What if ... the Columbus Blue Jackets had drafted Anze Kopitar? (NHL Alternate History)

(Ed. Note: It’s the NHL Alternate History project! We’ve asked fans and bloggers from 31 teams to pick one turning point in their franchise’s history and ask ‘what if things had gone differently?’ Trades, hirings, firings, wins, losses, injuries … all of it. How would one different outcome change the course of history for an NHL team? Today, it’s the team of writers from Buckeye State Hockey on the Columbus Blue Jackets. Really silly image courtesy Matt Souva. Enjoy!)

By Buckeye State Hockey

There are so many “what if’s” when it comes to the Columbus Blue Jackets, and a lot of long-time fans’ ire is directed back to the hiring of Doug MacLean as general manager.

During MacLean’s tenure, there were no less than 150 transactions over seven calendar years, many of which left fans and pundits scratching their heads, pondering which was the most ludicrous.

Was it when captain Adam Foote left the team via (a demanded?) trade and caught a private jet to play in an Avalanche game that very night? Was it when MacLean traded the 33rd overall pick (that became Loui Eriksson) for an aging, broken down Grant Marshall? How about when the club traded burgeoning young defender Francois Beauchemin (and Tyler Wright) for over-the-hill centerman Sergei Fedorov?

Nay. Today, we’ll argue that the deferred evolution of the Blue Jackets as a legitimate NHL organization traces back to one errant decision.

One boneheaded move. And it revolves around the 2005 Entry Draft.

What if….the Columbus Blue Jackets had drafted Anze Kopitar?

Sounds crazy right? Maybe you didn’t know that was even an option! Oh, but it was.

Let’s jump in our way back machine and look at the year that was 2005.

Coming out of the cancelled 2004/2005 season, the draft was the first major hockey-related event since the new CBA had been ratified, so the buzz surrounding it was off-the-charts. Not to mention, this was “The Crosby Draft”, which amplified its significance all the more.

Heading into the draft, beyond the consensus top pick of Sidney Crosby, there were a handful of guys who were more or less viewed the same by the hockey media: forwards Bobby Ryan, Benoit Pouliot and Gilbert Brule, and defenseman Jack Johnson.

Those five players were expected to be the top five players drafted, and all was going according to plan until Montreal nabbed Carey Price fifth overall. (See their Alternate History for more on that.) The selection, which was deemed a reach at the time, and was notoriously skewered live on-air by Pierre McGuire, also meant that a top five player, Gilbert Brule, was available to Columbus who had the sixth pick. The Jackets needed a center, Brule fit the bill, great, let’s all go home.

Except that isn’t how the draft is supposed to work.

Teams draft based off of their list. They employ a whole bunch of scouts, who spend a year watching hundreds of games, then sit around for days, sometime weeks, before the draft and argue over every detail and player placement on that list. They order the players exactly as they believe they should be picked. It is considered a crime against hockey for a GM to overrule his scouting staff and pick against the list.

So what do we know about the CBJ’s list that year? We know that Anze Kopitar was 3rd on their scouts’ list, and Brule was in the 6-8 range. Don Boyd, the head of scouting for the Jackets at the time, was strongly pro-Kopitar. But, when it came time to pick, MacLean had a change of heart, overruling Boyd and the rest of the staff to take Brule. Why would a GM commit such a sacrilegious move?

Well, Brule had the profile of being “gritty” and “hard-nosed,” while Kopitar “pushes rocks up a mountain and jumps over milk crates and calls it training,” as MacLean noted at the time. Simply put, it was a seemingly “safe” pick that overruled months of hard scouting.

“How do we go with the Slovenian ahead of the Canadian?” is a real, direct quote from MacLean, an outlandish statement that he used while trying to DEFEND the pick in hindsight! With logic and reasoning like that, even years removed from the pick, it’s pretty easy to see why MacLean is thought of the way he is in Columbus and throughout hockey circles.

So what happened from there?

For Columbus, picking Gilbert Brule never panned out. In the year after being drafted, Brule couldn’t stick in the NHL, and the Blue Jackets returned him to the Vancouver Giants. This isn’t a serious sin, but it also wasn’t an exactly brilliant start. Unfortunately, the forward never made huge strides from there.

In his best year with Columbus, his first full season, Brule finished with just 19 points, and averaged only 10:39 per game. Brule ultimately played just 78 and 61 games in his two “full” seasons with the Jackets, and finished with a total of 28 points in those years.

In July 2008, the Blue Jackets traded Brule to Edmonton in return for Raffi Torres (before all the crazy and all the suspensions). Brule’s first year with the Oilers featured an uptick in production, with a career high of 37 points in 65 games. But from there, the scoring slipped and the skater fell on hard times physically, as a combination of concussions, flu, and abdominal injuries resulted in Brule playing only 74 games in his final two years in Edmonton.

After some time in the AHL and a brief stint with Phoenix, Brule refused assignment to the Coyotes’ farm team in January 2014. He was then reported to be considering retirement from hockey, but ended up leaving North American hockey altogether. Brule’s most recent play has been in the KHL, where he’s been for the past four seasons.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Anze Kopitar has been a machine, delivering high level play every season. While Brule struggled to that 19 point rookie campaign, Kopitar put up 62 points in 70 games for the Kings, and finished fourth in Calder Trophy voting. Since then, he has become the very definition of a great two-way player, ironically playing the very “good ol’ Canadian boy” type of game that Doug MacLean was so desperate to take at that 2005 NHL Draft table.

