This past season, the Colorado Avalanche swung a trade that’s likely to go down in history as one of the most impactful in franchise history.
When Joe Sakic traded Matt Duchene to the Ottawa Senators, he got a return that surprised even his most loyal fans. Sam Girard, Vladislav Kamenev, Shane Bowers and a draft pick in each of the first three rounds – that’s a return that should almost certainly have a major impact on any success this team has over the next decade.
No matter how impactful the Duchene trade ends up being, though, any kind of Avalanche fan already knows - it’s only ever going to be the second most significant trade in franchise history. That’s because twenty years ago today, the Quebec Nordiques made possibly the biggest trade in NHL history when they sent Eric Lindros to the Philadelphia Flyers.
It’s the trade that lay the foundation for what is now seen as the glory days of the Avalanche. The deal led to two Stanley Cups, two Presidents’ Trophies, and an amazingly dominant eight straight division championships.
But did anybody see that coming?
When the Quebec Nordiques organization drafted Eric Lindros first overall in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft, it was looked at by many as a mistake.
From a management perspective, it appeared to be a disastrous blunder that would have long-term negative effects on the organization. Lindros was far and away the best prospect in the draft - but long before the draft, he had let it be known that he would never play in Quebec.
The team could have taken the easy route. They could have selected one of Scott Niedermayer or Pat Faloon – both of whom had spent the previous season dominating the WHL.
They didn’t, though. The Nordiques called his bluff and drafted Lindros.
Things didn’t pan out immediately, of course. The pick kicked off what became a year-long stalemate between the team and their prized prospect.
Lindros held true to his word. Despite being unquestionably NHL-ready, he spent the next season playing with the Oshawa Generals of the OHL. He also took the opportunity to play for Team Canada, winning a silver medal at the Olympics.
The Quebec Nordiques went on to have a 20-58-12 season, finishing last in the East while their 52 points put them ahead of only the expansion San Jose Sharks.
The horrendous season was likely the straw that broke the camel’s back.
On the weekend of June 30, 1992, the Quebec Nordiques set up a makeshift office in their Montreal hotel room and began fielding offers for the disgruntled superstar prospect. There was so much action, Quebec traded Lindros twice; once to the New York Rangers and once to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Mass confusion led to two different teams thinking they owned the rights to Lindros and a third-party arbitrator had to be brought in to rule on the matter.
It sounds like the convoluted plot of a courtroom drama. But over the next week, all three teams were forced to hire lawyers to argue their case in front of arbitrator Larry Bertuzzi. It’s a fascinating story, and Adam Kimelman put together a wonderful oral history of the whole ordeal.
In essence, Bertuzzi had to rule on whether or not the Nordiques had a firm agreement for Lindros in place with the Rangers before they traded him to the Flyers. And in the end, Bertuzzi ruled that the trade to Philadelphia was valid - and the deal that brought the Nordiques their greatest glory days (albeit in another city and time zone) was given the rubber stamp of approval.
Going to the Nordiques was a high-end point producing defenseman in Steve Duchesne, another veteran defender in Kerry Huffman, starting goalie Ron Hextall, a young roster player in Mike Ricci, the 25th overall selection in the 1990 draft Chris Simon, two first round picks, $15 million, and the player who was drafted five spots after Lindros in 1991 – some kid they called Foppa.
It was a massive haul for one player, but Eric Lindros was truly that good. Some considered him the best prospect in the history of the NHL. He went on to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and had his No. 88 retired by the Philadelphia Flyers this past season. He was a wonderful NHLer that was tragically cut down in his prime thanks to some very scary head injuries.
The trade gave the Flyers a Hart Trophy winner and one of the most dominant players to ever play in the NHL. But the trade also gave the city of Denver two Stanley Cups.
Looking back, it’s clear that Peter Forsberg was the most valuable part of the trade - but at the time, he was a bit of a mystery. He had been drafted sixth overall, but no one had seen him play in North America yet. He starred for Sweden at the 1992 World Junior Hockey Championship and scored four goals later that year at the senior men’s World Championship. He was a high-end prospect, but he was viewed as one of two key pieces of the package going to Quebec.
At the time of the deal, Mike Ricci was a young roster player that most thought was at the beginning of a long career as a NHL star. The Scarborough, Ontario native was selected 4th overall in the 1990 Entry Draft and had already recorded two 20-goal seasons in the NHL before his 21st birthday. The team was so enamored with him that they made the 20-year old Ricci and alternate captain before he had played a game for the franchise. He was a high-end scorer that was going to give the team some grit down the middle to compliment Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin.
He was a star in the making, and while he never fulfilled his true potential, Mike Ricci had a major impact on the Colorado Avalanche winning their first Stanley Cup in 1996.
Along with Ricci, the 1993 first round pick turned into Jocelyn Thibault – who turned into Patrick Roy. Ron Hextall turned into Adam Deadmarsh, and Steve Duchesne was a major piece in the acquisition of Claude Lemiuex. The trade essentially created a core to go around Joe Sakic, which would eventually lead to a Stanley Cup win in 1996.
“Lindros didn’t break any rules,” said Page. “He followed every rule, but it turned out to be greatly positive for Quebec that [the Nordiques] had to trade him. Lindros turned out to be a hell of a player who didn’t win [a Stanley Cup]. But there’s no guarantee he would have won in Quebec, because we wouldn’t have had the five other players we got in the deal. For me, the impact is in the result.” - former Nordiques General Manager Pierre Page.
Pierre Page, of course, is the man who pulled off the trade - and he’s almost inarguably right. Drafting and subsequently trading away Lindros is the best thing that could have happened for the franchise, because the result was a team set up perfectly to win the Stanley Cup. Lindros was one of the most dominant players of his time, but without the trade, you don’t have Foppa, Lemieux, Deadmarsh, Ricci and Roy - and without those five, you don’t have the first Stanley Cup.
What makes the impact of the trade even more unbelievable, though, is that if you continue along down the trade tree, Lemieux became Ray Bourque, Deadmarsh became Rob Blake and Steve Reinprecht and Mike Ricci became Alex Tanguay. The Lindros trade wasn’t only directly responsible for the 1996 Cup, you can give it credit for the 2001 champions as well.
There is no way we could possibly know would have come of a Joe Sakic and Eric Lindros-led Colorado Avalanche team. Would they have won a Cup? Maybe, but not likely. Would a Flyers team lead by Peter Forsberg in his prime have won a Stanley Cup? It’s possible, but we can’t know.
The one thing we do know for sure is that by trading him away for what is likely the biggest haul in NHL history, the Colorado Avalanche were set up for the next two decades - a period of time that saw the franchise bring home two Stanley Cups.