This is Part II of II in my series of articles on what would happen if Eric Lindros had agreed to join the Quebec Nordiques, rather than hold out for a trade. To view Part I, click here.
FROM PHILADELPHIA’S PERSPECTIVE
1991-92: While they may not have dropped low enough to get the “Next One” in the Entry Draft, the Flyers believed they had a pretty good pick in Peter Forsberg. Most local media members panned the pick, saying that Forsberg wasn’t worth being selected that early, but GM Russ Farwell and his scouting staff were convinced that Forsberg was set to be a special talent. They would have to wait for the Swedish starlet to head over to North America, however, as he would stay over in his native country to continue with MODO, the team he had started his pro career with.
It was no real loss for Philadelphia, who were not really in need of any help at this point. Forsberg’s talent could even hamper the Flyers, as they were stuck with a young roster that was still a ways away from being competitive. Very few regulars on the team were above the age of 30, and a handful of the top players on the team would be shipped out over the course of the year. In their place were some talented youngsters, the likes of which included Rod Brind’Amour, Mike Ricci, and late-season acquisition Mark Recchi, who would register over a point a game down the stretch after joining the team from their state rivals Pittsburgh.
The Flyers were forced to take their lumps. When once, they were a formidable force in the NHL, they were now among the bottom-feeders. They would finish last in the Patrick Division, and 8th-wosrt in the league, with 75 points. Sure, their Division may have been the very best in the game at that time, but seeing Philadelphia at the bottom of that list was enough for hockey writers in the area to start questioning Russ Farwell’s role with the team. In an attempt to placate disgruntled fans, Bobby Clarke would be hired by the team as senior VP, and his first act would be to order Farwell to make a trade for young Quebec sensation Eric Lindros, who had just finished his rookie year with the Nordiques.
Try as he might, Farwell was unable to convince Pierre Page to part with Lindros on Draft Day in 1992. Word of the offered package got out, and it was a doozy: Ron Hextall, Steve Duchesne, Mike Ricci, Kerry Huffman, Peter Forsberg, a 1st-Round Pick in 1993, and $15 million in cash, not to mention future considerations. Even considering the sheer size of the deal that Farwell had offered to the Nordiques, it wasn’t enough for them to part with someone they felt would be a genuine legend of the game. Philadelphia would abandon their pursuit of Lindros, instead focusing on their own 1st-Rounder in the #7 slot; they would use that pick on Ryan Sittler, son of former Flyer Darryl Sittler.
1992-93: Expectations for the 92-93 season were, in a word, low. With Russ Farwell now a popular target for both media and fans, there was a pervasive belief at this point that if this team could not make the playoffs, the General Manager was toast. Early results weren’t good, either, as the Flyers found themselves near the bottom of the league thanks to a pair of winless streaks. But with the talent that the team had, the losing couldn’t last forever, and Philly would mark November with a five-game winning run, then two more wins in three games near the end of the month.
As the season went on, it became clear that Philadelphia was for real. Mark Recchi, who had been a top-line player with the Pens, showed he didn’t have to rely on Mario Lemieux thanks to his team-leading 53 goals and 123 points. The centre duo of Rod Brind’Amour and Mike Ricci was similarly effective, with Brind’Amour grabbing 86 points, and Ricci 78. Heck, even Brent Fedyk, who had never found his way with the Detroit Red wings early in his career, put up 58 points in his first season with the Flyers. In addition to all of their skilled forwards, the Flyers still had Steve Duchesne, who put up a career-high 82 points, and earned consideration for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.
Philadelphia was back, in a BIG way. They would finish 2nd in the Patrick Division with 93 points, finishing ahead of the Washington Capitals by way of tie-breaking procedures. It was those Capitals that Philadelphia would face in the first round of the post-season, with experts calling that series the one to watch. Though the Flyers were skilled, Washington was pretty good, too. They had a good number of high-scoring forwards (including Peter Bondra, Mike Ridley, and veteran Dale Hunter), as well as some impressive blue-line talent to boot. The series would be a feisty one, with many a fight, and a horrific post-goal hit from behind by Hunter on Mike Ricci; of course, even with that setback, “feisty” suited Philly well, and they would win the series in five games.
The Flyers’ second-round opponent would be the New York Islanders, who had stunned the two-time champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. Though they weren’t quite like the dynastic team that had dominated the early ‘80s, the Islanders still had a ton of determination; of course, they HAD to be determined if they could take down a team with Mario Lemieux on it. Their will was put to the test in their series against Philly, but the Islanders would not break, coming away with another series win in six games.
Though they may have been knocked out at the second hurdle, Philadelphia was looking like a team that could be ready to compete for a Stanley Cup very soon. Of course, not everything was rainbows and roses in Philly, as the time was coming for key players to re-negotiate their contracts, not the least of whom was Steve Duchesne. Coming off of a career year, Duchesne was expecting to be paid well, but he would complain of a lowball offer from GM Russ Farwell, as he would instead become a restricted free agent following the season.
The Flyers would have the 16th Overall Pick in the 1993 NHL Draft. Wanting some defensive cover, Philadelphia would draft blue-liner Nick Stajduhar out of the OHL’s London Knights.
