PHT Time Machine: The Lindros trade that didn’t happen
Throughout the summer we will be taking a look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back to the Eric Lindros trade and the sequence of events that resulted in him joining the Philadelphia Flyers instead of the New York Rangers.
Few transactions in NHL history have been as impactful as the 1992 trade that saw the Quebec Nordiques send prized prospect Eric Lindros to the Philadelphia Flyers for a package of players that would later be used to help build a mini-dynasty and one of the most dominant teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
That is the trade we all remember.
It was not the only trade made that day involving Eric Lindros.
You would be hard-pressed to find a non-expansion team that had a worse three-year run on the ice than the late 1980s/early 1990s Quebec Nordiques. To call the team a dumpster fire would be an insult to dumpster fires everywhere. Between the 1988 and 1991 seasons the Nordiques won just 55 out of a possible 240 games, finishing with what was by far the worst record in the league each year.
How bad were they during this stretch? The next worst team in the NHL (the New York Islanders) was 30 wins better than them.
The bright side to all of this losing is that it happened in the pre-lottery days, meaning the Nordiques earned the No. 1 overall pick each year.
Following the 1988-89 season they used that selection on Mats Sundin, a superstar that would play four years in Quebec before being traded to Toronto (more on this later).
In 1990, the top pick was used on Owen Nolan, another excellent player that remained with the organization through its move to Colorado in 1995 where he would later be traded for Sandis Ozolinsh.
Then there was the 1991 pick.
The 1991 pick was the big one because that was the year Eric Lindros was entering the NHL, and everybody knew this was the player to get. If you recall from our PHT Time Machine on the 1991 dispersal draft and the birth of the San Jose Sharks, Lindros was such a big deal that the NHL intentionally gave the expansion Sharks the second overall pick in the draft to make sure they didn’t get him as he was the most prized prospect to enter the league since Mario Lemieux.
Lindros was some sort of a hockey Frankenstein that was seemingly created in a laboratory due to his unheard of combination of skill, size, and strength.
The Nordiques were the team that was bad enough to get him.
The problem? Lindros wanted absolutely nothing to do with the Nordiques or Quebec, a position he made known before the draft. At the time it was believed that his refusal to play for Quebec was due to everything from the lack of marketing potential in Quebec, to the “french culture” of the city. But in an interview with ESPN following his Hall of Fame induction in 2016, Lindros said it had nothing to do with any of that and was simply due to his desire to not play for team owner Marcel Aubut.
No matter the reason, he was not playing for Quebec and instead spent the 1992 season playing for the Oshawa Generals and the Canadian Olympic team, which took home the silver medal.
There was also no amount of money that was going to get him to Quebec, with him reportedly turning down a 10-year, $50 million offer that would have made him the highest paid athlete in professional sports history (at the time).
That same November, recently fired Nordiques coach Dave Chambers went on record as saying he did not believe Lindros was ever joining the team and that they had to trade him in an effort to get something for him.
The following summer that is exactly what the Nordiques did.
The only problem with the decision is that they ended up trading him twice.
Just hours before the start of the 1992 draft (where the Nordiques would select Todd Warriner with the No. 4 overall pick) they reached agreements with both the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers for the rights to Lindros. This, naturally, caused some havoc around the NHL.
The story goes that Aubut had originally agreed to a deal with the Flyers the morning of the draft, only to change his mind after receiving the Rangers’ offer.
With both teams believing they had a right to Lindros, the NHL was forced to bring in an arbitrator -- Larry Bertuzzi -- to decide which team would end up getting him.
Bertuzzi ended up listening to five days of testimony and took 400 pages of hand-written notes before finally concluding 10 days later that it was the Flyers, and not the Rangers, that had the valid deal for Lindros.
The final trade ended up being Eric Lindros to the Flyers in exchange for Peter Forsberg (the No. 6 overall pick in the Lindros draft), Steve Duschene, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci, Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, Philadelphia’s first-round draft picks in 1993 and 1994 and $15 million in cash.
It was a total blockbuster.
On the day Bertuzzi’s decision was announced, it was also revealed that the Rangers’ trade was just as massive as the Flyers’ and reportedly included Tony Amonte (the Calder Trophy runner up the previous year), Alexei Kovalev, Doug Weight, John Vanbiesbrouck, three future first-round draft picks, and $12 million in cash.
A lot of things happened as a result of Bertuzzi’s decision to award Lindros to the Flyers.
First, Lindros went on to become the player everyone thought he would be and was as dominant a player as the NHL had during his career. The only thing that held him back were the injuries and concussions that ultimately cut his career short and perhaps kept him from being even better than he was.
The Flyers never ended up getting a Stanley Cup out of it, but they were a consistent playoff team during his time and did reach the Final in 1997.
