick Maroon wouldn't even have had the chance to score that crucial double-overtime goal that propelled the Blues out of the second round.

What if…….P.K. Subban is never traded for Shea Weber? (2016)

P.K. Subban and Shea Weber were two of the best defensemen in the league when they swapped teams. (Photo: NHL)

Every hockey fan knows about this trade, and usually has pretty strong opinions about it. On June 29, 2016, the Canadiens sent their star blueliner to the Predators in exchange for another strong defensemen. This trade was certainly the highlight of that offseason. Subban had won the Norris trophy in 2013, and Weber was a second-place finisher for the Norris in 2011 and 2012. He was also the Predators captain. As of 2016, Weber had 10 years left on his 14-year, $110 million contract, while Subban had six years left on his eight-year, $72 million contract. They were putting up similar numbers in the 2015-2016 season, both with 51 points in about 70 games, and were the best defensemen on their team without a doubt.

The trade seems pretty even in the long run. Subban thrived on the Predators in the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 seasons, putting up 40 and 59 points, respectively. However, he dropped significantly in his play the next season, and was traded to the Devils, while Nashville got very little in return for him. Since being traded to Montreal, Weber has struggled to put up significant points, and was injured for most of the 2017-2018 season, but has been a solid top-pairing defensemen for the Canadiens.

So what if this trade never happened? I believe Weber would have provided more for the Predators than Subban would have for the Canadiens. As both players aged, provided they stayed on their respective teams, Weber is still a consistent point-producer and solid defensemen, while Subban has declined in his offensive production and defensive ability. Weber would have thrived with the offensive firepower the Predators had, while Subban would have struggled as the Canadiens began to fall and enter rebuilding.

What if…….the Atlanta Thrashers never move to Winnipeg? (2011)

In 2011, the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg, and their attendance has been increasing ever since. (Photo: Illegal Curve)

This is one of the most successful relocations of a franchise in recent history. The attendance at State Farm Arena in Atlanta peaked at an average of about 16,000 in the 2006-2007 season, but their numbers dropped from there, so much that by the 2010-2011 season, they were averaging 3,000 less people than the '06-'07 season. This drop in numbers does not just affect the team, it affects everyone in the area. Stadium workers and janitors probably saw their paycheck decrease as the arena brought in less and less people. Major payments would have been harder and harder to make because of the decrease in ticket sales. So True North Sports and Entertainment bought the Thrashers and moved them to Winnipeg. The rest is history. The Jets averaged about 15,000 their first four seasons, but that number has been steadily climbing by the hundreds every season.

So what if they don't move? Well, honestly, I don't think we would have 31 teams in the NHL right now if they didn't move. The consistent drop in attendance plus a struggling team equals one very dead franchise. The move to Winnipeg saved a team on the brink of financial failure, and provided an opportunity to see players like Patrik Laine emerge.

What if…….the COVID-19 pandemic never happens and the NHL plays as normal?

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot of uncertainty within the NHL. (Photo: NHL)

There are so many parts of the NHL the coronavirus has impacted. To name a few: the regular season and playoffs, conditional draft picks, the salary cap, and the amount of money the teams bring in. For this section, I'm going to focus on the regular season and playoffs only; the other areas impacted by COVID will be much easier to discuss once the pandemic is over and life in the NHL returns to normal.

So what if the NHL season had played out as normal (in this hypothetical, this pandemic doesn't exist)? There are probably a million different scenarios I could explore, but there is one I find interesting.

The playoffs are normal.

I'm sure you're reading that, thinking, “well duh”, but this is very important. In the 24-team playoff, the Blackhawks are in, giving them a chance to play the Oilers and possibly move on past the play-in rounds, which they wouldn't have had the chance to if the playoffs were normal. The Canadiens are also in as well, but no one is really expecting them to put up much of a fight.

To add on, the Carolina Hurricanes and the Vancouver Canucks are now in a rough spot because of the 24-team playoff format. The Canes play the Rangers, a team that was most likely going to make the playoffs and were picking up their play at just the right time. The Canucks will play the Wild, a team that was surprisingly hot to end the season: they were 7-3 in their last 10. So both of these teams will have an extremely tough play-in matchup, where they will have to fight for their playoff lives. In a normal playoff scenario, these teams would have had tough first round matchups, but they would have been in the playoffs, whereas now, they are playing difficult series in order to play even more difficult teams in the playoffs.

The teams that were hot at the end of the season would have stayed hot into the playoffs, and could have made a deeper playoff run than expected. The teams that were struggling at the end of the season could have been bounced in the first round. But now all of that has changed. The pause has basically hit the “reset” button for the entire league. Many players have recovered from their injuries, those tired players are now completely well rested, and after a few weeks of training and friendly games, everyone will be back in playoff condition. A rough patch and a hot streak are wiped clean; everyone is starting from a blank slate, with only their team chemistry and individual talent to carry them through the playoffs. One thing is for sure: these will be the most interesting playoffs we've ever experienced.

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