1993-94: After a return to the playoffs the previous year, things were looking up for the Flyers, who now had some local hype behind them. There were, however, a few spanners in the works, as both Mike Ricci and Steve Duchesne would not be present for the start of training camp. Ricci was still recovering from the hit that sidelined him in the playoffs, while Duchesne was an RFA, still in the midst of his holdout. While Ricci would eventually make his way back to the team, Duchesne would not, as he would be traded mid-season in a deal that sent he and Jason Bowen to the St. Louis Blues for Garth Butcher, Bob Bassen, and Ron Sutter.
Whether it was due to the lingering spectre of the Duchesne holdout, or due to other factors, the team this year just couldn’t keep up to the pace they had set last year. Mark Recchi was still a great player, leading the team with 107 points, and Rod Brind’Amour wasn’t too far off with 97 points himself. But the damage from the Hunter hit had been done to Mike Ricci, as he would struggle a bit this year, putting up only 51 points – a drop of 27 from the previous campaign. Though Garry Galley and Yves Racine did their best to try and carry the load from the blue line, they just weren’t quite enough to measure up to Duchesne, who was back to a point-per-game pace with the Blues.
Thanks to the re-alignment of the league, the playoff rules had changed. Despite the changes, however, the Flyers were still eliminated from post-season contention, finishing 6th in the new Atlantic Division, and 10th in the re-named Eastern Conference, with 80 points. After clashes with the likes of Bobby Clarke and Ed Snider, Russ Farwell would be sacked as General Manager, with Clarke himself taking over Farwell’s job. Head coach Terry Simpson would also be let go, having been fired by Farwell just prior to the GM’s own dismissal.
Philadelphia would get the 10th Overall Pick in the 1994 Entry Draft, which they would use on blue-liner Nolan Baumgartner.
1994-95: The Philadelphia Flyers had been, in a way, reborn. The entire front office from the previous year had been cleaned out, save for only the owner, Ed Snider, and the senior vice president, Bobby Clarke, who had now taken over as General Manager. Also coming in to take over behind the bench would be former Washington head coach Terry Murray, a former Philly player back in the late ‘70s. The new management group would have ample time to prepare for the new campaign, as a lockout would wipe out the first few months of the schedule.
When play resumed, the new faces in management were joined by a new face on the ice: Peter Forsberg. Having stayed in Sweden for the last few years following his selection in the 1991 Entry Draft, Forsberg had carved out a reputation for himself as the best player not in the NHL at the time; heck, he became a national icon in his homeland thanks to his gold medal-winning shootout winner in the 1994 Winter Olympics. Forsberg turned out to be every bit the player he was advertised to be, scoring 50 points in 47 games in his rookie year en route to a Calder Trophy win. His partnership with wingers John Leclair and Mikael Renberg had been nicknamed the “Legion of Doom”, as Forsberg’s skill combined well with the size of his wingers.
Forsberg’s arrival made the Flyers an instant contender. The team recovered the form that had made them so dangerous a couple of years ago, finishing 1st in the Eastern Conference with 64 points in the abbreviated season. The Flyers would be drawn against the defending Stanley Cup champs, the New York Rangers. Though they had lost Cup-winning head coach Mike Keenan, the Rangers still had many of their stars from last year, including captain Mark Messier and goalie Mike Richter. Even with the star power that they had, though, the Rangers were no match for the Legion of Doom, as Renberg, Leclair, and Forsberg would combined for 17 points in a four-game sweep.
The Flyers had advanced to the second round, and were now pitted against the Washington Capitals, who had a lethal combination of their own: “Juneau to Bondra”. Joe Juneau’s passes just seemed to constantly find the Slovakian sniper Peter Bondra, who would lead the league in goals during the shortened season. While the Legion of Doom didn’t quite measure up, Rod Brind’Amour did, as he would record 8 points in a five game series win. In the Eastern Conference Final against New Jersey, however, neither the Legion of Doom nor Brind’Amour could solve the Devils’ disciplined trap game; New Jersey would win the Conference Final in six games to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
After being so criticized before his move to North America, Peter Forsberg had quickly established himself as a darling in Philadelphia, and at such a young age, he was only going to get better. With the Legion of Doom, as well as the heroics of Brind’Amour against Washington, the Flyers were a multi-faceted threat, and could expect to make a serious run to the Cup Final very soon – at least when they could figure out how to break down the New Jersey Devils.
Philly would get the 25th Overall selection in the 1995 Entry Draft. Needing a future successor to Ron Hextall, the Flyers would draft Marc Denis, a goaltender from the Chicoutimi Sagnueneens of the QMJHL.
1995-96: The Flyers meant business. Not only did they dominate the East in the shortened season, but one of the few teams in the Conference that could keep up with them, the Quebec Nordiques, had moved to Denver, Colorado – thus taking them out of the Conference altogether. The objectives for the new campaign were two-fold: stake your claim to top spot in the Eastern Conference in a full season, and find a way to beat the New Jersey Devils, who were revolutionizing the game thanks to their rigorous defensive structure.
