It’s What If? Week around SB Nation (not a spin off of last week’s Marvel Week, I assure you), and just the very idea of examining all of the things that could have happened, didn’t happen, or happened despite all of the odds against them happening in Islanders history is enough to make one’s head explode.
We’ve been over some of the bigger moves and non-moves in Islanders history a lot at this site, so for this exercise, I wanted to focus on some lesser-discussed events that didn’t (or maybe did) pan out in the Islanders favor. With over 48 years of ups-and-downs to choose from, there’s certainly no shortage of options that, when you think about them, could have changed things dramatically even all these years later.
We’re gonna start waaaaaaaaaaaaaay back, before the dynasty. The story of Dave Keon not coming to the Islanders is hardly a secret, but it’s something that doesn’t come up all that often. Something about winning four Stanley Cups each (for both the Islanders and Keon) probably makes this somewhat less of an urgent “What If?” and more of a “Huh? Hm. Yeah, Maybe.”
So, who was Dave Keon? Arguably the greatest Maple Leaf of all time (those are CBC’s words, not mine), the center played 15 years for Toronto, serving as captain and piling up 365 goals, 493 assists, four championships and a boatload of individual awards including the 1961 Calder Trophy, two Lady Byngs and the 1967 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. In other words, he was a big deal. In 1975, even at 35-years-old, Keon still had a few good years left and he knew it.
The problem was Harold Ballard. Because it always was Harold Ballard.
Ballard was the absolute worst. His list of transgressions, crimes, feuds, mistakes and general nastiness has been memorialized in encyclopedias, slideshows, videos and even LEGOs. Ballard owned the Leafs until his death in 1990, and left a wake of destruction behind him in his two plus decades in charge. We’ve seen some bad owners around here, but man, this guy... this was not a nice guy.
Back to 1975. Dave Keon needed a new contract. Thing was, Ballard wasn’t interested in paying him. Some stories involve Keon asking for a no-trade clause as well, but Ballard wasn’t giving him one of those, either. At the time, the Leafs retained Keon’s rights whether he signed or not. So Ballard agreed that he would allow Keon to be traded, provided the acquiring team furnished the Leafs with suitable compensation. Except that what was suitable to Ballard either kept changing or was far outside of anyone’s price range.
Unable to work out a trade within the NHL, Keon left for the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the rebel World Hockey Association for $300,000. That team folded halfway through the season (gotta love WHA stories) and Keon signed with the Indianapolis Racers. Then it was back to Minnesota then onto New England, where he would play with the Whalers for six years, even as they merged into the NHL in 1979. He finally retired after 1982 and an incredible 22 seasons of pro hockey.
The What If
Stories differ on the the timing, but all accounts have the Islanders being one of the teams interested in acquiring Keon from the Leafs during the mid-to-late 70’s. It could have been in 1975, when the Islanders were still an improving franchise coming off of their first ever playoff spring, or in 1976 prior to that year’s playoffs, or in 1980, when the franchise was knocking at the door of the Stanley Cup.
In either case, it was Harold Ballard’s demand for a first round pick that kept Islanders’ GM Bill Torrey from pulling the trigger. The Islanders never acquired the veteran center and suffered a couple of devastating playoff defeats (one to the Leafs) before trading for Butch Goring and going on to win four straight Cups.
Keon was pissed off at the Leafs for decades following that contract impasse and even long after Ballard’s death. It wasn’t until 2013 when he finally returned, for one night, to the team he will be so intimately connected with forever.
So what would have happened if the Islanders had landed Keon in 1975? Keon’s 74 points (on 29 goals and 45 assists) in his first WHA season would have made him the third-leading scorer on the Islanders behind 22-year-old Denis Potvin and 19-year-old Bryan Trottier. Keon and captain Ed Westfall would have been the team’s oldest players and the only two with any Stanley Cup experience. Keon would have provided some leadership to the largely young roster and some scoring pop for old teammate Al Arbour’s mostly defensive-minded unit.
Would they still have made it to the semifinals against the Flyers that season, or against the Canadiens the season after? Maybe. Would they have made the Cup final three or four years earlier with Keon on the team? Honestly, probably not. Those were two of the best teams of their era (or really any era) and the Islanders just weren’t ready. Those early Islanders squads hadn’t fully coalesced yet and had some lessons to learn that one player - even one as great as Dave Keon - might not have been able to teach them alone. His presence would have been a huge boost to the franchise for sure, and it’s fair to wonder how having a still productive would-be Hall of Fame center would have impacted the developments of Trottier, Bob Bourne and others.
What about 1980? Instead of Goring, what if the Islanders had brought in a then-39-year-old Dave Keon? Would Keon have provided the same spark Goring did, re-calibrating a stagnant, unstable team just before the playoffs on the way to their greatest moment (to that point) in franchise history? He had 62 points for the Whalers that season on 10 goals and 52 assists, so he still had some gas in the tank. But Butch was just... well, Butch was Butch. The perfect addition at the perfect time. It’s hard to see anyone else filling that role the same way.
That said, Keon definitely still had a nose for the net and a knack for the dramatic, even at that age. So... I don’t know.
The Dave Keon-Islanders non-deal is a minor footnote in the histories of two NHL legends, one an all-time great player, the other an all-time great team. We never saw if these two greats would be great together, but fortunately, we didn’t have to.