Heading into the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, there’s no clear consensus around who should be the first-overall pick.
That wasn’t the case thirty years ago. In 1991, it was blatantly obvious who the best player available was: Eric Lindros, nicknamed “The Next One” as the heir apparent to Wayne “The Great One” Gretzky and Mario “The Magnificent One” Lemieux.
Lindros was a 6’4” behemoth with finesse to go with his power, who led the OHL in scoring by a wide margin in his draft year with a whopping 71 goals and 149 points in just 57 games. He was the clear and obvious choice to go first overall.
There was just one problem: the Quebec Nordiques held the first overall pick and Lindros had no interest in playing for the Nordiques.
It was never altogether clear why Lindros didn’t want to play for the Nordiques. There was plenty of speculation that he wanted to avoid the pressures of a Canadian market, or that he wanted to play in a big American market where he could more easily sign lucrative endorsement deals, or that he didn’t want to play for a team that had just finished last in the NHL for a third year in a row.
Years later, Lindros claimed it wasn’t about Quebec or the Nordiques at all, but about Nordiques then-owner Marcel Aubut.
Whatever the reason, Lindros made the unprecedented decision to refuse to play for the team that drafted him first overall, forcing the Nordiques to trade what was thought to be the next generational talent in the NHL. Lindros ended up in a very fitting city, playing for the Philadelphia Flyers, who were famous for the Broad Street Bullies. He formed the dominant Legion of Doom line with John LeClair and Mikael Renberg that ran roughshod over their competition.
Lindros almost didn’t make it to Philadelphia, however. Mere minutes after a verbal agreement to trade Lindros to the Flyers, the Nordiques got an offer from the New York Rangers that they liked better. So, the Nordiques agreed to trade Lindros to the Rangers instead.
As a result, an independent arbitrator had to decide which team Lindros would be traded to. The arbitrator, who shared a name with another power forward who followed in Lindros’s footsteps, was Larry Bertuzzi, and he determined that the verbal agreement with the Flyers, combined with a call to Lindros to confirm he was willing to play in Philadelphia, was enough to make the trade official.
But what if it wasn’t? What if Bertuzzi had instead determined that the trade had to be in writing or confirmed by the league office, as became official policy a month later? What if Eric Lindros started his career with the New York Rangers?
The Vancouver Canucks would have won the 1994 Stanley Cup Final.
The high cost of Lindros
Let’s back up a little. After the 1991 draft, every team in the NHL knew that Lindros wasn’t going to report to Quebec and that he was on the trade block. Teams were lining up with offers and the price skyrocketed as a result.
The Flyers eventually won Lindros with an offer that included Peter Forsberg, Mike Ricci, Chris Simon, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, Ron Hextall, and two first-round picks. The trade led directly to two Stanley Cups, but not for the Flyers. After the Nordiques moved to Colorado and became the Avalanche, Forsberg and Ricci played a huge role in the team’s 1996 Stanley Cup win, not to mention goaltender Patrick Roy, who was acquired for Jocelyn Thibault, who was drafted with one of the Flyers’ first-round picks.
The Rangers offer was similarly rich, rumoured to include a bounty of prospects and players, as well as the Nordiques’ pick between their two goaltenders: John Vanbiesbrouck and Mike Richter.
Imagine if the Nordiques had picked Richter, the goaltender that led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup in 1994 with 4 shutouts and a sterling .921 save percentage. Maybe Vanbiesbrouck could have been as good or better, but goaltending in the playoffs is so often a matter of getting hot at the right time — as we’ve seen from Carey Price’s playoff performance this year — so maybe the loss of Richter alone could have cost the Rangers the Cup.
But not so fast.
According to the Rangers’ GM at the time of the trade, Neil Smith, Richter was never part of the negotiations. By Smith’s recollection, Vanbiesbrouck would have been part of the trade, assuming he didn’t go to free agency, which was a possibility at the time. Vanbiesbrouck re-signed with the Rangers, so it’s a moot point.
The trade return from the Rangers, according to Smith, would have been Alexei Kovalev, Tony Amonte, Doug Weight, John Vanbiesbrouck, two first-round picks, and $20 million. Let’s use that as the basis of our alternate reality.
A terrifying one-two punch down the middle
Let’s start with the clear benefit for the Rangers if Bertuzzi ruled in their favour and gave them Lindros. The Rangers would have swiftly become the most hated team in the NHL with the one-two (literal) punch of Mark Messier and Lindros down the middle.
Messier and Lindros would have simultaneously beat up the opposition and skated circles around them. Lindros had 41 goals and 75 points in 61 games as a rookie in the 1992-93 season, easily winning the Calder Trophy. Messier, meanwhile, had 91 points in 75 games that season. The two could have been dynamite together.
Lindros was even better in 1993-94, racking up 44 goals and 97 points in his second year. That would have led the Rangers in scoring.
With both Messier and Lindros, surely the Rangers were guaranteed success, right? Maybe instead of just the one Stanley Cup in 1994, they could’ve won multiple Cups.