Having set the league alight in his rookie year, Peter Forsberg was out to prove he was no fluke. The Legion of Doom was back this year, and Forsberg made sure they were still a force to be reckoned with, putting up a team-leading 116 points in his sophomore season. He had tons of help from both John Leclair and Rod Brind’Amour, as both players would collect over 80 points each – Leclair with 97 and Brind’Amour with 87. Though the team would lose Mikael Renberg late in the season due to injuries, they would find a hell of a replacement, acquiring former 1st-Overall Pick Dale Hawerchuk from the St. Louis Blues; Hawerchuk would make an instant impact, getting 20 points in 16 games with the Flyers.
Philadelphia were once again the class of the Eastern Conference, if only just barely. They would finish with 106 points, one ahead of Pittsburgh for top spot in the East, setting up a first-round clash with the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were making their first-ever appearance in the post-season. Having only joined the league in the 1992-93 season, Tampa Bay had taken some time to get up to speed, and with Daren Puppa playing so well in goal (.918 SV% in 57 games of work), they were sure to be competitive, even against a team like Philly. Tampa Bay would indeed win two games, but it would be the Flyers that took the series in six, with Dale Hawerchuk’s 7 points leading the way.
The Flyers would stay in Florida for their next series, taking on another recently-added team in the Florida Panthers. The Panthers had started play in the 1993-94 campaign, and thanks to their selection of John Vanbiesbrouck from the New York Rangers in their Expansion Draft, they became instantly respectable. Vanbiesbrouck nearly won the Vezina Trophy as top goalie in his first year with the Panthers, and was still performing well in 1996. He would turn out to be the deciding factor in this series, registering an insane .949 SV% as his team went on to win it in six games.
For Philly, it could only be called bad luck. They had everything they needed to be a Cup contender, only to be bounced by a third-year team who were riding a hot goalie. It was also a disappointment that they could not bring a Stanley Cup back to the CoreStates Spectrum, which the team would use for the last time that year, before moving to the CoreStates Center next season. Despite their upset at the hands of the Panthers, GM Bobby Clarke was hopeful that the team would make it to the Stanley Cup very soon, a belief shared by much of the fan base.
While Philadelphia did not have their own pick in the 1996 Entry Draft (having traded it to San Jose as part of a deal for Pat Falloon), they did have the 15th Overall Pick, which they acquired from the Maple Leafs in a trade that sent defenseman Dimitri Yushkevich to Toronto. The 15th Pick would be used on Lithuanian centre Dainius Zubrus, who had played the last year with the Pembroke Lumber Kings in the COJHL. The 24th, Pick, meanwhile, would bounce around the league before finally ending up with the re-located Phoenix Coyotes; the team that was previously known as the Winnipeg Jets would use the Flyers’ pick on Drummondville Voltigeurs centre Daniel Briere.
1996-97: After two successive years of near-misses, belief in Philadelphia was that this would be the year the Flyers finally got back to the Stanley Cup Final and claimed the trophy that they had not won for over twenty years, now. Not only did they have the Legion of Doom and Rod Brind’Amour, but now they had veteran Dale Hawerchuk to provide cover. Of course, even all this wasn’t enough for Bobby Clarke; in December, Clarke would swing a deal with the Hartford Whalers, trading their 1st-Round Pick in 1997, among other pieces, to get offensive blue-liner Paul Coffey.
Though getting Paul Coffey did certainly help (26 points in 37 games post-trade), the offensive strength of the Flyers had been lessened, as Peter Forsberg found himself sitting out a few games due to injuries. He would finish with 86 points in 65 games, but as a whole, the Legion of Doom was starting to lose the punch that made them so intimidating. Where the offense faltered, however, the defense stepped up; Even with the team’s goalies posting a save percentage below the league average of .902, the Flyers allowed the third-fewest shots in the league, behind only Dallas and Detroit.
No offensive struggles could stop the Flyers for long. They were not just on top of the East with 105 points, but on top of the entire league. They would be paired up with the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, a team that had just limped in to the post-season despite having some impressive young talent, including goaltending prospect Jocelyn Thibault. Thibault, however, was no replacement for his predecessor, the one and only Patrick Roy, and it quickly showed in this series, as the Flyers torched him for 20 goals in a five-game series win. Mike Richter and the New York Rangers were next; despite a fantastic performance from free agent signing Wayne Gretzky (9 points in the series to lead both teams), the Flyers brushed them aside as well, winning another five-gamer.
It was once again Philadelphia and New Jersey. The Devils had easily dispatched both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres to this point, and looked every bit the team that had won a Stanley Cup two years ago. Once a team that could outscore just about anybody, Terry Murray had molded the Flyers into a more defensive team over the past year, believing that if they couldn’t beat New Jersey with firepower, they would at least have to grind the Devils into submission. The plan worked; the two sides would split the first four games, but the Flyers would win the next two, with Ron Hextall getting a shutout in Game Six to clinch the Prince of Wales trophy for Philly.
