Eric Lindros: Being A Leaf & Almost Being A Leaf

It’s been a long, strange, careening trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame for Eric Lindros, but the airplane does truly touch down this weekend.  Along with former Kings (& Team Canada 1976) goalie Rogie Vachon, and Russian great Sergei Makarov (yes, the only 31-year old Calder Trophy winner there is, was, and will ever be), and the only Maple Leafs coach Lindros had during his brief tenure in Toronto, the late Pat Quinn, it’s perhaps with some irony, Lindros goes in, without contemporaries, without players he played with or against (outside of a couple games involving Makarov when he was a Flame or a Shark), and much later than anyone really thought possible when he retired just before the 2007-08 season, after muddling throught a lost-looking season as a rather anonymous Dallas Star.

But he is going in, and deservedly so, and without disparaging the inferior players that have already made their acceptance speeches, waved to the sold-out Saturday night HNIC crowd, and had their bust placed where all can see, we may never truly know what the delay was.  Pavel Bure, Doug Gilmour, and Adam Oates all paid their dues in waiting.  Oversights of less-impactful careers like Vachon’s, or Makarov’s, or Mark Howe or Phil Housley have been serviced. Patience is never easy, but life keeps clicking along for all of us sometimes, until, BOOM! — it’s that person, that moment, that phone call, that job interview, that vacation, whatever it is, changes our course, our perception, or how we are, indeed, perceived by others.

That moment does seem to have happened with Lindros, as we’re no longer debating that he IS a legitimate Hockey Hall of Famer, but more discussing why he didn’t go in when first eligible in 2010. 

But what is real and what is mythical of Lindros and his Maple Leaf history?  And, surely, when you put “Lindros” and “Maple Leaf” in the same sentence, we all think more of just the scant 33 games (all regular season, no playoffs) he suited up as a Leaf for, and there are three numerous sidebars to consider:

1) How the potential to draft Lindros in 1991 was frittered away by an October 1989 trade.

2) How the potential to trade for Lindros in the summer of 1992 never came to fruition.

3) How it seemed the Leafs, in the summer of 2001, while a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, couldn’t find the stomach to make a “can’t refuse” offer to Philadelphia to acquire Lindros, to add to a team that already had all the makings of a contender in the Eastern Conference.

The angst surrounding Lindros really does begin in October 1989.  At this point, Lindros is holding out from joining the Sault Greyhounds of the OHL as a 16-year old prodigy, eventually being traded to Oshawa near the halfway point of that 89-90 season.  Not draft-eligible until June 1991, Lindros, in a pre-Internet era has every bit, if not more, the hyped player that only two men since have been: Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid.  

The Leafs had started 1989 with a resounding thud, after missing the playoffs for the first time since 1985 the previous spring.  Gone were GM Gord Stellick and head coach John Brophy (gone mid-season in 88-89 for caretaker coach George Armstrong).  The infamous Courtnall-for-Kordic trade had happened the prior November to uproarious laughter from other executives around the league.  

On paper, the Leafs shouldn’t have been as bad as they were — talented young forward core (Vincent Damphousse, Gary Leeman, Daniel Marois, Ed Olczyk, Wendel Clark) and a veteran blueline base (newly-acquired Rob Ramage, offensive-threat Al Iafrate, aging but reliable vet Borje Salming, 19-year old Luke Richardson), but how many times have you heard that in the past fifty or so seasons?

Toronto started 1-4-0, and new (well, old) GM Floyd Smith decided: what better time to part with 1991’s 1st-round draft pick than, well, right now.  It can’t cause pain and misery for at least 18 months, now, can it?  So out the door goes the first-round pick to the New Jersey Devils (Lou!!!!), and inbound to Toronto is veteran defenceman Tom Kurvers.  

Now, Kurvers did make the Leafs better, notably so.  He was 27 years old, coming off a 66-point season with a New Jersey team making a slow climb up to relevance, and had little trouble transitioning and contributing, posting up 52 points in 70 Leafs games.  They also turned the corner on the season, and made the playoffs out of the Norris Division, only to be swatted away by St. Louis in five games in the first round in April 1990. 

