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Thursday, May 12, 2011

1981 draft flashback: What if Capitals didn't trade up for Bobby Carpenter?

In looking over our collection of old THN Draft Guides recently, we came across a story about the 1981 draft and Bobby Carpenter, who played for the Bruins from 1989-92 and will always be a hockey trivia answer to the question: Who was the first-ever U.S. born and trained player to be selected in the NHL draft's first round?

The story goes that the Hartford Whalers had made clear their intention to take Peabody Mass. and St. John's Prep legend Carpenter with the fourth overall pick. They were so certain that they invited Carpenter's father to Montreal (where all NHL drafts were held back then) for the event and secured him a place at their draft table there.

Mike Vogel, who is a media personality and writer for the Washington Capitals picks up the story in a feature he wrote for the team website in 2006: (Link to the full story is here)

Center Dale Hawerchuk was the consensus No. 1 pick that year, and the Winnipeg Jets went with the script and chose the Toronto native with the first overall choice. Los Angeles opted for center Doug Smith at No. 2, and then things got interesting.

In the days and weeks leading up to the draft, Hartford had made it well known that it would choose center Bobby Carpenter, the 17-year-old Massachusetts high school sensation, with its pick, the fourth selection overall. What the Whalers’ brass did not know was that a few GMs around the league had been bending the ear of Colorado Rockies GM Billy MacMillan in an effort to pry away the third overall choice. New York Rangers GM Craig Patrick had expressed interest in the pick; he wanted it to take goaltender Grant Fuhr. The Rockies hesitated when it came time to make their selection, leading Patrick to believe that he had a deal with Colorado.

But when Patrick saw McNab walk over to the Colorado table, he knew the Caps’ GM had swooped in and wrangled a deal for the third pick. Hartford, whose table was between Colorado’s and Washington’s on the draft floor, had no idea what was going on.

Washington traded its first round pick (the fifth overall) and its second round pick (26th overall) to the Rockies for Colorado’s first pick (third overall) and third pick (45th overall). McNab and the Caps immediately chose Carpenter, which angered the prospect’s father, who had been counting on his son playing pro hockey close to home in New England.

History shows that the Whalers, while victims of perhaps some hubris in stating their intentions so openly before the draft, certainly did not suffer any lingering damage from losing out on Carpenter.

After all, their consolation prize with the fourth overall selection that year was none other than Ron Francis.

It's a great story and reminder of why most of the old guard scouts and GMs treat their draft lists and the control of information coming out of the organization like national secrets.

But, what if the Whalers had been a little more discreet with their draft day desires? What if then-Caps GM Max McNab had not been able to trade into the third overall position with Colorado to steal Carpenter out from under the Whale's nose?

Let us suppose for a moment that Rockies GM made the trade with the Rangers' Craig Patrick, and the 3rd overall selection was, as Vogel reported, Grant Fuhr to Broadway?

Hartford then would have picked Carpenter fourth and it was the belief in the Vogel article based on Caps' sources he spoke to that then defenseman and current Bruins Assistant GM Jim Benning would have gone fifth overall to the Washington Capitals. That would leave the Toronto Maple Leafs picking next at six and here is where B2011DW asserts that Francis would have been selected after just one promising, but not spectacular major junior campaign with the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds of the OHL (26 goals, 69 points in 64 games- just the sixth-best scorer on the team as a 17-year-old).

Close your eyes and imagine a young Ron Francis skating with the moribund Leafs of the 1980s, but coming of age into his prime just as the Leafs began to emerge as an NHL power in the 90s.

Imagine a young Fuhr stopping pucks for the New York Rangers in the Patrick Division back when the Rangers had some pretty good teams, but could never get the championship-caliber netminding they needed in the playoffs.

Francis went on to play 1,731 NHL games with the Whalers, Penguins, Hurricanes and Leafs from 1981-2004 scoring 1,798 points over that span. He was part of a seismic deal that sealed a pair of Stanley Cups for the Pittsburgh franchise in 1991 and 1992. He is one of the greatest playmakers of all time, second only to Wayne Gretzky on the NHL's assists registry.

But how brightly might have Francis's star shined had he spent the best years of his career in the hockey mega-hotbed of Toronto? Could a 30, 31-year-old Francis have put those conference finals teams of 1993 and 1994 over the top? (He scored a single season best 119 points in 1996 at age 33). Would he have even made it that far under the wild-and-wooly days of Leafs owner Harold Ballard and the black and blue Norris Division in the 80's? We could always suppose that Ballard in a fit of pique, could have had Francis sent to the Boston Bruins for Morris Lukowich and a 2nd-round pick in 1987. We can always dream, can't we?

And what about the Rangers with Fuhr? Do we even contemplate the potential for a shift in the balance of power with him manning the nets at Madison Square Garden?

As for Carpenter, he scored 53 goals and 95 points for the Caps in ’84-85, so would he have had the same impact for the Whalers? He went on to play 1,178 NHL games with the Capitals (two stints), Rangers, Kings, Bruins and Devils, a member of New Jersey’s first championship team in 1995. He finished as a stalwart defensive forward after beginning his NHL life as a top-line scorer- he had 320 goals and 728 points in his 18 seasons.

But he never skated a game for the Whalers (and was in the league two years after the franchise moved from Hartford to Carolina) and who knows if he would have been more productive with a lesser supporting cast at that time. Francis was an elite player who was able to make it work, but whether or not Carpenter could have been a long-term star there is unknown.

It makes for an interesting discussion of what could have been.

Instead, we have reality and history to remind us of the possibilities that such fateful decisions and actions inspire.

The butterfly effect- is there any more perfect a theory to apply one of hockey's "what if?" scenarios?

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