Philadelphia had finally made it. They were back in the Stanley Cup Final, and the only team standing in their way were the Detroit Red Wings. Detroit were no ordinary team, though. Led by a multitude of stars, including the formidable forward duo of Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, the Wings had ended a lengthy Cup drought last year, and looked ready to win another one. After preparing so diligently for the suffocating style of the Devils, the Flyers had no answer for the endless waves of attacks by Detroit, and they would lose the series in a straight sweep. For the second year in a row, the Wings would hoist Lord Stanley’s trophy.
Disappointment spread all across Philadelphia. Local writers castigated both the team and the coach for being unable to contain the Red Wings, no matter how good their opponents may have been. Feeling that the team had let themselves down at the most important point of the season, coach Terry Murray would say that the Flyers were in a “choking situation”, a remark that would get him fired on the spot by Bobby Clarke. It seemed that the one player immune to criticism was Peter Forsberg, who had led the team with 26 points in the post-season, and earned consideration for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
For the second straight year, Philadelphia had traded their natural 1st-Round Pick, this time acquiring Paul Coffey from Hartford. The Whalers – who would move to Carolina to become the Hurricanes in the off-season – would trade the pick to San Jose, who used what would end up being the 26th Overall selection on Kingston Frontenacs bleu-liner Kevin Grimes.
1997-98: It would normally be strange to see a fan base so pessimistic following a Stanley Cup Final appearance, but Philadelphia was in no way normal. Firstly, the Flyers had gotten swept in the Cup Final by the Red Wings, and following the series, fired their coach for saying they were in a “choking situation”. Secondly, one of the key veterans from the last two years, Dale Hawerchuk, had hung up the skates, depriving the team of an important presence on and off the ice. Thirdly, they were in Philadelphia; expecting anything normal from that city would be akin to the proverbial frog expecting the scorpion not to sting it.
Wayne Cashman was brought in to make sure that the team stayed competitive, and while he did keep them near the top of the standings, he would not last as head coach. In his place would be the well-traveled Roger Neilson, who had a great reputation within hockey despite not sticking around too long with a particular club. Neilson inherited a team that was getting contributions from multiple players, with all of Peter Forsberg (91 points), John Leclair (87), Rod Brind’Amour (74), and restricted free agent signing Chris Gratton (62) all breaking the 60-point plateau. For his efforts, Brind’Amour would end up making the 1998 Canadian Olympic team, who would end up finishing 4th in Nagano, Japan.
Philadelphia was no longer in the conversation for 1st in the Atlantic, as New Jersey was too far ahead of them. The Flyers would, however, finish 3rd in the Eastern Conference with 96 points. They would be matched up with the Buffalo Sabres, who now had Lindy Ruff in as head coach following the controversies of the previous year. Now fully committed to Dominik Hasek, the Sabres were a tough nut to crack, having made the playoffs despite not having a single player with more than 50 points in their line-up. Indeed, no amount of coaching wizardry from Neilson could solve the Hasek problem, as the Olympic gold medalist posted a .949 save percentage en route to a 4-1 series win.
The Flyers would have two picks in the 1st Round of the 1998 Entry Draft: #12 and #22. The 12th Pick, which had been acquired from San Jose in a deal that sent Mike Ricci to the Sharks, would be used on Alex Tanguay, while the 22nd Pick, which Philadelphia had sent to Tampa Bay, then re-acquired the same day as part of the Chris Gratton transaction, would be used to select Simon Gagne. Both Tanguay and Gagne were from the QMJHL; Tanguay was drafted from the Halifax Mooseheads, while Gagne was selected from the Quebec Remparts.
1998-99: The Flyers knew that what they had at the moment wasn’t enough. They needed to make some moves quickly if they were to keep up with the likes of New Jersey, as well as hold off emerging teams like Washington. Thanks to re-alignment, the Flyers now shared the Atlantic Division with the Devils, Penguins, Islanders, and Rangers; while the Devils were the target on top, the Penguins could not be ignored as long as they had Jaromir Jagr. Looking for a leg up on the Pens, the Flyers would sign former Florida goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck to be their new starter, as Ron Hextall found himself relegated to the back-up role.
Vanbiesbrouck would take the lion’s share of games, but the results didn’t quite match the money he was making. He would play 62 games, finishing with a save percentage of .902, four points below the league average. He did, however, have a ton of help thanks to the Flyers’ outstanding team defense, which allowed the second-lowest shots per game in the NHL; only St. Louis had allowed fewer shots. On the offensive side of things, the duo of John Leclair and Peter Forsberg were still producing at a solid rate, with both players breaking the 90-point mark once more. They had some additional help from Eric Desjardins, who would record a career-high 51 points to lead all Philly blue-liners.
The Flyers were once again in the thick of the Eastern race, finishing 5th in the Conference with 93 points. They would be facing the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, a team that had just moved over from the Western Conference in the off-season re-alignment. The Leafs had a free agent goalie of their own in Curtis Joseph, as well as the highest-scoring offense in the league that year; taking them down would be a tough task. While the Flyers may not have had the goaltending advantage, they had the depth that Toronto couldn’t match, and with the duo of Brind’Amour and Forsberg taking control, the Flyers would win the series in six games.
