June 22nd, 1991
BUFFALO, NEW YORK
Announcing Eric Lindros’ name as the 1st Overall Pick at the 1991 Entry Draft seemed unnecessary for many reasons. The primary reason was that there was virtually nobody else who would be considered for that spot; Lindros was a special prospect, with a combination of size, skill, and grit that very few players had before him. But in the lead-up to the Draft, another reason why calling his name was unnecessary became clear. Lindros had declared that he would not play for the Quebec Nordiques, who had held the #1 Pick that year. Multiple reasons were cited for this, such as the lack of marketing opportunities in Quebec, as well as having to adapt to a French-speaking province.
Marcel Aubut, then the owner and president of the Nordiques, was not deterred. He would still order general manager Pierre Page to select Lindros with the 1st Pick. The young man that had been nicknamed “The Next One” would refuse to wear the Quebec jersey after being drafted, and would demand $3 million a year to play for the team, an amount he felt would be too much for Aubut to pay. The two sides would be at loggerheads for the next year, as Lindros would play in the OHL with the Oshawa Generals, and with the Canadian Olympic team at Albertville. He would miss the entire 1991-92 NHL season, still continuing his holdout.
On Draft Day in 1992, Aubut and Page would negotiate a pair of deals, with the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers in talks with the Nordiques to swing a trade. Though the Nordiques had agreed to a deal with the Flyers, they would change their mind on it, eventually agreeing with the Rangers instead; Flyers’ GM Russ Farwell though he had a case for making the Lindros deal first, and contacted the league to present his case. After ten days of arbitration, it was ruled that because Quebec had already agreed to a deal with the Flyers, they had to honour that transaction. Lindros would join Philadelphia for a hefty price: Ron Hextall, Steve Duchesne, Mike Ricci, Kerry Huffman, Peter Forsberg, Chris Simon, two 1st-Round Picks (1993 and 1994), and $15 million.
Lindros would go on to be one of the most dominant players of the 90s, winning the Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP in the 1995 lockout-shortened campaign. He would also help the team reach the Stanley Cup Final in 1997, only to lose to the Detroit Red Wings. After several injuries (including several concussions, and a collapsed lung that nearly ended his life), he would be traded to the New York Rangers under acrimonious circumstances in 2001. The Nordiques, meanwhile, would use the resources they had acquired in the deal to build a Stanley Cup contender themselves, winning the ultimate prize in 1996; by that time, however, they were now known as the Colorado Avalanche, having moved to Denver in the 1995 off-season.
But what if there was no problem between Eric Lindros and Marcel Aubut? What if Eric had decided to put on that Quebec jersey at the 1991 Draft, and play for the team immediately? Would Quebec have become better with one dominant player, rather than the collection of talent they acquired in the trade a year later? Would they have still won a Stanley Cup? And would they have stayed in Quebec in 1995, rather than moving to Colorado?
WHAT IF ERIC LINDROS SAID “YES” TO THE QUEBEC NORDIQUES?
WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: As it stood, Eric Lindros had no interest whatsoever in playing for the Quebec Nordiques, and gave a multitude of reasons for his decision to hold out. One of the most common excuses given by the Lindros camp was the lack of marketability for an Anglophone player based in Quebec; with little exposure in English-speaking hockey markets, and his lack of knowledge of French, Lindros would get fewer endorsement opportunities than he would elsewhere in the NHL.
In 2016, Lindros changed his tune. He would state that he had no intention of playing for Marcel Aubut under any circumstances, but would not go into specifics. A long-speculated (but never confirmed) reason for this is the rumour that during a meeting with the Lindros family, Aubut made derogatory remarks about Eric’s mother, Bonnie, in French – a language that Bonnie Lindros understood. Though nobody has offered any confirmation or denial regarding this theory, it is an act that, considering Aubut’s reputation in recent years, isn’t exactly implausible.
In the end, what changes depends on what story you believe to be true. Maybe Eric’s family decide that their son playing in Quebec is worth missing out on additional endorsement opportunities in other cities. Maybe one of Eric’s parents decides that it would be a good chance for Eric to learn a new language. Or, maybe, if the rumoured story is to be believed, Marcel Aubut holds his tongue, and doesn’t make the remarks he allegedly did towards Bonnie, thus eliminating any animosity between he and the Lindros family, particularly Eric.
