100th Anniversary: What if the NHL still had four teams?

Mike Commito
October 12 2016 05:00AM

W e let our resident hockey historian, Mike Commito, run wild with his imagination this week. He's so excited about the start of the NHL's 100th season that he wanted to mark the occasion by redrafting the league so it's structure mirrored that of the first season in 1917-18. Big thanks to Shawn, Scott, and Megan for volunteering to be a part of this centennial draft experiment.

You may have heard that the NHL is celebrating it's 100th season this year. They've even brought Wayne Gretzky back into the fold to serve as the league's centennial ambassador. While we might want to forget the fact that this is really only the 98th season, after you discount the 2004-05 lockout and the shortened seasons in 1994-95 and 2012-13 you're still a couple shy, it's a momentous occasion and one worth commemorating.

When the National Hockey League was first formed in November 1917, there were only four teams: the Montreal Canadiens, the Montreal Wanderers, the Toronto Arenas, and the Ottawa Senators

Now, nearly a century later, the NHL is on the cusp of having 31 teams all across North America. Although there's still plenty of talent to go around, what would it look like today if there were still only four teams in the league?

To find out, four of our writers for NHL Numbers got together, put on their general manager caps, and drafted teams as though it was 1917-18. Each club's top brass was tasked with selecting 14 forwards, 7 defenseman, 2 goaltenders, and a head coach. Their only instructions were to approach the draft with the mindset that they should be building to win in the immediate future, but that their club should still be competitive within five years.

What follows is our centennial fantasy draft. We hope that, unlike the Montreal Wanderers' first season, our teams don't flame out.

Toronto Arenas (Scott Maxwell)

Head Coach 

Mike Sullivan

Forwards

Connor McDavid, Filip Forsberg, Nikita Kucherov, Mark Stone, Phil Kessel, Joe Pavelski, Brad Marchand, Max Pacioretty, Matt Duchene, Brendan Gallagher, Vincent Trochek, Mitch Marner, Sam Reinhart, William Nylander

Defense

Victor Hedman, Aaron Ekblad, Brent Burns, Mark Giordano, Jake Muzzin, Anton Stralman, Morgan Rielly

Goaltenders

Carey Price, Matt Murray

My main philosophy was to construct a team that could be competitive this year, but become a dynasty in the future. When I received the first overall pick, I knew this philosophy would be met with the addition of McDavid. Aside from a few players who aren't the youngest like Phil Kessel, Max Pacioretty, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Anton Stralman, and Mark Giordano, everyone on this team has a bright future, which could turn the team into a perennial Stanley Cup champion.

I constructed the forward group to get the best young all around forwards in the league, to create a team that was good at possession and scoring. Players like McDavid, Forsberg, Kessel, Pacioretty, Pavelski, and Nikita Kucherov will provide some of the top end scoring, while Brad Marchand, Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, Sam Reinhart, Vincent Trochek, and Brendan Gallagher will provide depth scoring and shut down defense. I also drafted William Nylander and Mitch Marner to increase the prospect pool, so that when some of the older players leave, they can replace them effectively.

On defense was the same idea: draft defense that can possess the puck, transition it up the ice, and create offense. I feel like all three pairs create an offense-defense dynamic. Burns’ offense compliments Aaron Ekblad’s defense, Victor Hedman’s offense compliments Stralman’s defense, and Giordano’s offense compliments Jake Muzzin’s defense. Not to say that any of them are slouches in the other aspect, but these pairings play off each others strong points. Morgan Rielly works as a depth offensive defenseman who can replace Giordano when he retires.

In net, I went with one of the best. While Henrik Lundqvist was an enticing option, I took Carey Price’s youth over Lundqvist’s consistency, and I have an elite goalie for many years. When he falters, I have one of the best rookie goalies in the league in Matt Murray, who also works as the goalie of the future.

I wanted to go with a run and gun style of hockey, and what better coach to implement that than Mike Sullivan, who’s run and gun Pittsburgh Penguins just won the Stanley Cup. While I was thinking Mike Babcock or Darryl Sutter, but their appreciation for grit is not welcome, and I feel like Sullivan will optimize the roster to it’s best capabilities.

Montreal Canadiens (Megan Kim)


Head Coach

Mike Babcock

Forwards

Auston Matthews, Jamie Benn, Patrice Bergeron, Claude Giroux, Steve Stamkos, Alex Galchenyuk, Jonathan Drouin, Blake Wheeler, Gabriel Landeskog, Brandon Saad, Patrick Laine, Leon Draisaitl, Wayne Simmonds, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Defense

Oliver Erkman-Larsson, Hampus Lindholm, Colton Parayko, Tyson Barrie, Seth Jones, Justin Faulk, Jake Gardiner

Goaltenders

Cory Schneider, Corey Crawford

Our organization went into the draft hoping to build a team that would not only compete at a high level this season, but for many years to come. With that in mind, we definitely aimed for a younger roster than some of the other teams around the league. However, we have faith that the veterans in the group, especially our captain, Patrice Bergeron, and our alternate captains Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Steven Stamkos, will be helpful in facilitating the continuous growth of the players on this team. In addition, we have all the confidence that Mike Babcock, who we believe is the best coach in the league, will push this talented roster to reach their full potential.

