Editor's note: Twice a week, NBC Sports Bay Area will look back on biggest "What If?" moments in Bay Area sports history in our "Hindsight 2020" series. The third installment: What if Teemu Selanne hadn't missed the open net in 2002?
Teemu Selanne ranks among one of the best goal scorers of his generation. The Hall of Famer and former Sharks winger played 21 seasons in the NHL, and led the league in scoring three times in that span. He found the back of the net 29 times during the 2001-02 season, his first full season with the Sharks.
His easiest opportunity, however, might be one he flat-out missed. During Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Semifinals between the Sharks and Colorado Avalanche, Avs goalie Patrick Roy mishandled a shot at the worst possible time, leaving the goal wide open early in the first period.
Selanne recovered the puck on the left side of goal, wrapped around to the right ... and missed. His attempt was too wide and too flat, hitting the post before landing harmlessly into Roy’s glove.
The opportunity came early in the do-or-die contest, but it gained gravity after a 1-0 result that abruptly ended the Sharks’ season.
"I didn't know how much time I had," Selanne said after the game, via ESPN. "It would have been a different story if I would have scored. When you have chances like that, you have to bury them.”
A relatively young Sharks franchise made the playoffs five straight times but had never gone past the semifinals. This was their chance to do so. They finished the season with a then franchise-record 99 points. The season had so much promise, with a mix of veteran talent and youth that would go on to long and productive careers. The Sharks were poised to do something big.
That’s why the moment hangs heavy over a franchise that has become a perennial playoff contender. That’s why it will always stand as an opportunity missed.
“If you look at that series, if we score that goal, who knows what’s going to happen?” former Sharks defenseman Scott Hannan said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports California’s Brodie Brazil. “Do we have a better shot at winning the next round or have a bigger shot at winning the Stanley Cup? If that happens, a lot goes different for that team.”
It’s hard to project how far that squad would’ve gone. The Detroit Red Wings were a dream team that year, with eight future Hall of Famers on the roster.
Let’s use all caps for emphasis. EIGHT.
The Red Wings were borderline invincible that season, yet it still took seven games to beat the Avs. Maybe some great goaltending from Evgeni Nabokov and a scoring surge from Selanne, Owen Nolan or a young Patrick Marleau lead the South Bay’s main team on a parade through San Jose.
There’s no arguing what happened next. The playoff loss had a ripple effect on the team’s trajectory, as San Jose underwent a full rebuilding year in 2002-03 in a concerted effort to get younger. They fired coach Darryl Sutter and general manager Dean Lombardi, replacing them with Ron Wilson and Doug Wilson, respectively.
The decision looks smart now -- even without a Stanley Cup in the trophy case -- as it buoyed the Sharks to a seemingly unending run of playoff appearances and what should be deemed successful seasons. Doug Wilson, of course, is the GM still to this day.
“The team moved in a different direction,” Hannan said. “In hindsight, we might’ve stuck with a veteran team for longer. Maybe we don’t sit there and get some draft picks like (Joe) Pavelski. Maybe the (Joe Thornton) trade doesn’t happen. Maybe the team looks different had that goal been scored. Who knows? Maybe we win the Cup. Maybe we don’t, because we still had some battles to go after that.
“It’s not like Selanne’s goal gets you the Stanley Cup, but it’s interesting to look at because it caused a change on the team is so many different ways. The veterans moved on and the younger guys stepped up and take more ownership if the team. And we didn’t slip for long. … It was an amazing series of years there for the Sharks.