But that first-round pick would loom larger, and larger headed towards the spring of 1991.  In fact, for a considerable period of the dreadful 1990-91 season with the Devils holding that wonderful lottery ticket with Eric Lindros a cinch-#1 overall selection, it looked like the Leafs had traded Lindros for Kurvers. 

At different points in time, the Leafs record was 0-6-1, then 2-16-1, then 12-33-5 the weekend of the Super Bowl (Giants/Bills? Gulf War? Whitney Houston? Ring a bell?).  And by then, either out of frustration, utter randomness, or in an effort NOT to finish dead last and watch the Devils select Lindros, the Maple Leafs being trading bodies like crazy.  I was a freshman at University of Western Ontario that year and every single night I’d come back to my apartment, and it felt like the Leafs had made another deal.  

By the end of all the carnage, twelve veteran players were new Leafs, and ten players from their Opening Night October 1990 roster were elsewhere.  Now, the Leafs did add some valuable pieces for those two big future playoff runs in 1993 and 1994 — Dave Ellett, Mike Foligno, Peter Zezel, and Bob Rouse were all strong contributors and popular Leafs the next few seasons, but in the short term, it allowed the terrible, dreadful Quebec Nordiques to fall to last place in the league, 11 points behind Toronto’s 57.

The San Jose Sharks were entering the NHL, but the first pick was protected by the League and given to the last-place team in a pre-Draft Lottery era, obviously, so New Jersey used Toronto’s pick (after Quebec took Lindros, and San Jose took Pat Falloon) on WHL defenceman Scott Niedermayer.  Not bad, right?  It became known as it is today as a Kurvers-for-Niedermayer trade, which is a far more common conversational chip to play in hammering away at Leafs’ trading mistakes and drafting mistakes than referencing any of Logan Couture, Roberto Luongo, or drafting half of the Belleville Bulls roster in the same Draft.

But, it is often lost in the haze that without the dealing of Floyd Smith, it easily ends up as Kurvers-for-Lindros, and there’s none of the drama that ensues with Lindros not reporting to the Quebec Nordiques…..

…..which is a good place to pick things up in the summer of 1992.  A season passes with Lindros refusing to sign in Quebec, so he plays for the victorious Canadian 1991 Canada Cup squad, in dramatic fashion given how well he fit in, his OHL team in Oshawa, and the Canadian Olympic Team as they won a silver medal in Albertville, France.

By the time the Draft rolls around in 1992, it’s clear the Nordiques need to, and will act.  Lindros and his family are dug in deeply about not playing in Quebec City, and like John Elway in the NFL years before with Baltimore, and Eli Manning years later with the San Diego Chargers, the mountain isn’t moving.  “Trade the damn player” becomes the obvious and prudent move.  Especially so, because the rules allowed Lindros to keep holding out, and re-enter the NHL Draft as a 20-year old in 1993, and the Nordiques walk away with zilch. 

So offers are entertained by Quebec and their president Marcel Aubut (hey, whatever happened to…) and their general manager Pierre Page.  

Were the Maple Leafs in on Eric Lindros in 1992?  Sure, there were offers, and some sources have told me if it wasn’t Philadelphia or the New York Rangers (who had an offer accepted by Aubut, only for him to re-nege and take the Flyers offer…honourable human being, huh?), that Toronto had put the next-best package together among other suitors who badly wanted a 19-year old Lindros.

Though there now is a salary cap — imagine this summer if Connor McDavid had demanded a trade from Edmonton after his injury-influenced rookie season.  Can you imagine the bids?  Or Crosby in Summer 2006 after one year in Pittsburgh?  That’s the kind of marketplace a 6-foot-4, 225-pound Lindros was able to establish.

Near as I can figure, a Toronto Maple Leafs deal for Lindros would have had to involve the following headed back to Quebec:

  • 24-year old Wendel Clark (ok, so he gets to Quebec City a couple summers early!)
  • 20-year old Felix Potvin (yet to become a star, or even the entrenched Leafs #1, and Grant Fuhr was still only 28 years old)
  • 27-year old Dave Ellett (this one also hurts, but LINDROS and STUFF!)
  • 26-year old Peter Zezel (I’d want a centre back, and Zezel was a reliable scorer still, at that point).

