Alternate NHL history: If the Penguins won the Ovechkin lottery

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With 2019-20 NHL season on pause we are going to take an occasional look back at some of the alternate timelines that could have existed throughout the history of the league. Here, we contemplate what would have happened had the Pittsburgh Penguins, and not the Washington Capitals, had won the 2004 NHL draft lottery for Alex Ovechkin.

Even before the arrivals of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals had developed a fierce rivalry throughout the 1990s.

They were old Patrick Division foes. They met in the playoffs seven times between 1991 and 2000 and had some absolutely epic games, including the Petr Nedved four overtime playoff game, the night Jaromir Jagr received a 10-game suspension for making contact with a referee, and the night two coaches nearly climbed over the glass to fight each other, and a bizarre postseason scheduling conflict that infuriated former Capitals coach Ron Wilson.

The two teams were also surprise trade partners in the summer of 2001 when the Penguins sent Jaromir Jagr to Washington for Kris Beech, Michal Sivek, and Ross Lupaschuk.

In short: The two franchise already had a bitter history with each other.

During the 2003-04 season they were involved in a different kind of race. The race to the bottom of the league. The results would forever change the course of the NHL.

Following the trade of Jagr, the Penguins had completely stalled as a franchise and were a couple of years deep into a massive rebuild.

The Capitals, meanwhile, were off to a terribly disappointing start, were unable to get the best out of Jagr, and were preparing to start their own rebuild that would get kicked off with the in-season trade of Jagr to the New York Rangers and several over high profile moves.

Both teams were now in desperate need of a franchise-changing player.

That player was going to be Alex Ovechkin.

Everyone knew Ovechkin was going to be the top pick in the draft, and even though Evgeni Malkin (the eventual No. 2 overall pick) had started to become a favorite of scouts and hockey people there was still a gap between the two players, and it was a slam dunk that Ovechkin was going to be the player. He was so sought after that the Florida Panthers tried — on more than one occasion — to draft him in the 2003 class by arguing that when leap years were taken into account he would have been eligible for that draft (he missed the cut-off for the 2003 draft by four days).

The 2003-04 season ended with the Penguins finishing with the league’s worst record with 58 points, one point back of the Chicago Blackhawks and Capitals. That gave the Penguins the best odds (25 percent) of winning the 2004 draft lottery, while also guaranteeing they would pick no lower than second, meaning they were going to get one of Ovechkin or Malkin. The Blackhawks had the second-best lottery odds (they had fewer wins than Washington), with the Capitals entering the lottery with the third-best odds.

When it came time to draw the ping pong balls to determine the top pick, it ended up being the Capitals that won it, moving from third to first, pushing Pittsburgh to second and Chicago down to third.

The Capitals selected Ovechkin, the Penguins ended up getting one of the best draft consolation prizes ever in Malkin, and the Blackhawks selected … Cam Barker. Ovechkin and Malkin have gone to have Hall of Fame careers and collect a truckload of team and individual honors, while Barker just 200 mostly forgettable games in Chicago.

There are a lot of significant “what ifs” at play here.

Among them…

The 2005 Draft

Those results would have a significant impact on the next draft that would also be headlined by another Hall of Fame talent — Sidney Crosby.

With the 2004-05 regular season wiped out by a lockout, the league needed a way to handle the 2005 lottery and draft with no games producing results.

The solution was a weighted lottery that involved all 30 teams.

The odds were weighted by playoff appearances in the previous three seasons and first overall picks in the previous four drafts. Teams that had no playoff appearances and no first overall picks in those time frames were awarded three lottery balls. Those teams were the Penguins, Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets, and New York Rangers.  The Penguins *did* have a No. 1 pick during that time-frame, but it was via trade … not a draft lottery win.

Teams that had only one playoff appearance or one top pick were given two lottery balls.

Every other team was given one lottery ball.

This matters because if the Penguins had won the Ovechkin lottery they would have only had two lottery balls in the 2005 class and a lesser chance of selecting Crosby. It is not a guarantee that they wouldn’t have won, but they would have a lesser chance.

The long-term direction of the Penguins, Capitals, and Blackhawks

All of these teams ended up going on greatness over the decade-and-a-half that followed, combining to win seven of the 14 Stanley Cups between 2005 and 2019, while also combining for four Presidents’ Trophies and only a handful of non-playoff seasons. They have been the elite of the elite in the NHL.

But had the 2004 draft lottery gone in a different direction there is no telling where all of these teams end up.

If the Penguins had won the the 2004 draft lottery and selected Ovechkin, that means the Blackhawks would have had the No. 2 overall pick and been able to select Malkin, while the Capitals would have picked third and ended up with neither.

Maybe they do not select Barker in that spot like Chicago did, but the rest of the top-10 was Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, Al Montoya, Rostislav Olesz, Alexandre Picard, Ladislav Smid, and Boris Valabik. Other than Wheeler, there is not a top-line or top-pairing player in that group.

It would have given the Capitals a second lottery ball in the Crosby lottery, but that is still no guarantee of getting him. It would have been entirely possible — if not likely — that they would have ended up with none of Crosby, Ovechkin, or Malkin.

Given Ovechkin’s importance to the franchise and hockey in the nation’s capital, it could have been crushing. Would they have remained bad enough to get a top pick in a future year (like a Patrick Kane or Steven Stamkos)? Or would they have settled into long-term mediocrity?

The Blackhawks would have also gone down an entirely different path. Instead of having Barker, they would have a true franchise player and an immediate jumpstart to their rebuild. Malkin would have been an absolute game-changer from the very start and rapidly improved their short-term outlook. But that, also, could have had a long-lasting impact. Would they have been in a position to win the 2007 draft lottery and select Kane No. 1 overall? Would they have been in a position to get Jonathan Toews in 2006?

The Penguins would have almost certainly been able to build a contender around Ovechkin, but the strong likelihood of not having Crosby makes it difficult to believe they would have put three more Stanley Cup banners in the rafters.

Then there is the matter of where Crosby would have potentially ended up. New York, Columbus, and Buffalo would have been the only teams with three lottery balls in the 2005 class, all of which would have been desperate for a talent like him. Would he have turned around the Blue Jackets or Sabres? Would an extra lottery ball in the 2005 draft produced a better result for the Capitals and sent Crosby there? The possibilities are endless.

In the end the Capitals began the 2003-04 season coming off of a 92-point, playoff season the year before and were expected to be back in the postseason. But their season going in the tank and some lottery balls bouncing their way ended up having a profound impact on them, the Penguins, the Blackhawks, and the entire NHL as a whole.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.