Quebec, meanwhile, would use that package of players and draft picks to help assemble a mini-dynasty shortly after relocating to Colorado for the 1995-96 season.
Among the pieces Colorado ended up getting as a result of the trade...
- Peter Forsberg would go on to be one of the cornerstone players in Colorado’s championship runs and one of the league’s best two-way players.
- Steve Duchene was later traded to St. Louis for a package of players that included Garth Butcher, Ron Sutter and Bob Bassen. Butcher was later included in a trade, along with Sundin and the 1994 draft pick acquired in the Lindros trade, that would bring Wendell Clark to Quebec. Clark was then later traded to the New York Islanders in a one-for-one swap in exchange for Claude Lemieux, who would play a huge role on the 1996 Stanley Cup team in Colorado.
- Mike Ricci was a member of Colorado’s 1996 Stanley Cup winning team and was then traded to San Jose one year later for Shean Donovan and the Sharks’ 1997 first-round pick. The Avalanche would use that pick to select Alex Tanguay, who would be a top-line player in Colorado for several years. He also recorded 21 points in 23 playoff games during Colorado’s run to the 2001 Stanley Cup.
- Ron Hextall would get traded (along with Quebec’s own first-round pick in 1993) to the New York Islanders for Mark Fitzpatrick and a draft pick that would later be used to select Adam Deadmarsh, who would win a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 1996 and then be used as a trade chip to acquire Rob Blake in 2001 who would help the team win another Stanley Cup.
- Quebec used the 1993 first-round pick acquired from Philadelphia to select goalie Jocelyn Thibault. Thibault’s claim to fame with the Nordiques/Avalanche franchise would be the fact he was one of the key pieces in the 1995-96 trade that was sent to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for goalie Patrick Roy.
In other words: Along with adding Forsberg, the Lindros trade tree had branches that extended into the acquisitions of Claude Lemieux, Adam Deadmarsh, Patrick Roy, Rob Blake and Alex Tanguay, a stunning level of roster and asset management, the likes of which we will probably never see in the NHL again.
This was a perfect storm of circumstances and a once in a lifetime chain of events that would be nearly impossible to duplicate in today’s NHL.
But what about the Rangers in all of this?
While none of the players they agreed to trade were as good as Forsberg, there was still a ton of talent potentially going the other way. Amonte, for example, was coming off of a rookie season that saw him score 35 goals and would go on to play more than 1,100 games in the NHL, scoring 416 career goals. Weight was a promising young center, and Kovalev, the Rangers’ first-round pick in 1991, was a superstar level talent with off-the-charts potential that had yet to make his NHL debut.
As disappointed as general manager Neil Smith was with losing out on the Lindros decision, things still had a funny way of working out in the form of a Stanley Cup victory in 1994, ending the franchise’s 54-year championship drought.
- Kovalev, playing in his second season at the age of 20, was the Rangers’ third-leading scorer in the playoffs during that 1994 Stanley Cup run.
- Weight was traded the following year to the Edmonton Oilers for Esa Tikkanen, who would be a valuable role player on the ’94 team before being traded a year later to the St. Louis Blues for Petr Nedved. After a half season the Rangers traded Nedved and Sergei Zubov to Pittsburgh for Luc Robitaille and Ulf Samuelsson.
- Amonte was traded at the 1994 deadline for veterans Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan. While neither player would go on to have the career that Amonte did, they did play a big role in the playoffs with Matteau scoring one of the most famous goals in Rangers history.
Would the Rangers have still won that Stanley cup with Lindros in place of Kovalev, Tikkanen, Matteau, and Noonan? Would they have maybe won more than the one Stanley Cup with Lindros over several years? Would Quebec/Colorado have been able to turn those assets into the same type of returns they did? All fascinating questions that we have no answer for.
Still, the only team involved in all of this that did not get a Stanley Cup championship out of it was the team that ended up getting Lindros -- the Flyers.
Lindros would ultimately end up in New York nearly a decade later when the Flyers sent him to the Rangers in exchange for defenseman Kim Johnsson and forwards Jan Hlavac and Pavel Brendl.
Johnsson is the only one that would have any sort of a career with the Flyers, while Lindros spent two mostly disappointing seasons with the Rangers in 2002-03 and 2003-04. The ’03-04 season was particularly disastrous for the Rangers as Lindros was limited to just 39 games and the team, having also acquired Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Bure, and re-acquiring Kovalev ended up winning just 27 games.
Previous PHT Time Machines:
• Remembering the Jaromir Jagr Trade Nobody Won
• When the Blues skipped the NHL draft
• Expansion teams build Montreal dynasty
• The 1991 Dispersal Draft and Birth of the San Jose Sharks