And draft picks, lots and lots of them.  And, are you familiar with a little thing called cash?

This looks like a lot, I know, but when you consider what Philadelphia gave up (a future HHOFer in Peter Forsberg and a very good #1 goalie in Ron Hextall), what the Rangers would have (Alexei Kovalev, Doug Weight, John Vanbiesbrouck) and what Detroit would have done (no, a deal can’t get done without Steve Yzerman going to Quebec), I’m not sure if the Leafs don’t get off decently here.

Would you have done this deal then?  Well, easy to say, no, given Lindros would play like a human wrecking ball and injuries would naturally ensue.  But by then, Clark was already bruised and banged up from playing as he had for six seasons, and on a smaller frame than Lindros to take the pounding.  Yes, Toronto would swindle away 14 excellent seasons of Mats Sundin away from Quebec by utilizing Wendel Clark, but if you had Lindros as your #1 centre (and he was 21 in the summer of 1994), there isn’t a crying need for the Sundin acquisition, is there?  But how intriguing, to have added a 19-year old Lindros to a core of Gilmour, Glenn Anderson, eventually Andreychuk, eventually John Cullen.  But no Wendel.  I know, I know, your heart can’t go on.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2001, and after a Hart Trophy, a Stanley Cup Final appearance for the Flyers, and living an absolutely iconic existence in Philadelphia for nine seasons, the end is up for Lindros.  The summer before in 2000 was spent recovering from the excruciating hit Devils defenceman Scott Stevens laid him up with AFTER Lindros had returned far too soon from a previous concussion.

But the seeds of discontent were sown then.  Lindros and family felt he’d been rushed back too soon, and almost certainly, especially our heightened awareness of brain injuries in sports assisting us, the Flyers were negligent here, and there’d been other medical disputes as well, some of which, while on the road, actually put Lindros’ very life in jeopardy.  Lindros was finally cleared to come back and play in December 2000, but he refused to.  He demanded a trade and there was one preferred destination, he told the Flyers — Toronto.

Working in Detroit at the time, you could feel the buzz all through Ontario that this might actually happen.  That a nearly 28-year old Eric Lindros would join a Maple Leafs squad that was finally a consistent playoff threat, that was spending in the Top 5 of salaries in the league, and had a goaltender in Curtis Joseph that absolutely you could visualize winning 16 (ok, settle for 12 to start) playoff contests.

Despite the acrimony between Lindros and Flyers GM Bobby Clarke, talks began with the Maple Leafs early in 2001, and got as far as allowing Lindros and the Maple Leafs to agree on a mega-deal five-year contract, which would pay Lindros between $9-10 million per season.  Now, the compensation part, and that’s where things ultimately skidded off the runway so badly.

Lindros at that point in his career, and with so much uncertainty surrounding his health and reliability wouldn’t bring a haul anywhere near what it brought the Nordiques in 1992 (which served as a key building block to the forthcoming Colorado dynasty thanks to Forsberg).  But surely Philadelphia could still snatch back a couple strong contributing player plus some futures?

One deal close to consummated was said to include forward Nik Antropov (10th overall pick in 1998 – big, promising, but yet to truly impress in about a full season of games), Dmitry Yushkevich, another player, and a first-round draft pick, which the Leafs weren’t too concerned about given they were in the midst of a run where they wouldn’t be drafting inside the Top 20 anyway.

Another rumour was Antropov, a 1st-round pick, and defenceman Danny Markov.  That wasn’t enough for Philadelphia. A player the Flyers and Clarke coveted and eventually insisted on being involved in any deal was defenceman Tomas Kaberle.  Now, in the cool light of day, you might roll your eyes and think, of course, they shouldn’t have been so stubborn, that the chance to unite Lindros with a forward core including Sundin, Mogilny, Roberts, Reichel, Tucker, Renberg, and, yes, Jonas Hoglund was just too tempting.  Think of the line combos!  The PP1 unit!  But now think of how much the Leafs did get from Kaberle from the summer of 2001 onward.  Basically 850 more games until his trade to Boston in 2011.  Lindros didn’t even play 300 the rest of his career, and those watching him in Toronto and Dallas those last two seasons know it wasn’t “Eric Lindros”, sad as those words are to type.