And frankly, this roster has a lot of potential, both realized and yet-to-be-fulfilled. We really like the makeup of our forward group, particularly the versatility of many of our players. Nearly half of our forwards have seen significant playing time at multiple positions, which affords Coach Babcock quite a lot of flexibility in forming line combinations.

Our defensive corps is admittedly one of the younger ones in the league, but they are led by the ever-steady Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who is due for a Norris sooner or later. We’ve chosen to focus on defensemen with offensive upside and the ability to successfully transition the puck, and we think we’ve succeeded in that regard.

We’re proud of what this group has accomplished thus far in their individual careers, and excited to see what is in store — and by that, we mean we’re ready for a few more Stanley Cups in the upcoming seasons.

Montreal Wanderers (Shawn Reis)

Head Coach

Darryl Sutter

Forwards

Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Tyler Seguin, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Taylor Hall, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Anze Kopitar, Artemi Panarin, Jakub Voracek, Nicklas Backstrom, Ryan Johansen, Ryan Getzlaf, Jack Eichel 

Defence

Kris Letang, John Klingberg, Dustin Byfuglien, John Carlson, Duncan Keith, Marc Edouard-Vlasic, Dougie Hamilton 

Goaltenders

Henrik Lundvist, Ben Bishop

Building for the future is great and all but I want the best hockey players on my team so that’s what I went after. More specifically I targeted top-end forwards first and foremost. That said, I think I’m looking pretty good on defense and in net. But yeah, my team is gonna score a lot of goals.

Certainly some teams probably have a brighter future than me because their teams have younger players, but the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Anze Kopitar, Duncan Keith, Henrik Lundqvist, and so on, were just too good to pass up. I’m sure there would be some great young players if the league really were just four teams deep, but at the end of the day, you’re telling me nobody would be interested in someone like Ryan Getzlaf.

And hell, I’m still pretty happy with some of the young players like Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Artemi Panarin, Ryan Johansen, Jack Eichel, and Dougie Hamilton that I picked up.

All things considered, I think I have the best “win now” team for this league of ours.

Ottawa Senators (Mike Commito)

Head Coach

Barry Trotz

Forwards

John Tavares, Vladimir Tarasenko, Johnny Gaudreau, Nathan MacKinnon, Mark Scheifele, Joe Thornton, Tyler Toffoli, Corey Perry, Sean Monahan, Jonathan Toews, Aleksander Barkov, Kyle Okposo, Ondrej Palat

Defence

Erik Karlsson, PK Subban, Drew Doughty, Roman Josi, Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Weber, Shayne Gostisbehere

Goaltenders

Braden Holtby, John Gibson 

Sure, I wasn't initially thrilled about picking last, but I think I was able to effectively utilize my position to assemble a team that is sure to give the league's other squads trouble for years to come. 

I approached the draft with the mentality of solidifying my back end and moving out from there. While my colleague's clubs all have solid bluelines, the Senators have the strongest defensive stable. I had to pinch myself to make sure my fellow general managers actually let me assemble a triumvirate of Erik Karlsson, PK Subban, and Drew Doughty, four of the past five Norris Trophy winners. Aside from inheriting this impressive trophy case, all of my defenseman, with the exception of Shea Weber, are under the age of thirty, which means I will have a mobile and effective back end for years to come. Shayne Gostisbehere will do well under the tutelage of veteran blueliners, many of whom are unquestionably are among the league's most elite, and will seamlessly transition into a larger role as the corps ages.

Even if teams find themselves behind our defense, they still have their work cut out for them with Braden Holtby and John Gibson in net. The former is the reigning Vezina winner and holds a career .921 SV%, while the latter is an up-and-comer on the rise and poised to make a big leap this season as a full-time starter.

The strength of my forward group is unquestionably down the middle. I actually have a glut of centers, which is why I have entrusted Barry Trotz with the important task of getting players to buy into the team we have assembled and transitioning them into new roles. While I do have concerns about my depth on the left and right sides, my top line of Johnny Gaudreau-John Tavares-Vladimir Tarasenko is sure to terrorize the league for years to come. While Joe Thornton is getting long in the tooth, he is still one of the league's most elite centres and can still dish passes with the best of them. My younger group of talented forwards which include rising stars like Mark Schiefele, Aleksander Barkov, and Nathan MacKinnon will a have tremendous opportunity to play and grow with an experienced group of forwards.

If my team doesn't win the Stanley Cup in 2017 I will be very surprised. If we don't win it in 2018, I'll burn down the Wanderers' arena.

How the Draft Went Down (Top 52 Picks)

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*Following the conclusion of the draft, we gave each of the general managers the opportunity to substittute any of their players for players who had not been drafted. Megan and Shawn stuck to their guns, but Scott and Mike made a few changes. Scott replaced James Neal with Phil Kessel and swapped out David Pastrnak for Mitch Marner. Mike added Sean Monahan for Jonathan Huberdeau. 


Who had the best draft?

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Mike Commito is a hockey historian and writer from Sudbury, Ontario. He has a PhD, so after Mark Recchi, that makes him one of the smartest hockey doctors. You can follow him on Twitter @mikecommito.