The good news was that Philadelphia would avoid the New Jersey Devils, who had been eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. The bad news was that the Flyers would be facing those very same Penguins, thus putting them face-to-face with the league’s leading scorer, Jaromir Jagr. Of course, Philly had shown they could deal with offensive juggernauts, having dispatched the league’s top-scoring team in the previous round, and dealing with Jagr wasn’t any different, as the Flyers would win the series in seven. The Conference Final would be a re-match with the Buffalo Sabres, who had eliminated the Flyers a year earlier; though the Sabres had made slight improvements offensively, they still had the best goalie in the league in Hasek, and the Flyers would still be unable to find a way past him. The Sabres would win the Conference Final in five games, advancing to the Cup Final for the first time since 1974-75.
The word of the day for Philadelphia was “frustration”. Bobby Clarke had made so many moves to try and prepare the team for a legitimate Cup run, but they had once again fallen short. They had traded Chris Gratton back to Tampa Bay for Mikael Renberg, and re-acquired Mark Recchi, signed John Vanbiesbrouck, and traded for Steve Duchesne, but even they weren’t enough to make the Flyers a Cup winner, or even finalist. While the Flyers still had a ton of talent, it was looking like they would have no answer for either Buffalo or New Jersey, two teams that seemed to have the tools necessary to compete in the increasingly-defensive NHL.
Philadelphia would get the 22nd Pick in the 1999 Entry Draft, selecting goalie Maxime Ouellet from the Quebec Remparts.
1999-00: This was a make-or-break season for a Philadelphia team that was having trouble clearing the last hurdles in order to claim the Stanley Cup. To make matters worse, they had lost some core pieces from last year in Ron Hextall and Steve Duchesne; Hextall, having been dropped to the back-up spot last year following several seasons as the team’s starter, would call it a career, while Duchesne would join the Detroit Red Wings in his quest for an elusive Stanley Cup. Worst of all, Dmitri Tertyshny, who had been impressive in his rookie campaign with the Flyers, would die in a boating accident in July at the age of 22.
Despite all of the doom and gloom surrounding the team, they were still pretty damn good. Mark Recchi had made a triumphant return to the Flyers, leading the team with 91 points, important considering that their normal talisman, Peter Forsberg, would miss over 30 games due to injury. After a lacklustre first year with the club, John Vanbiesbrouck performed better in his second season, with his .906 SV% being slightly above the league average this year. The defense that had been a hallmark of the Flyers in recent years was once again prevalent, and helped rookie back-up Marc Denis put up a 1.93 goals against average.
Philly showed that they were still one of the teams to beat in the East, finishing at the top of the Conference (and 2nd Overall in the NHL) with 108 points. Facing another clash with the Buffalo Sabres, the team that had tormented them for the past couple of years, Philly made two changes. The first was extremely controversial, as Craig Ramsay was in as full-time head coach in place of Roger Neilson, who had discovered he had bone cancer, and had taken time off for treatment. The second change was made by Ramsay, as Marc Denis would get the starting job in the post-season in order to match up against Dominik Hasek. Denis would prove to be Hasek’s equal in goal, but Philadelphia had the clear edge offensively, which would lead to a five-game series victory.
Their boogeyman vanquished, the Flyers now turned to their next assignment, the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens still had Jaromir Jagr, but now, they had a hot goalie of their own in Ron Tugnutt, who was acquired late in the season from Ottawa in a deal that sent Tom Barrasso to the Sens. Tugnutt had performed incredibly well in the Pens’ opening-round series against Washington, and looked to stay in form against a tough Philly team. This time, Denis could not keep up; though he at least kept games close, the Penguins would claim the series in a sweep, exacting revenge on their Pennsylvania rivals.
The Flyers had positives to take from their performance, but also clear negatives. They had finally managed to solve the Buffalo Sabres, but in turn, the Pittsburgh Penguins had managed to solve them. Marc Denis had emerged as a playoff starter, but did so at the expense of John Vanbiesbrouck, who was being paid millions to sit on the bench. And finally, the decision by Bobby Clarke to sack Roger Neilson while the coach was undergoing cancer treatment went over extremely poorly in the hockey world, as Neilson was beloved by many former players and staff.
The Flyers would have the 29th Pick in the 2000 Entry Draft, selecting Swedish defender Niklas Kronwall from Djurgardens IF.
2000-01: Going into training camp, it was obvious that the Philadelphia Flyers were going for broke. They would be doing so with several new faces, not the least of which included Keith Primeau, who had been acquired in the middle of last season for Rod Brind’Amour. Primeau was now slotted in as the #2 centreman behind Forsberg, who was coming in with a bit of heat on him from management despite his excellent track record. Also with the team was rookie goalie Roman Cechmanek, who had been drafted in June at the age of 29; so impressed were Philly scouts with Cechmanek that the team traded away John Vanbiesbrouck on Draft Day in order to make room for him on their roster.
Cechmanek, to the surprise of everyone except the Flyers, was a godsend. In his rookie season, he would put up an outstanding .921 SV% in 59 games. He would be nominated for the Vezina Trophy, and even earned Hart Trophy consideration for his heroics. Of course, the team in front of him weren’t too bad themselves, as the Flyers got production all across their line-up. Peter Forsberg had formed a new trio with Mark Recchi and Alex Tanguay, with each of them breaking the 70-point barrier. Keith Primeau did well in his first season in orange and black, recording 73 points on the second line with Daymond Langkow and rookie Simon Gagne, the latter of whom ended up with 59 points in his first year in the NHL.