The 1990-91 season was an extremely painful one for fans of the Quebec Nordiques, as they were last in the entire NHL by a wide margin. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, however, as they would have the 1st Overall Pick in the 1991 Entry Draft, thus giving them the chance to select one of the brightest prospects in years. Eric Lindros was a player that every team in the National Hockey League would give up virtually their entire franchise for; he had far more skill than one would expect for someone as large as he was (6’4”, 225 lbs.), making him a multi-faceted threat. Though the Nordiques had already picked twice in a row at the #1 spot, Lindros was a prospect beyond even the likes of Mats Sundin (1989) or Owen Nolan (1990).
At the beginning of the 1991 NHL Entry Draft in Buffalo, there was no mystery as to who Quebec would choose with their pick. There were some really good prospects expected to go in the top 5 (including the likes of Pat Falloon and Scott Niedermayer), but nobody would compare to Lindros, who had now gained the moniker “The Next One”. The big draft board at the Memorial Auditorium might as well have had Lindros’ name listed beside the Nordiques logo before they had even made the pick, so obvious would their choice be.
As expected, the Nordiques would draft Lindros with the #1 Pick, and after the obligatory hugs from friends and family, he would head to the floor of the Auditorium to join the front office staff of his new team. He would shake hands with all of the Quebec brass, including owner/president Marcel Aubut, and then receive a Nordiques jersey from one of the scouts. After putting it on, he would pose for photos on the draft stage, sporting his new colours. Soon after his selection, he would negotiate his first NHL contract with the team, putting pen to paper on a mammoth ten-year deal that would keep him in Quebec City until 2001.
FROM QUEBEC’S PERSPECTIVE
1991-92: The Colisee de Quebec was never the largest arena in the NHL, but even when the team was in their down years, the seats were mostly filled. This year, there would be no hope of getting a seat at the arena, as tickets would be exorbitantly priced for the debut of teenage phenom Eric Lindros. The former Oshawa General was set to make his home debut against the Hartford Whalers, and many a media personality had predicted that he would make an immediate impact in the NHL. He would certainly announce himself in a big way in his first game, getting into a fight with Hartford’s Kevin Dineen; Lindros would win the bout handily, as his team skated to a 4-2 win.
Between Lindros, Owen Nolan, Mats Sundin, and Joe Sakic, the Nordiques were chock-full of young talent, but weren’t quite ready to challenge the giants in the Adams Division. Their position at the bottom of the Adams table was virtually guaranteed, as they would get off to a terrible start. The Nordiques’ early-season struggles would eventually claim the job of head coach Dave Chambers, as Pierre Page would be brought in from the GM’s office to take over behind the bench in a dual role. The only thing that seemed to go right for Quebec was the fact that their young players were all playing key roles already; Sakic would lead the team with 94 points, while Lindros would grab 51 points in 66 games in his rookie year.
Quebec would finish second-last in the league with only 56 points. They were still a poor team, only knocked out of last place by the “expansion” San Jose Sharks. With Tampa Bay and Ottawa coming into the NHL in time for the 92-93 season, Quebec would have the 4th Overall Pick in the 1992 Draft, which they would use on Windsor Spitfires forward Todd Warriner. During the draft, the Nordiques would be approached by both Philadelphia and the New York Rangers for a trade involving the Calder Trophy-winning Lindros, but Marcel Aubut and Pierre Page would turn down all comers; Lindros was here to stay.
1992-93: The Nordiques have had enough time to re-build their squad, but the time is coming soon when they would need to start being competitive. Thanks to the addition of the Ottawa Senators to the Adams Division, Quebec was virtually guaranteed to finish at least 5th; all they needed to do now was get ahead of the Whalers, and they were in the post-season. The team certainly had the belief that they could get back to the playoffs, as Joe Sakic would say in an interview:
“We have players here who have the passion to play the game. I’m tired of hearing that we’re not good enough. We’ve got Lindros, and we’ve got a lot of others in this locker room who really care about the game.”
With Sakic as the first-line centreman, and Lindros on the second line, teams would have to make a difficult choice as to who they would put their strongest defenders against. This led to Sakic, and his linemate Mats Sundin, both cracking 100 points for the first time in their careers, with Sundin’s 114 points leading the way. Thanks to his physical style of play getting him in frequent injury trouble, Lindros would only play 61 games, but managed 75 points in that span, a sign that he could be a dominant force if only he could stay healthy.
