Alternate NHL history: Patrick Roy’s exit from Montreal

Canadiens Patrick Roy
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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 Patrick Roy not been embarrassed in a 1995 game against the Detroit Red Wings and demanded a trade out of Montreal. 

At the start of the 1995-96 season Patrick Roy was already one of the most accomplished goalies in the history of the Montreal Canadiens, and on a path that was going to lead him to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

But on Dec. 2 of that season, in the Canadiens’ 22nd game on the schedule, the proverbial turd hit the fan.

It was on that night that Roy was humiliated in his own building, embarrassed on national TV, and ultimately played his final game as a member of the team before being traded to the Colorado Avalanche (along with team captain Mike Keane) for Jocelyn Thibault, Andrei Kovalenko, and Martin Rucinsky.

It remains one of the most significant moments in the history of the Canadiens’ franchise.

The Gathering Storm And The Eruption

Just four games into the 1995-96 season the Canadiens fired coach Jacques Demers, replacing him with Mario Tremblay, a former Canadiens player with no prior coaching experience. Things quickly devolved into chaos between Roy and Tremblay, and the stories of tension between the two are legendary at this point. Things ultimately reached their boiling point against the Red Wings on that now infamous night at The Forum.

The Red Wings opened the first period by scoring five goals on 17 shots against Roy, each one a more beautiful masterpiece than the one that preceded it. Instead of making a goaltending switch, Tremblay instead made the fateful decision to leave Roy in the game. The Red Wings goals never stopped coming. At one point in the second period Roy made a routine save and received a mock cheer from Montreal crowd, resulting in Roy raising his arms in celebration.

Finally, after allowing nine goals, Tremblay made the decision to remove Roy from the game in favor of backup Pat Jablonski. Upon returning to the bench, Roy stormed by his coach before leaning over to team president Ronald Corey and informing him that he had just played his final game with the team.

Just a few days later, general manager Rejean Houle sent Roy and Keane to Colorado. It was the perfect confluence of incompetence that saw an inexperienced, in-over-his-head general manager (just 40 days on the job), make a disastrous trade that only became a necessity after his equally inexperienced coach couldn’t coexist with one of the greatest players in the history of the league, and then completely humiliated him for no real reason.

That leads us to the questions.

What if Tremblay had simply avoided embarrassing Roy?

We could go back even further and ask “what if the Canadiens had hired a different coach,” but for now let’s just stick with this part of the equation.

There comes a point in every blowout game where the losing coach makes a goaltending switch even if they know it will not make a difference in the game. Sometimes your goalie has a bad night. Sometimes the team in front of them plays like garbage and you just want to spare them the embarrassment. But it usually happens. It usually happens before nine goals enter the back of the net in less than two periods.

The simple answer is that Roy continues on as goalie of the Canadiens, maybe has a rocky relationship with his coach, but ultimately outlasts him because he’s the superstar Hall of Fame player.

The Canadiens would have still had a franchise goalie, and that could have been a game-change in the short-term. Maybe it doesn’t bring another Stanley Cup to Montreal (they didn’t have that sort of team), but even without Roy they were still a playoff team in 1995-96 and the next two years after that. Thibault had a solid start to his Montreal career before self-destructing in the first-round of the playoffs that year against the New York Rangers. He never really solidified the position after that, was eventually traded two years later, and the Canadiens went through a revolving door of goalies over the next decade.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, Roy was the final piece of the puzzle for the Avalanche and helped bring two Stanley Cups to Denver, including his very first year with the team. He finished that postseason with a .922 save percentage, won 16 out of 22 starts, and delivered one of the most devastating quotes ever.

Had Roy not demanded a trade out of Montreal, how does the Colorado mini-dynasty shake out? They clearly had a team that was ready to win. But was Stephane Fiset or Thibault the goalie to get them there? It is difficult to imagine either one performing at the level that Roy did, especially in the Western Conference Final that season against the very Red Wings team that helped push Roy out of Montreal.

That Red Wings team set an NHL record with 62 regular season wins and was by far the highest scoring team in hockey. Roy held them to two goals or less in four of the six games, including a Game 2 shutout. No Roy in Montreal could have meant the Red Wings play in the Stanley Cup Final that season where they would have almost certainly trounced the Florida Panthers with the same level of ferocity that the Avalanche did. That would have set the stage for a potential three-peat, and taken them from simply being “The team of the decade” in the 1990s to one of the NHL’s all-time greatest dynasties.

The Colorado/Quebec Angle

It was later revealed that the Canadiens and Avalanche had trade discussions involving Roy earlier in the 1995-96 season because then-Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix had once been Roy’s agent. Talks were so far along that they had even reportedly agreed in principle a deal that would have sent Roy to Colorado for Owen Nolan and Fiset. But with the Canadiens losing their first five games of the season, they fired Demers and general manager Serge Savard (replacing them with Tremblay and Houle) and nixed the trade. Colorado then sent Nolan to San Jose for Sandis Ozolinsh a few days later. Ozolinsh ended up making a huge impact on that Stanley Cup run, along with Roy.

But the intrigue here is the fact that the Avalanche even existed. This was their first year in Denver after relocating from Quebec, and it results in another massive what if. What if everything had played out exactly as it did in Montreal, but the Nordiques had never moved to Colorado?

The Canadiens would have still been in a position where a trade was necessary, but there is almost zero chance they would have even entertained the thought of trading him to one of their fiercest rivals.

Where would Roy have gone, and what impact would that have had on the league? In hindsight, Boston is one team that would have really stood out (even if it presented a similar issue for Montreal — trading within the division to a rival team). They were in a position to win, they were still trying to get Ray Bourque his Stanley Cup, and they had an absolutely appalling goaltending situation that they tried to remedy in-season with a trade for Bill Ranford.

Either way, it almost certainly would not have been Quebec, leading us down an entirely different timeline.

More alternate NHL history:
What if the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Alex Ovechkin lottery?

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.

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

Kris Letang Penguins
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.

Deal for Coyotes’ proposed arena approved by Tempe council

David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports
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TEMPE, Ariz. — The Tempe City Council has unanimously approved a proposal for a new Arizona Coyotes arena and entertainment district, clearing the way for a public vote on the project next year.

The City Council approved the proposal 7-0 after a lengthy meeting that included NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

The $2.1 billion project would include a 16,000-seat arena, practice rink, 1,600 apartments, two hotels and a theater. Approval of the project was the final step before it goes to referendum on May 16.

The team is currently playing at Arizona State’s 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, by far the NHL’s smallest arena.

The Coyotes have been searching for a permanent home since the city of Glendale pulled out of a multimillion-dollar lease at Gila River Arena. Arizona had been playing on an annual lease until Glendale said it would not be renewed for the 2022-23 season.