Since his rookie year, Kopitar is the 9th highest scoring forward in the NHL and one of only 14 to hit the 700 point mark in that time. At the team level, Kopitar led the Kings in scoring each year from 2007-08 through 2015-16.

On the other side of the puck, Kopitar has been recognized with Selke Trophy votes for his defensive prowess in each of the past seven seasons, has finished as a finalist for the award three times, and won the thing in 2016. Kopitar has made a massive impact on shot generation and prevention for LA; the center has finished nearly every season a net positive shot player (best visualized through HockeyViz). In June 2016, Kopitar was named captain of the Los Angeles Kings. Then-GM Dean Lombardi noted that, “[Kopitar’s] been bred for it. He’s been trained for it.”

A great scoring threat, an accomplished defender, and a seasoned leader: Anze Kopitar has done it all for the Kings. Maybe that “pushing rocks up a mountain” training regimen should be followed by more prospects?

Which brings us back to what could have been in Columbus.

In the seasons after the 2005 Draft, every NHL team has seen several iterations of roster turnover. For Columbus, one glaring constant has remained for nearly all those years: the need for a first line center. As part of considering this alternate history, it’s worth noting how many franchise-altering events would have been avoided with Anze Kopitar wearing Union Blue at just the skater level, ignoring the possible team success that could have been afforded to the Blue Jackets just from having that additional great forward on the roster.

The first big crossroads of the modern CBJ without Kopitar: Both parts of the Jeff Carter trade.

In June 2011, the Blue Jackets were part of the Philadelphia shakeup. Columbus had long tried to find franchise cornerstone, and greatest Jacket of all-time Rick Nash, a legit center, and the team made their latest attempt by trading both Jake Voracek and the 8th overall pick in the 2011 draft to acquire Carter to fill that role. Voracek was a solid player at the time, and has continued to blossom with the Flyers. He is in the top 20 in scoring among NHL forwards since the trade. And that draft pick turned into Sean Couturier, who made the NHL full-time as an 18 year old and has become a strong third-line ‘C’ and a top penalty killer.

That’s two strong NHLers gone from Columbus for Carter, which didn’t seem awful at the time. But then the 2011-12 season happened. Carter famously didn’t leave his beach house to visit Columbus for far too long, and the Jackets started the season winless through eight games and finished last in the entire NHL at year’s end. Carter didn’t make it to the end of the year though, as he lasted just 39 games in the Union Blue before being traded in February 2012 to… the Los Angeles Kings.

While there are real roster consequences here, with Jack Johnson and a first round pick (Marko Dano) as the return for Carter, the other shoe dropped when, again without a top centerman, Nash asked out. In July 2012, after months of speculation, Rick Nash was sent to the Rangers.

With Kopitar in the fold, would trading for Carter ever happen? Would Nash or Voracek have found chemistry with Kopitar and helped to build a serious offensive threat? Would that additional first round pick have helped strengthen the core?

We can chase the dominoes just a bit further and see just how much this affects other bits of the NHL landscape: no Nash trade means no Dubinsky and Anisimov in Columbus, which means no Saad trade, which means no Panarin trade, which may mean no Panarin at all in Chicago!

The lack of centers was also likely a major influence on the 2010 Draft for Columbus, as the Jackets picked Ryan Johansen fourth overall. If Kopitar is on the roster, is Johansen selected? And even if Johansen ends up with Columbus, how does that change the depth of the team, what with Kopitar and potentially Voracek still involved? Would it give the Jackets that extra point and squeeze them into the 2013 playoffs? Could they have matched up better with the Penguins in the 2014 playoffs with Kopitar guarding Crosby or Malkin? Would the Johansen-Foligno show at the NHL All Star Game ever happen? Does Columbus trade for Seth Jones? Are the Jackets in a position to draft wunderkind Zach Werenski? Do the Predators make their Cup Final run (before the Johansen injury)? So many questions!

On the flip side, in Los Angeles, the lack of Kopitar could have meant a significantly weakened forward core for the Kings. Would Doughty and Quick have brought multiple Stanley Cups to Los Angeles without a first line center? And without the Jackets trading for and then trading away Jeff Carter in a failed 2011-12 season, do the Kings ever find enough firepower to push through the playoffs?

These are all things we’ll never know. And while the Jackets have come to find their footing with a solid core of young talent that bodes well for years to come, without Anze Kopitar, the road to success has taken quite a lot longer than anyone in the seats at Nationwide Arena was ever comfortable with.

Jeremy Crowe writes about the Blue Jackets at Buckeye State Hockey, with a focus on stats, prospects and draft eligibles. Currently the Coordinator of Hockey Analytics for the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads. Tweets a lot of prospect-related charts and other mostly hockey-filled nonsense @307x.

Derek Marr is a guy who writes words, sometimes about the Blue Jackets but sometimes about the Kings. He played some, coached some, and did some stuff for an unnamed NHL team. Once wrote a 65 page paper on NHL arbitration. He goes by @CoachMarrvin on Twitter, but really doesn’t tweet.

Matt Souva is a nerd, loves college hockey, writes at Buckeye State Hockey, and produces the Union Blue Radio podcast. When not thinking pucks, he’s a chemical engineering PhD student. You can find him on Twitter: @zekebud

Alison Lukan is a freelance writer for BlueJackets.com and editor at Buckeye State Hockey. She found the game of hockey at age five and now plays hockey…worse than people who are currently age five. Follow her on Twitter: @AlisonL

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