Quebec was back in the playoffs, comfortably ahead of the likes of Hartford and Ottawa in the Adams. In fact, they had even passed the Buffalo Sabres for 3rd in the Division. This would set up a clash with their provincial rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, who had loaded up in anticipation of a long post-season run. They also had a clear advantage in goal, with star goaltender Patrick Roy matched up against Quebec’s young Stephane Fiset. Fiset had been overworked in the regular season, but it didn’t seem to show much, as he would finish the series with a 2.62 goals against average. With a GAA of only 1.21, however, Roy was simply too much for Quebec’s attack to solve, as the Habs would win the series in five games.
Quebec may have been out of the post-season at the first hurdle, but it was at least a step forward for a young team that was hoping to become contenders very soon. They would have a few holes to fill, and had a particular need for a back-up for Fiset, who had played 77 games in the regular season. The Nordiques would get the 20th Overall Pick in 1993, using their selection on blue-liner Mike Wilson.
1993-94: For the 93-94 season, a new playoff format was introduced, as match-ups were now determined within the Conference instead of the Division. When once, the Nordiques could simply finish 4th in the Adams Division to qualify, they now had to finish at least 8th in the re-named Eastern Conference. This meant not only dealing with the likes of Boston, Montreal, and Buffalo, but also with the New York Rangers, the New Jersey Devils, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were now grouped in the Northeast Division with the Nordiques. Captain Joe Sakic insisted his team was up to the task, and believed that Quebec could stand up to the powerhouses of the East.
Unfortunately, Sakic was wrong. Quebec certainly tried their hardest to compete with a handful of good teams in their Conference, but losing streaks at inopportune times left the team on the outside looking in for much of the season. Starting goalie Stephane Fiset was once again pushed beyond his capabilities, playing 72 games and registering a mediocre .890 save percentage. Despite the obvious defensive shortages, the offensive side of the game seemed to be just fine, as Eric Lindros would lead the team with 97 points in only 65 games. Sakic would be right behind him with 92 points, with Mats Sundin’s 85 points rounding out the team’s top 3.
With more teams to battle for playoff spots, the Nordiques were in tough. They would finish 11th in the Eastern Conference with 76 points, a drop of 13 from the previous year. This would spell the end of Pierre Page, as he would resign as head coach and GM following the regular season; in his place would be Pierre Lacroix as new GM, and Marc Crawford as the new coach. Lacroix, in particular, was looking to make an instant mark on the club, and would swing a massive trade with Toronto, sending Mats Sundin, Todd Warriner, and a 2nd-Round Pick to the Leafs on Draft Day in exchange for Wendel Clark and Sylvain Lefebvre. Clark, then the Toronto captain and fan favourite, would deliver a teary-eyed press conference following the trade, which would be front-page news across both Ontario and Quebec.
In addition to their deal for Wendel Clark, the Nordiques would have the 9th Overall Pick in the 1994 Entry Draft. Though the Islanders would make an offer for the pick, Quebec would hold on to their selection, using it on none other than Brett Lindros, Eric’s brother.
1994-95: The building of the Quebec Nordiques was not going as expected. Sure, they had a great 1-2 centre combo in Sakic and Lindros, as well as some good wingers like Owen Nolan and Wendel Clark, but the team just didn’t seem to have what they needed to put together a Cup run, or even a long playoff run of any kind. As much as the players and fans were frustrated, though, the owner was even more aggravated. No matter how much money he may have been making off of tickets and merchandise sales, Marcel Aubut knew that tough times were coming thanks to the weakening Canadian dollar, as teams like Winnipeg and Edmonton were beginning to have trouble staying competitive. Aubut would ask for a bailout from the province, but Premier Jacques Parizeau would reject his request.
The players knew that their future in the city was looking less and less certain, and if they were indeed to move somewhere else, they wanted to at least give the fans in Quebec something to cheer about. No player stepped up more than the prized pick of 1991, Eric Lindros; the star centreman would play 46 of 48 games in the lockout-shortened season, putting up an NHL-leading 75 points. He had a ton of help from the likes of Joe Sakic and Owen Nolan, who would notch 62 and 49 points, respectively. In goal, Stephane Fiset would play 41 games, occasionally getting some time to rest. That time off would help him stay fresh throughout the year, as he would put up a .910 save percentage in that time.