Only, Lindros didn’t win any Stanley Cups in Philadelphia, even when he had a strong roster around him. In his one trip to the Final, the Flyers were swept by the Detroit Red Wings, with Nicklas Lidstrom shutting down the big power forward.
Here’s the issue: after trading for Lindros, the Rangers’ forward depth would have been shot. They would’ve lacked wingers to play with their two dominant centres, reminiscent of the Edmonton Oilers with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the middle, with no one to play on their wings.
Let’s take a closer look at the pieces of the trade that never was and how losing them would have cost the Rangers the 1994 Stanley Cup.
No Kovalev = no Cup
Alexei Kovalev and his teammates Sergei Zubov, Sergei Nemchinov, and Alexander Karpovtsev were the first Russians to win the Stanley Cup in 1994 and people may forget just how instrumental Kovalev was on that Cup run. Kovalev was third on the Rangers in playoff scoring, with 21 points in 23 games.
Kovalev was especially good in the Stanley Cup Final, with 7 points in 7 games, same as Messier. That includes the game-winning goal in Game 4 that gave the Rangers the 3-1 lead in the series and a crucial assist in Game 7.
More importantly, Kovalev was a key reason why the Rangers were even in the Stanley Cup Final in the first place.
The Rangers were on the brink of elimination in the Eastern Conference Final, but Messier had made a guarantee: the Rangers would win Game 6 and take the series back to New York for Game 7. But the Devils took a 2-0 lead and Martin Brodeur seemed unbeatable.
It took Kovalev to prove that Brodeur wasn’t invincible, scoring the goal in the second period that sparked the comeback.
To top it off, it was Kovalev that provided the primary assists on two of Messier’s three goals in the third period. Without Kovalev, Messier doesn’t make good on his guarantee, the Rangers don’t win Game 6, and the New Jersey Devils go to the Stanley Cup Final in 1994.
Certainly, Lindros could have done for the Rangers what Kovalev did in the 1994 playoffs, but it wasn’t just Kovalev that would have been missing from that team.
No Amonte means no “Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!”
Tony Amonte was a fantastic young player for the Rangers, putting up 35 goals and 69 points in his rookie season in 1991-92. He excelled again in 1992-93, but was struggling during the 1993-94 season when he was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks, where he’d go on to have a successful career alongside Jeremy Roenick.
In return, the Rangers got the grit that head coach Mike Keenan required: Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan.
We’ll get back to Noonan in a moment, but Matteau is a name that Rangers fans will always remember. He came through in the clutch in overtime in the 1994 playoffs not once, but twice. He scored the overtime game-winning goal in Game 3 against the Devils, then scored the overtime winner that sent the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final in Game 7.
The goal featured a legendary call from play-by-play announcer Howie Rose, as he repeatedly screamed, “Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!”
Noonan won New York the Cup
Back to Noonan, a long-time favourite of Keenan for his hard-nosed play. He was a key forward for the Rangers’ Cup run, with 11 points in 22 games.
Most importantly, he scored the Cup-winning goal in Game 7.
The goal has been credited to Messier for years — not the first time he would take something that didn’t belong to him — but it’s been pointed out many times over the years that Messier never touched the puck. Instead, Noonan is the last Ranger to touch the puck, backhanding the puck on net to make the game 3-0 in the second period.
Even Messier admits that he doesn’t know if he touched the puck — he didn’t — and that credit for the goal probably belongs to Noonan — it does.
With Amonte already gone in the trade to the Nordiques for Eric Lindros, he isn’t available to trade to the Blackhawks for Matteau and Noonan. There goes the overtime hero in the Eastern Conference Final that got the team to the Stanley Cup Final in the first place and the player who scored the Cup-winning goal.
But wait, there’s more.
Weight for Tikkanen
Doug Weight would have been included in the trade for Lindros after a solid rookie season with the Rangers. Instead, he was traded during the 1992-93 season to the Edmonton Oilers for Esa Tikkanen.
Of the deals the Rangers made to put together the 1994 team, Tikkanen’s is not among the most important. He didn’t rack up points, come through in the clutch in overtime, or score series-winning goals, but he still played a role in the Cup run as a pest and defensive forward.
Tikkanen was a master of getting under the skin of his opponents and there’s an argument to be made that the Rangers would not have had the same team identity without Tikkanen’s aggravating presence on the ice.
Okay, so the loss of Weight wouldn’t have been as significant for the Rangers, depending on how highly you view Tikkanen’s contributions in 1994. Likewise, the two first-round draft picks would have had no impact on 1994. Niklas Sundstrom, taken 8th overall in 1993 by the Rangers, had a solid NHL career, but didn’t make his debut with the Rangers until 1995.
Fun fact, the Rangers’ first-round pick in 1994 was future Canuck Dan Cloutier.
There is, however, one more element of the potential Lindros trade that had an impact on both the Rangers and the Canucks.
No Vanbiesbrouck for Lidster trade
Assuming that Richter really wasn’t part of the Rangers’ trade package for Lindros, then Vanbiesbrouck would have joined the Nordiques instead. Perhaps Vanbiesbrouck would have been in net for the Avalanche’s two Stanley Cup wins instead of Patrick Roy.