Throughout the season, a few fans raised concerns with Craig Ramsay’s coaching, but as long as they were winning, Bobby Clarke was loathe to make another change. The Flyers would finish 2nd in both the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference with 110 points, giving them the 4th seed in the post-season. This would set up a first-round clash with the Buffalo Sabres, who the Flyers had finally overcome the previous campaign. The Sabres had added another veteran in Dave Andreychuk; once drafted by the team, Andreychuk would be re-united with his old Toronto line-mate Doug Gilmour in the hopes that they would give the team some important secondary scoring. Though Buffalo would win Game One, Philly would take the next four, proving that they were indeed for real – at least against the Sabres.
If one old foe wasn’t enough, they were now matched up against the Pittsburgh Penguins once more, who had a former face of their own back in the fold: Mario Lemieux. Once considered one of the greatest players of all time, Lemieux had spent most of the previous decade dealing with injuries, as well as a bout of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After hanging up the skates in 1997, he had come back to give his Penguins a jolt, both on the ice and off of it. Though the Flyers had improved from the previous year, the Pens kept pace, and the series was forced to go to Game Seven, where the Flyers would take a 3-2 victory to move on.
They had taken down two old nemeses, but the Flyers had one more to go if they wanted to reach the Cup Final: New Jersey. Now led by Hall-of-Fame blue-liner Larry Robinson, the Devils had not wavered from their defensive approach, and had only become more disciplined over the years. To make matters worse for Philadelphia, they would be without Peter Forsberg, who had been diagnosed with a ruptured spleen after the Pittsburgh series. Forsberg’s absence proved costly, as while the Flyers could at least manage to steal Game Two on enemy ice, they were otherwise unable to break the Devils’ defensive structure, losing the series in five games.
During his post-playoff media scrum, Bobby Clarke directly placed the blame on Peter Forsberg for his absence, claiming that he had “abandoned” the team. Forsberg’s camp fired back immediately, with agent Don Baizley saying that had Forsberg had to get a second opinion from an doctor unaffiliated with the team in order to correctly diagnose the spleen injury; he added that had Forsberg not done so, he could very well have died. Baizley would even go so far as to state his client would never play for the Flyers again, demanding a trade. Negotiations were stalled by the fact that Forsberg’s injury would keep him out for at least the next regular season, and few were willing to take a chance on a player who would not be joining their team immediately.
The Flyers would have the 27th Pick in the 2001 Entry Draft, selecting Jeff Woywitka from the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels.
THE FLYERS AFTER TEN YEARS: The Philadelphia Flyers of 1991 were at the lowest point of what was to be a re-build following their Cup run of 1987. They needed young talent badly, and in Peter Forsberg, they felt that they had the player that could be the centrepiece of contending teams. Though they continued to struggle for much of the earlier part of the decade, Forsberg’s arrival signalled a drastic change in fortune. For much of the late ‘90s, the Flyers were among the Eastern Conference’s giants, constantly in the mix for top spot in the East, thanks to their collection of top-end players, as well as a few star turns along the way from unexpected sources (see Roman Cechmanek, 2000-01).
But despite constantly being one of the East powerhouses, the Flyers could not match the Broad Street Bullies and earn another Stanley Cup. It seemed like whenever they had a playoff spot, something was bound to go wrong. First, they run into the Devils and their near-invulnerable defensive game. Then, they had to deal with the arguable best goalie in the league at the time, Dominik Hasek, who almost single-handedly made the Sabres a perennial contender. And then it was Pittsburgh, their in-state rivals, who kept them from a shot at glory. The one time they managed to get out of the East was 1997, where they would be swept by the unstoppable Red Wings.
And even in the midst of those lengthy runs, the Flyers still managed to throw obstacles in their own way. In 1997, following that sweep at the hands of Detroit, Terry Murray would call the Flyers’ predicament a “choking situation”, earning him a sacking from GM Bobby Clarke. Then, in 2001, following his injury in the post-season, Peter Forsberg, the talisman of the team, would be the subject of Clarke’s ire. The GM’s criticism would immediately fracture the relationship between Forsberg and the team, and after a summer of back-and-forth barbs between Clarke and Don Baizley, Forsberg’s agent, the superstar Swede would be traded to the New York Rangers, thus ending his tenure with the team that drafted him.
The Flyers’ line-up for their opening night game against the Florida Panthers looked like this:
F1. Alex Tanguay – Jeremy Roenick – Mark Recchi
F2. John Leclair – Keith Primeau – Simon Gagne
F3. Jan Hlavac – Jiri Dopita – Pavel Brendl
F4. Todd Fedoruk – Kent Manderville – Ruslan Fedotenko
D1. Dan McGillis – Eric Desjardins
D2. Kim Johnsson – Chris Therien
D3. Luke Richardson – Eric Weinrich
G1. Roman Cechmanek
G2. Marc Denis
The Flyers have offensive depth for now and later. With the likes of Tanguay, Gagne, Brendl, and Fedotenko all under 25, they have a ton of talent available in the years to come. And of course, they still have guys like Mark Recchi and Keith Primeau around, and have John Leclair back from injury this year. The biggest piece they have added up front is Jeremy Roenick, who comes to the Flyers as a free agent. The deal was made in part because Philadelphia knew they would have the salary room for it, knowing that Peter Forsberg was on his way out. Even without the Swedish playmaker, the Flyers look like they can still dominate on the scoreboard for the time being.