The Nordiques were back in the playoffs, grabbing 55 points to finish 4th in the Eastern Conference. This would pit them against the New Jersey Devils, who had gradually become one of the most dangerous team in the East. Once a laughingstock during their early days of the 1980s, the arrival of Lou Lamoriello as GM, then Jacques Lemaire as coach, transformed the club into a defensive powerhouse that very few could dominate. Quebec would be no different, as they would have trouble scoring against the relentless trap system that the Devils played. New Jersey would win the series in five games, eventually finishing the season with the Stanley Cup.
Game Five of the series against New Jersey would be the last NHL game played at the Colisee. Soon after the Nordiques were eliminated, Marcel Aubut would announce the sale of the club to COMSAT Entertainment Group, who would move the team to Colorado, and re-name them the “Avalanche”. It was a sad end for fans who had seen top-level hockey in Quebec City for the past twenty years, dating back to the Nordiques’ days in the WHA, but Aubut’s fear of losing money on the club would override any sentimental value the club may have had in the city. As one final parting gift to the Nordiques, Eric Lindros would be named the Hart Trophy winner as league MVP, while also winning the Lester B. Pearson Trophy, for MVP as voted by the players.
Colorado’s first-ever pick in the Entry Draft would be the 20th Pick in 1995. They would use the selection on Drummondville Voltigeurs blue-liner Denis Gauthier.
1995-96: The Quebec Nordiques were no more. In their place were the Colorado Avalanche, who now resided in the Pacific Division with Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Vancouver. There was little doubt that the Avs were moving into a tough division; while Edmonton had fallen from their mid-‘80s heights, and the Mighty Ducks were still trying to find their wings, the other four teams were still going to be tough to get wins against. Both Vancouver and Los Angeles had made Stanley Cup appearances in the last three years, and the Kings still had the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, under contract for one more year.
The Avs were certainly looking to make a great first impression in their new home, and with the duo of Lindros and Sakic in town, they were bound to succeed. The two would once again lead the team in points, with Sakic collecting 120 points, and Lindros bagging 115. They had some help from their wingers, as Valeri Kamensky and Claude Lemieux (who had been acquired from the New York Islanders in October for Wendel Clark) both coming close to scoring 40 goals each. Though Stephane Fiset would get much more rest this year, playing only 61 games, he would not be able to recreate his heroics from a season earlier, putting up a league-average .896 SV%. The worst news for Colorado, however, was that top prospect Brett Lindros would suffer a severe concussion mid-way through the campaign, eventually forced to retire.
Colorado had barged into the Pacific Division and put their feet up on the living room table like they owned the place. They would finish 1st in the Division, and 2nd in the Western Conference, with 107 points. They would meet their new divisional rivals Vancouver in the first round, a team desperate to recreate the magic of two years ago, when they reached the Stanley Cup Final. So desperate were they, in fact, that they actually fired coach Rick Ley late in the campaign, replacing him with former bench boss (and current GM) Pat Quinn. The move would work out, as Vancouver would keep the pace and force a Game Seven in Colorado; After a 6-6 slugfest in regulation, Pavel Bure’s OT winner would send the Canucks on to the next round.
There was certainly some enthusiasm from the Denver crowd for Colorado hockey, especially considering they had a megastar of the game in Eric Lindros. His jersey would be one of the hottest sellers across the NHL, and games involving the “Next One” would be hyped by whatever television network was showing them. It took little time for the McNichols Sports Arena to start selling out, and by the end of the year, people in the state were rushing to find a seat for Colorado games, so hot a ticket were they. The first-round exit left fans slightly disappointed, but hopeful that even better things were to come.
Colorado would have the 25th Overall Pick in the 1996 Draft, selecting defenseman Peter Ratchuk from Shattuck-St. Mary’s High School in Minnesota.