Talks eventually collapsed, seemingly over the Kaberle inclusion/non-inclusion, and Bobby Clarke turned to Glen Sather, who while in the Hockey Hall of Fame, was now building a Rangers team that looked like a virtual Hockey Hall of Fame — only problem was during those last few years before the 2004-05 lockout, that more of the Rangers like Messier, Leetch, Fleury, Jagr (!) looked like they were better served in a museum of some sorts than attempting to win NHL games against younger, faster talent.  And Lindros was no different, despite arriving with a fantastic 2001-02 73-point season and winning Olympic gold in Salt Lake City (he was a controversial addition to the team after missing the entire previous season, so what else is new?), his health and play suffered in his next two Rangers seasons, tallying a combined 75 points over 120 games.

After the lost season, Lindros looked for a new home and found it was finally possible to make his own choice about the Toronto Maple Leafs, and did so, signing a 1-year deal for under $2 million.  I remember the unreal feeling of watching him pull the Leafs sweater over his head, next to new Leafs GM John Ferguson, Jr.  Lindros was the oldest (32) of three veteran forward adds, along with Jason Allison (30) and Jeff O’Neill (29).  If it all clicked together, surely that was something to get excited about given stalwarts like Sundin and Tucker and McCabe and Kaberle were still there, and they could just squeeze another steady year out of Ed Belfour in net (umm, they could not….).

If anything, there was more excitement 10 games into the Lindros/Leafs run than there even may have been at the beginning.  He scored a goal Opening Night vs. Ottawa, and had a spurt of seven goals in seven games headed towards November.  But the excitement was short-lived.  The “puck luck” and touch Lindros had going for him soon turned against him, and he began having problems with his right wrist.  After scoring only once in an eleven game stretch, it was revealed a week before Christmas Lindros had torn the tendons in his wrist, and would be out indefinitely. 

He’d return in late February to the Maple Leafs’ lineup, eager to help a possible playoff push, but it wasn’t to be for Lindros or the team.  He’d play three ineffective games, eventually realizing he couldn’t make a go of it, ending his Leafs season with just thirty-three games played, eleven goals (eight scored before October 28), and eleven assists.

After only 70 points in 70 games, the Leafs went on an absolute late season tear (sound familiar?) and pocketed 20 points in 12 games, only to miss the playoffs (MORE familiar?) by two points behind the 8th-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning.

And weirdly, a new beginning of recognizable faces for the Leafs (including Lindros), saw a real end to some of the familiar ones.  It would be Quinn’s last season behind the bench.  That was it after four Leafs seasons for Ed Belfour – and like many vets, the lockout season was a real costly one for him – it could have given him one final year of above-average hockey.   It would be Allison’s final NHL season, and O’Neill would soon follow into early retirement after a second Leafs season.  The cruel joke was that the 2005-06 Maple Leafs would have been an absolute Cup contender in 2001 or so.  

So, although Eric Lindros was a Toronto Maple Leaf, and he remembers it, and you do, and so do I, it’s almost the lead-up to it that makes for more compelling discussion and what-ifs.  What if the Leafs had their 1991 first-rounder?  How do they approach 1990-91 knowing he’s available if they just, well, “stay awful”.  What if they, not Philadelphia, make the 1992 deal and acquire him at age 19?  And would, magically, fate have shined upon the Leafs if they grabbed an idle Lindros at the 2001 Trade Deadline and pushed into the playoffs?  Do they lose to New Jersey after all?  Are they meeting a Colorado team with Peter Forsberg in the Stanley Cup Final?  Would that, in itself, have been worth trading the next ten years of Tomas Kaberle, and then next eight of Nik Antropov?  Remember, Lindros would have been in the last year of his mega-deal with the Leafs once the 2005-06 season began.  His Leafs career would end with a very overpaid player, not playing much, and scoring even less.  But if glorious moments came a few years earlier, all would have been forgiven, right?

It’s always fun to ask, isn’t it?