Defensively, the Flyers have very few weaknesses. The duo of Dan McGillis and Eric Desjardins have been the primary pairing for the Flyers over the past year or two, with McGillis beginning to make his mark offensively. Luke Richardson and Chris Therien have been with the club for most of their recent success, but Kim Johnsson and Eric Weinrich are new additions – Johnsson from the Forsberg trade, and Weinrich from free agency. In goal, Philly looks about as good as anybody in the league. Roman Cechmanek had a spectacular first year in the NHL, while Marc Denis is a capable back-up, who may one day be ready to take over the starting job full-time.
The new roster changes very little from the OTL, as there are only two new players. The first is Alex Tanguay, who is drafted by the Flyers in 1998 with the pick that the team gets from San Jose in exchange for Mike Ricci. The second is Denis, who is selected in 1995 instead of Brian Boucher.
HOW THE HOCKEY WORLD CHANGES
THE AVS STILL MOVE. The re-location of the Quebec Nordiques was one of the first dominoes to fall in the re-shaping of the NHL in the middle part of the ‘90s, as well as a sign that smaller-market Canadian teams were going to have more trouble staying competitive in the league, both on the ice and off. Following the Nordiques’ migration, the Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers would follow suit, becoming the Phoenix Coyotes and Carolina Hurricanes, respectively; the Edmonton Oilers, the last remaining WHA team, nearly joined them, only for a group of local investors to buy the team and keep them in Alberta.
Yes, holding on to Eric Lindros (and the ensuing merchandise sales) would make a noticeable impact on the Nordiques’ coffers, but it wouldn’t be enough to keep the team in Quebec City. The financial realities of the time couldn’t be ignored, and as the Canadian dollar weakened, the health of the Nordiques, Jets, Oilers, Flames, and Senators became a concern for the league in the late ’90s. Even with the Nordiques and Jets drawing well (save for Winnipeg’s final year in town, when it was clear that they were going to move), they couldn’t stay for long in their respective locations without being a financial drain on their owners, and the league.
Having said that, it should be pointed out that Marcel Aubut did not actually lose money on the Nordiques. The fear of losing money, however, was what prompted him to sell the team. Even with some added income due to Lindros’ presence, it would not be enough to change his decision.
AFTER TWENTY TWO YEARS, RAYMOND BOURQUE… NEVER GETS HIS CUP. Even without getting all of the players they did in the original Lindros deal, the Nordiques/Avalanche are still a pretty solid team, especially when they get to Colorado. For the rest of the ‘90s and early 2000s, the Avs have a few good regular season performances, only to fall short when it counts. They do make a couple of Conference Final appearances, but without Patrick Roy to be their saviour in goal, Colorado is never able to take that final step.
Ray Bourque, having waited so long for a chance to drink from Lord Stanley’s Mug, would be denied that opportunity. He would go down in history as one of the greatest players never to win the Cup. Joe Sakic, too, would be denied the Cup, as the eventual decline of the Avalanche would take place right near the end of his career. Those teams would be full of great players who would never get their moment of glory, instead forced to retire without an all-important Stanley Cup ring on their fingers.
As for the Cups that the miss out on in this timeline, they both go to Western Conference teams; Detroit wins the 1996 Cup, establishing them as one of the greatest teams of all time, while the St. Louis Blues claim the Cup in 2001, finally winning their very first in the NHL.
ERIC LINDROS STAYS WITH COLORADO FOR A WHILE BEFORE LEAVING IN 2005. When talking about Eric Lindros in the OTL, it seems the words “rocky relationship” follow him around. First it was his snubbing of the Soo Greyhounds in junior hockey, then it was his refusal to wear the Nordiques jersey, and then it was his dealings with Bobby Clarke in Philly; it seemed, for a while, like things were bound to go badly wherever he went.
Of course, the Sault Ste. Marie incident can’t be avoided by this point, but with Lindros putting on the Quebec jersey and signing with the Nordiques, things change massively. Now, he becomes a fan favourite in the Colisee, and while he may not get the same marketing opportunities that he would in an Anglophone city, things would improve once he got to Denver. Also changing is the team’s attitude toward his health; this becomes key in 1999, when he suffers a collapsed lung after a game against Nashville, as the Avalanche take no chances in making sure he recovers completely, rather than the ignorance with which Bobby Clarke treated the injury in the OTL.