1996-97: The Avs’ first season in Colorado had been a financial success. The arena was close to full for the duration of the campaign, and they had one of the most marketable players in the league in Eric Lindros; Lindros’ family publicly praised the move to Denver, as it game their son more endorsement opportunities. The one problem for the Avalanche seemed to be their lack of a top netminder. Yes, Stephane Fiset was good, but he couldn’t get the job done himself. If the Avs wanted to contend for a Cup, they were going to have to improve in goal, or beef up their blue line. It would be hard to improve their forward core any more, considering they had a multitude of scoring threats.
The Avs’ goaltending solution, for the time being, was to platoon both Fiset and Garth Snow, making sure that neither was too overworked. As a makeshift plan, it was okay, as both goalies finished with save percentages slightly above the league average of .902; Fiset would finish with a .906 SV%, while Snow would register a percentage of .903 in 35 games of work. Normally the strength of the team, the attack was hampered by injuries to both Joe Sakic and Eric Lindros, neither of whom would play anywhere close to 82 games. Lindros would play only 52 games thanks to a groin injury, grabbing 79 points to lead the team, while Sakic would put up 74 points in 65 games.
Colorado was still at the top of a weak Pacific Division, finishing with 94 points. This would put them 2nd in the West, as the two Division winners automatically got the first two spots in the playoff seeding. Colorado would face their old WHA rivals, the Edmonton Oilers, who were coming out of their rebuild following the departure of Mark Messier earlier in the decade. Led by the likes of Ryan Smyth, Jason Arnott, and former Avalanche player Andrei Kovalenko, Edmonton was going to put up a fight, and managed to get the series to a seventh game, where they would stun the Avs on home ice, claiming a 4-3 series win.
The good feelings from the first season were starting to fade, albeit rather slowly. The front office could at least point to the injuries to Lindros and Sakic to explain their regular season struggles, but already, local hockey writers were taking aim at Pierre Lacroix after his pre-season deal to send Kovalenko to the Oilers for Scott Thornton. Thornton had only picked up 20 points in 73 games for Colorado, while Andrei had bagged 32 goals and 59 points for his new team, as well as scoring a hat trick in Game Seven of the playoffs. It was being called the worst deal in the short history of the Avalanche, and now served as a black mark for what was otherwise a pretty good team.
Colorado would get the 23rd Pick in the 1997 Entry Draft. Wanting to further improve their defensive core in the future, the Avs would pick Scott Hannan from the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets.
1997-98: The Avalanche were now a vulnerable team. They were starting to slip in the standings, and at the rate they were falling, they could be out of the playoff places within the year. To make matters worse, Joe Sakic, the captain of the team, had become a restricted free agent, and would be signed to an offer sheet by the New York Rangers. With the Avs in the midst of a convoluted ownership situation, it was uncertain whether the money would be allocated to match the Rangers’ offer sheet. In the end, Sakic was deemed too important to lose to New York, and the offer sheet was matched.
Sakic, who had run into some injury problems the previous year, was still not at full health. He would play only 64 games in the 97-98 season, registering 63 points. Eric Lindros would deal with his own share of injury issues, playing only 63 games, but still managing 71 points to lead the team once again. The Avs were very top-heavy offensively, with Lindros, Sakic, Valeri Kamensky, Martin Rucinsky, and Sandis Ozolinsh all cracking the 50-point mark, and nobody else even managing 30 points. In goal, the Avs made a deal near the trade deadline, sending Garth Snow to Vancouver for Sean Burke; Burke would become the starter of choice down the stretch, posting a .913 SV% in 11 games with Colorado.
The Avs were once again in the playoffs, but had relinquished their grip on the Pacific Division, finishing 2nd in the Pacific, and 5th in the Western Conference, with 86 points. This would set up a clash in the first round with the St. Louis Blues, a team that had a group of aging stars such as Brett Hull and Grant Fuhr, but also a stud blue-liner in Chris Pronger. Pronger would be one of the most potent forces of the series, not only picking up 8 points, but also stymieing both Sakic and Lindros whenever he was on the ice with them. Despite their aging core, the Blues were clearly favoured; they would do their job as expected, eliminating Colorado in six games.
The Avalanche were continuing to slip, and changes had to be made immediately. Marc Crawford would be dismissed as head coach, to be replaced by Bob Hartley, formerly of the AHL’s Hershey Bears. Pierre Lacroix was likely next, barring a great season from Colorado next year. Lacroix had other things to worry about at the moment, particularly the 1998 Entry Draft. His team would have two picks in the 1st Round, and would use them both on Quebecois players; the team’s natural pick at #16 would be used on Eric Chouinard, while the pick they had acquired from Washington a couple of years ago would sit at #21, used on blue-liner Mathieu Biron.
