The Buffalo Sabres are celebrating their 40th anniversary next season and Die by the Blade will take a look back through the history of the franchise throughout the summer. One of the features will be a weekly feature entitled What If Wednesday. A couple of months ago I read a book entitled "What If the Babe Had Kept His Red Sox?" by Bill Gutman. It inspired me to do this feature with a Buffalo Sabres flavor.
This is the third installment in the What If Wednesday's feature. The first two weeks we focused on positive aspects of the Sabres history but there aren't many of those left. This is truly a what if that should make you wonder what could have been.
In the summer of 2005 the NHL was in a very unique position. They had just missed an entire season because of a lockout, they had a brand new financial system in place that would allow all teams to play with a level playing field, they had incorporated new rules to open up the game and create more offense and they had a player named Sidney Crosby, who was labeled the "Next One", that was ready to become the number one pick in the Entry Draft.
The NHL decided they would have a lottery to determine the entire draft order and they would weight towards the teams that had suffered the most for the longest time. The Buffalo Sabres were one of four teams that had the best chance to be awarded the first overall pick and the opportunity to select Sidney Crosby.
The Draft Drawing, a weighted lottery system, was used to determine the order of selection for all seven rounds of the Entry Draft. Under the weighted lottery system, the clubs that neither qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the 2001-02, 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons, nor were awarded the first overall selection in each of the 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 Entry Drafts, had the greatest chance of receiving the first overall selection, 6.3 per cent. These clubs were the Penguins, Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers.
As history would have it, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the lottery and selected Sidney Crosby number one overall. The Buffalo Sabres were awarded the number 13 selection and selected Marek Zagrapan who is currently without a team but the Sabres still hold his rights.
The memory of the Sidney Crosby disappointment didn't last long because the Sabres were a team that adjusted well to the new rules and they coasted into the playoffs and eventually lost in seven games to Carolina in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Sabres were without four regular defensemen in game seven against Carolina and despite a disappointing loss, the future looked bright.
The Sabres were stocked with fast skating creative offensive players and seemed ready to be a force in the Eastern Conference for years. Maxim Afinogenov had a career year and led the team with 73 points. Chris Drury was the leader the Sabres knew he would be, and his 30 goals led the team offensively. Ales Kotalik had not forgot how to score yet, he had 25 goals and 62 points. Danny Briere had 25 goals and 58 points in 48 games played.
With all that firepower the memory of losing out on Sidney Crosby vanished quickly, and why wouldn't it?
By the time the Sabres had won 10 consecutive games to start the 2006-2007 season, the memory of losing out on Sidney Crosby was as distant as the memory of the Sabres drafting Butch Deadmarsh number 15 overall in 1970. Everyone in Buffalo had fallen deeply in love with the Buffalo Sabres and the bandwagon was as full as it had ever been.
The Sabres completed their most successful regular season in franchise history by winning the Presidents Trophy but once again they failed in Eastern Conference Finals, this time against the Ottawa Senators. Chris Drury and Danny Briere left in the off-season, via free agency, and the Sabres didn't recover until this season. They went from Presidents Trophy winner to missing the playoffs for two consecutive seasons while Sidney Crosby was winning the Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh.
Would things have been different if the Sabres had struck the draft lottery for the second time in franchise history? Would Sidney Crosby have been the difference maker that propelled the Sabres to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history?
Sidney Crosby put up good numbers in his first couple of seasons but he was still young and had not matured into player that could propel his team into a Stanley Cup. With the Sabres he wouldn't have had to be that guy. He could have been a role player that contributed offensively while Chris Drury and Danny Briere continued to lead the way
I have a hard time believing Crosby would not have put up equal numbers in Buffalo, especially playing alongside the Sabres skilled forwards. He may not have been able to help the Sabres against Carolina when they were plagued by the injury bug but I think he would have been a difference maker in 2006-2007. I also wonder if there would have been any difference in the way the Drury and Briere situations played out with Sidney Crosby in the fold.
The Sabres might not have been able to retain Crosby beyond in his entry-level contract but he would have been an asset for a couple of seasons. While Pens fans continue their unwavering support for their hero, we are left to wonder what could have been here in Buffalo.
I'll leave you with one question, would Sidney Crosby have made enough of a difference to help the Sabres win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history?