For the Rangers and Canucks, however, it would have meant no Vanbiesbrouck trade in 1993.
No, Vanbiesbrouck never played for the Canucks. Instead, the Canucks traded for Vanbiesbrouck because of the 1993 expansion draft, with both the Florida Panthers and Anaheim Mighty Ducks joining the league.
Because teams could only protect one goaltender, the Rangers chose to protect Richter and decided to trade Vanbiesbrouck so they wouldn’t lose him for nothing. The Canucks acquired Vanbiesbrouck for “future considerations” in order to protect their goaltenders and defencemen. The rules of the 1993 expansion draft stated that only one goaltender or one defenceman could be selected from each team.
By acquiring Vanbiesbrouck and leaving him unprotected, it essentially guaranteed that the Panthers or Mighty Ducks would take Vanbiesbrouck. That meant the Canucks didn’t have to worry about losing young backup Kay Whitmore or any of their defencemen. The Panthers took Vanbiesbrouck, who became the team’s first star player.
To complete the trade after the expansion draft, the Canucks sent veteran defenceman Doug Lidster to the Rangers.
Yes, the Canucks acquired Vanbiesbrouck to protect Whitmore and their defencemen and still lost a defenceman in the process. That’s how concerned they were about the potential of losing Whitmore.
They shouldn’t have been. Whitmore was a significantly below-average backup goaltender during the 1993-94 season. With no Vanbiesbrouck available to protect Whitmore, he might have been claimed in the expansion draft, but it wouldn’t have affected the Canucks all that much. It can’t have been that hard to find an equivalent or better backup.
More importantly, the Canucks would have been able to hang onto Lidster, who had been with the Canucks for nine full seasons and was part of the team’s leadership core, wearing an “A” after even wearing a “C” as a co-captain with Trevor Linden and Dan Quinn during the 1990-91 season.
For the Rangers, Lidster was primarily depth, playing just 34 games in the regular season and only coming into the lineup in the playoffs because of injuries. Perhaps Lidster would have played the same role for the Canucks — a seventh defenceman playing behind Jyrki Lumme, Jeff Brown, Gerald Diduck, Dave Babych, Bret Hedican, and Dana Murzyn.
With Murzyn limited to just seven games in the playoffs because of injury, wouldn’t it have been nice for the Canucks to be able to turn to the veteran Lidster instead of journeyman Brian Glynn?
It’s not that Glynn was bad — he filled in fairly well alongside Lumme — but Lidster had been the Canucks’ best defenceman at times in his career and still had some quality hockey left in him, as he proved for the Rangers when he came into the lineup for the injured Karpovtsev.
In the Stanley Cup Final, Lidster scored two goals for the Rangers against his former team. In Game 2, he opened the scoring with a solo dash down the left wing, blowing past Gerald Diduck to drive to the net and beat Kirk McLean.
Lidster added another goal in Game 5. Maybe it would have been nice to have scoring goals for the Canucks in the 1994 Cup Final instead of against the Canucks.
Do the Canucks win the Cup in 1994 in this “what if” scenario?
In 1994, the Canucks came a goalpost away from taking the Rangers to overtime in Game 7. If the Rangers had traded for Lindros in 1992, they would have been missing some of the key contributors from that playoff run in ways that Lindros might not have been able to replicate. The Canucks take that series.
In fact, there’s a compelling case to be made that the Rangers don’t even make the 1994 Stanley Cup Final if they had traded for Lindros. It’s nothing against Lindros and more about the lack of forward depth and the loss of key contributors to that playoff run. Keep in mind, Lindros was only 20 in the 1993-94 season and didn’t even make the playoffs with the Flyers that year.
It’s more likely that the Rangers would have gone on a strong playoff run in subsequent years as the team began to be built more around Lindros than Messier, perhaps even as early as 1995, when he won his first and only Hart Trophy as league MVP.
It’s likely that the Canucks would have instead faced the Devils in the 1994 Stanley Cup Final, a team built from the net out, led by rookie goaltender Martin Brodeur and defencemen Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer.
Just like the Rangers, the Devils would have been considered the favourites, but I believe the Canucks would have beaten them in a seven-game series. Brodeur was still a rookie and the Canucks had scoring depth beyond their top line. Even if the Devils were able to shut down Pavel Bure and Trevor Linden — no easy task — the Canucks had a dangerous second line of Sergio Momesso, Cliff Ronning, and Martin Gelinas, not to mention Geoff Courtnall on the third line.
The Devils, meanwhile, had limited scoring from their forwards in the playoffs and would not have racked up as many goals as the Rangers did on McLean. They didn’t have a game-breaking forward the way the Rangers did with Messier or Kovalev, or the Canucks did with Bure or Linden.
As for Stevens and Niedermayer providing offence, the Rangers had Brian Leetch and Sergei Zubov. If the Canucks could force Game 7 against the Rangers and come a goalpost away from taking that game to overtime, they could beat the Devils.
Ultimately, there’s just one person to blame for the Canucks failing to win the 1994 Stanley Cup: Larry Bertuzzi.
It’s all Bertuzzi’s fault.