1998-99: On one hand, the Avalanche were falling down the standings, and needed to readjust very soon if they were to stay a playoff team. On the other hand, thanks to some re-alignment in the NHL, the chances of being Division Champions increased, as they were now in the four-team Northwest Division with a trio of Canadian teams: Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver. Getting to the top of the Northwest would give them one of the top three playoff spots in the Western Conference automatically, and would make a playoff run that much easier.
Bob Hartley knew that going into this season, he had a very decent team, and his presence seemed to get the club back on track to being a genuine contender. It didn’t hurt that he would have Joe Sakic and Eric Lindros healthy for more games. Both Sakic and Lindros would play 73 games each, and would tie for the team lead with 96 points, restoring the formidable centre duo that the Avs had boasted for years. Much as they were platooned, so too were the goalie tandem of Sean Burke and Stephane Fiset, who split the workload evenly. They would combine for a save percentage of .911, which put them nicely above the league average of .906 that year.
The Avalanche were on top of the Northwest Division with 104 points, which also put them 2nd in the West. This would pit them against the San Jose Sharks, which would have been a cakewalk, but for one major problem; on April 7th, Eric Lindros would be rushed to hospital following Colorado’s game against the Nashville Predators, having suffered a collapsed lung in a collision with an opposing player. This would leave him out for the duration of the post-season, and Colorado was taking no risks with a player who had already been hampered by injuries throughout his career. His absence was key, as the Sharks would claim the series in six games, leaving the Avalanche to be eliminated at the first hurdle once more.
Colorado would have the 26th Overall Pick in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, which they would use on Czech centreman Martin Havlat.
1999-00: In their first season under Bob Hartley, the Avalanche had become a strong regular season team once again, but the nagging problem of playoff performances remained. In four seasons in Denver, the Avalanche had yet to advance past the first round, despite a collection of very good players playing in the burgundy and blue. Something had to be done soon, and GM Pierre Lacroix would make a big move near the trade deadline, acquiring legendary blue-liner Ray Bourque from the Boston Bruins in a six-player deal. Bourque had gone over twenty years without hoisting the Stanley Cup, but even at his advanced age, he was still an elite NHL player, and would give the Avs a great chance at a long playoff run.
Despite the lingering injury problems plaguing Eric Lindros, the Avalanche now had back-up. Chris Drury, last year’s Calder Trophy winner as the NHL’s top rookie, would move into a spot on the top six whenever either of Lindros or Joe Sakic was ailing, and he would end up with an impressive 62 points. His fellow sophomore Milan Hejduk fared even better, putting up 36 goals and 72 points as he was paired up alongside Sakic on a more frequent basis. The main weak spot for Colorado was in goal, as Stephane Fiset’s save percentage regressed to .901 in 57 games, and he would be benched down the stretch in favour of Mikhail Shtalenkov, who was acquired from Phoenix for Sean Burke earlier in the season.
Colorado was still the class of the Northwest, but they would finish 3rd in the Western Conference with 95 points. It would be none other than the Phoenix Coyotes, the team that Sean Burke had been traded to, that the Avalanche would face in the first round. Phoenix was steadily building into a playoff force, with the likes of Keith Tkachuk, young power forward Shane Doan, and former Chicago star Jeremy Roenick leading their attack. Colorado would stop at nothing to break their first-round duck, and would get out to a 3-0 series lead, only to drop the next two. Game Six, however, would be a shootout in the Avs’ favour, as they would claim an 8-5 victory to finally advance to the second round.
Colorado’s present for making it to the second round was the Detroit Red Wings, who had become one of the dynasties of the era. A truly stacked team, Detroit had made short work of the Los Angeles Kings in the opening round, and looked ready to roll on. Colorado wasn’t about to let them do that, though, and would shut down the Wings’ potent attack all series long. The Avs would win it in six, taking the last game thanks to a sudden death winner by Chris Drury. Now on to the Conference Final, the Avs were up against the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Dallas Stars; despite Dallas being the team to beat in the NHL, Colorado would put up a fight, sending the series to Game Seven. Dallas would win a feisty affair by a score of 4-2, advancing to their second straight Cup Final, but not without controversy, as the two sides would brawl late in the game following an attempted hit by Derian Hatcher on Eric Lindros. Though the hit didn’t connect, it appeared from Colorado’s perspective to be a dirty headshot attempt, and Bob Hartley would have words with Ken Hitchcock about the check during the post-game handshakes.
They may not have gotten to the Cup Final, but the Avalanche now had real belief that a Stanley Cup was on the way very soon. They got past the first round for the first time in Avs history, and they had a “rally-around-the-flag” moment thanks to Hatcher’s attempted hit on Lindros, which showed that the team would drop the gloves in honour of their teammate. Ray Bourque, the veteran deadline acquisition, would sign for one more year, as he felt that this club had what it takes to finally win him the Cup that he had been seeking for so long.
The Avs would not have a 1st-Round Pick in 2000, having traded their selection to Boston in the Ray Bourque deal. They did, however, have a previous agreement with New Jersey that the Devils could swap picks with Colorado if they so chose, a deal struck as part of a larger trade that saw Claude Lemieux leave the Avs. New Jersey would exercise their swap right, taking Colorado’s natural pick that year to select defenseman David Hale.
2000-01: It seemed as if everything was set up for the Avalanche to finally capture the elusive Stanley Cup. They now had a plethora of attacking options, especially down the middle of the ice, and the acquisition of Ray Bourque bolstered an already powerful blue line that included a mix of established players like Adam Foote and Greg de Vries, and emerging youngsters such as Denis Gauthier and Scott Hannan. The only question that remained was whether the goaltending could carry the team the rest of the way; that question would only grow louder before the season even started, as Stephane Fiset would suffer a devastating knee injury in pre-season play. Desperate for a solution, Pierre Lacriox would sign former Pittsburgh goalie Peter Skudra, slotting him into the starting role alongside rookie back-up David Aebischer.
Skudra would be forced into 55 games of work, and it was clear that he was not the solution for a team that was expected to contend. He would post an awful .879 SV%, and by the end of the year, Aebischer would be forced into the starting role by default. The good news for Colorado was that the team in front of them was still one of the best in the league, with Joe Sakic’s 118 points putting him 2nd in the NHL. Even beyond Sakic, there were several players contributing offensively, with all of Milan Hejduk (79 points), Eric Lindros (74), Chris Drury (65), and Ray Bourque (59) all cracking the 50-point plateau. Heck, even rookie Martin Havlat was a threat, posting 42 points in 73 games.
Colorado was gunning for top spot in the league, and the deadline deal for Rob Blake would only help them more. The Avs would clinch the President’s Trophy with 117 points, securing home-ice advantage for the duration of the playoffs. They would be matched up against the Vancouver Canucks in the first round, with David Aebischer as their starter. Though the Canucks had some decent talent, including Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi, and the Sedin twins, it just wasn’t enough to match the Avalanche, who would win the series in six. Next up were the Los Angeles Kings, the team that Colorado had acquired Blake from in the first place; the Kings made it a serious contest thanks to the stellar play of goalie Felix Potvin, but with a 5-2 win in Game Seven, the Avs were through to the Conference Final once more.
The Western Conference Final would see the Avalanche face the St. Louis Blues, their old nemesis from a few years back. Chris Pronger, who once tormented both Sakic and Lindros, had blossomed into one of the best defensemen in the game (if not THE best), and the addition of Keith Tkachuk mid-season made them a serious contender for the Cup. The Blues started off slow, but once they found a weakness in the Avs, they pounced, turning a two-game deficit into a 3-2 series lead. Though the Avalanche responded with a Game Six win, the Blues would win Game Seven to advance to their first Stanley Cup final in almost thirty years.
For the Avalanche, the loss was akin to a mortal blow. They had a team that could compete with the very best in the league, but without a true solution in goal, they were never going to claim the Stanley Cup. To make matters worse, Ray Bourque was set to call it a career, having never won the Cup he had so longed for. Stan Kroenke, who had purchased the club in the summer of 2000, was looking at the team’s bottom line, and rumours were spreading that one of either Eric Lindros or Joe Sakic would be let go to shed salary. Those rumours would be proven false after Lindros was signed to a three-year extension, securing the core of the team for just a little while longer.
Colorado would once again be shut out of the 1st Round of the NHL Entry Draft, having traded their 2001 1st-Rounder to Los Angeles to acquire Rob Blake. The Kings would use the Avs’ pick on Dave Steckel, a centreman from Ohio State University.
THE AVALANCHE AFTER TEN YEARS: When one looks at this club in both 1991 and 2001, it is hard to believe that this is the same team. At the time of the drafting of Eric Lindros, the Quebec Nordiques were an awful club, even if they had some promise. Ten years later, not only had they moved to Denver, Colorado, but they had become one of the strongest teams in the regular season, but never quite able to make that last step toward the Stanley Cup. Indeed, there are only three players remaining from those horrid Quebec teams of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s: Joe Sakic, Eric Lindros, and Stephane Fiset.
Though there have always been rumours about the Lindros family being upset over their son going to Quebec in the first place, there has been little hint of any dissatisfaction from any member of the family in Colorado. Lindros might not always be the best in the league (or even the best on his team), but he is still one of the most visible faces in the hockey world. His endorsement deals have significantly increased since the move, and he has just recently signed an extension to keep him with the Avs through the 2003-04 season. So long as the Avalanche keep him healthy, he is still a game-changer, and his combination with Sakic makes the team dangerous every game they play.
Going into the 2001-02 season, Colorado’s line-up looks like this:
F1. Chris Drury – Joe Sakic – Milan Hejduk
F2. Martin Havlat – Eric Lindros – Shjon Podein
F3. Vaclav Nedorost – Steven Reinprecht – Dan Hinote
F4. Ville Nieminen – Stephane Yelle – Rick Berry
D1. Greg de Vries – Rob Blake
D2. Todd Gill – Rhett Warrener
D3. Denis Gauthier – Scott Hannan
G1. David Aebischer
G2. Stephane Fiset
As scoring is slowly being taken out of the game thanks to the advent of the trap and similar defensive structures, it becomes incredibly important to have multiple scoring threats. Colorado has those kind of threats on their first line alone; both Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk are capable of getting 40 goals a year or more, and Sakic’s playmaking ability means that virtually anybody that happens to be on the ice with him is capable of scoring. The second line is built around the strength and skill of Eric Lindros, who may not be the “Next One”, but is still one of the best in the game when healthy. His ability to force himself into a game will only benefit his line-mates, who can expect to see their own point totals rise. One of those line-mates is Martin Havlat, who was drafted as a centre (and still plays there on the second power play unit), but will move to the wing alongside Lindros.
The Avalanche defensive group is one of the best in the game at suffocating opposing forwards. Though there are a couple of two-way presences in the likes of Todd Gill and Rob Blake, most of the blue-liners are geared toward shut-down play. Greg de Vries plays alongside Blake, having registered a career-high +23 rating the previous year, while Rhett Warrener provides a stay-at-home presence on the second unit alongside Gill. The third pairing consists of two young defenders with a penchant for physical play, with Denis Gauthier in particular serving as an enforcer on the rare occasion.
Of course, Colorado’s defending NEEDS to be good. The team is going with a second-year netminder in David Aebischer, who is entering his first year as a starter. He was pretty good in a back-up role, and played well in the post-season, but it remains to be seen how he fares in a full season of play. Behind him is long-time team member Stephane Fiset, who was sidelined for much of last year with an injury, and has clearly not shaken its’ effects. Of the bolded players, four of them were drafted by the club. Lindros, of course, is held on to, while Gauthier (1995), Hannan (1997), and Havlat (1999) were both drafted by the Avalanche in this new timeline. Rhett Warrener was acquired via trade; in 1999, the Avs would send another of their new picks, Mike Wilson, to Florida in exchange for Warrener and a 5th-Round Pick in 1999, which would be used on Ryan Miller. Finally, having never acquired either of Ron Hextall or Patrick Roy, the Nordiques/Avalanche have to hold on to Stephane Fiset, and though he is a faithful servant to the team, a knee injury has relegated him to the back-up role.
Next week, I look at the non-deal from Philadelphia’s perspective, and sum up the changes in the hockey world as a result of the trade not taking place.