While Lindros might have some gripes with the club – particularly in regards to the captaincy being given to Joe Sakic, and the way his brother’s career ended – those gripes never reach the level that they did in Philly, and Lindros spends almost his entire career with the club that drafted him, only moving on after the resolution of the 2004-05 lockout. Looking to be a #1 centre, Lindros signs with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2005, only to run into constant wrist troubles. He would sign with Dallas in 2006, but the injury troubles wouldn’t cease, as he would retire in late 2007, having played only 82 of a possible 164 games following the lockout.
THE FLYERS HAVE ALL THE PIECES, BUT STILL NEVER GET THE CUP. Holding on to the likes of Steve Duchesne, Mike Ricci, and Ron Hextall plays an important part in the Flyers not being as bad as they were in the OTL during Russ Farwell’s tenure. Of course, just like in the OTL, when Farwell and Terry Simpson are canned in favour of Bobby Clarke and Terry Murray respectively, fortunes begin to change, as Philly rises up the rankings, eventually making the Stanley Cup Final in 1997 just as they originally did. But just as they originally did, the Flyers are swept by the Red Wings, leading to Terry Murray’s dismissal. Despite a few chances to make it to the Final once more, they do not get that far again before the lockout of 2004-05.
Even though they now hold on to so many of the assets that they gave up in the original Lindros trade, the Flyers are never really able to take advantage of them. Steve Duchesne gets into a contract dispute in 1993, eventually being traded to St. Louis for spare parts. Mike Ricci starts off well, but eventually takes Pierre Turgeon’s place as the target of Dale Hunter’s 1993 cheap shot. This leads to a noticeable decline, and he would be traded to San Jose in 1997. (From then on, he becomes a very good defensive forward, but never quite reached the point totals he did early in his career.) Hextall doesn’t change much, due to the fact that he only spent a couple of years away from the Flyers before re-joining them in the OTL.
The big X-factor in the non-deal is the arrival of Peter Forsberg, who becomes the centrepiece of the team in Lindros’ place. Even as good as he is, he never quite manages to bring Philly any further, and never manages to clearly outperform Lindros. Speaking of Forsberg and Lindros…
PETER FORSBERG REPLACES LINDROS IN MANY WAYS, FOR BETTER OR WORSE. Without Eric Lindros to be their #1 guy, Peter Forsberg is given that responsibility once he arrives from Sweden. Though his selection was panned within the Philadelphia sports media, he quickly proves that he is the real deal, leading the team in points multiple times, and taking the centre spot in the famed “Legion of Doom” line that comes to dominate Eastern Conference foes across the ‘90s. Unfortunately, he is never able to deliver a Stanley Cup to the Flyers, no matter how hard he tries.
This failure, and his eventual injury troubles, make him a target of Bobby Clarke, who criticizes him in public on multiple occasions in the very early 2000s. The relationship between Forsberg and Clarke fractures permanently in 2001, when the Swedish star suffers a ruptured spleen in a playoff game against Pittsburgh, forcing him out of the playoffs; it is at this time that Clarke claims that Forsberg “abandoned” the Flyers, leading to a public war of words between the GM and Forsberg’s agent. The war culminates in a trade between Philadelphia and the New York Rangers – mirroring a trade that happened in real life, except with Forsberg in Eric Lindros’ place.
Forsberg spends the next regular season on the sideline, but his return in 2002-03 is a hit, as he leads the league in both assists and points. He would spend most of the 03-04 season back on the DL, and the team would let him go following the season. He would sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2005, playing 117 games with the Leafs in the course of two years, but never making the post-season despite some good play. He would finish his career with two more short stints with the Leafs in 2008 and 2011; following two poor games in the latter stint, he would announce his retirement.
Despite being one of the best players of his era, Forsberg’s career, much like Eric’s, would be defined by the time he spent on the injured list, and the mismanagement of his health in Philadelphia. Though he ends up with 885 points in 708 games in his career, people will be left to wonder what he could have done were he not injured so frequently.
In the original deal, both Philadelphia and Quebec came out victors, in a way. Philadelphia may not have won a Stanley Cup, but they did become one of the strongest teams in the Eastern Conference, and now had a superstar centre to power them all the way. The Nordiques, meanwhile, got several pieces that would be key to their rise in status over the course of the 90s, especially after their move to Denver. The assets they got in return for Lindros not only included Mike Ricci and Peter Forsberg, both of whom were on the first of two Cup-winning Avalanche teams, but also included the pick that became Jocelyn Thibault, who would be traded to Montreal in 1995 in a package deal that made Patrick Roy an Av.
Now, with the deal erased from history, it would be hard to call it a victory for the Avalanche… but at the same time, it can’t be called a victory for the Flyers, either. Yes, Colorado is still a force in the West, particularly when they get the likes of Ray Bourque and Rob Blake a few years after their move. And yes, Philadelphia still manages a Stanley Cup Final appearance, only to get swept by the Red Wings. But neither side is able to claim the ultimate prize, and no team find a clear advantage over the other in the standings. They both go from low-ranking doormats in the early ‘90s to genuine contenders by the new millennium, just the same as they did in the OTL.
All in all, the Nordiques/Avalanche can’t really find a way to lose. Either they have one of the greatest players of the 1990s in their line-up, or they have a team that can win a Stanley Cup or two. And at the same way, the Flyers can’t find a way to win. No matter how many important players they hold on to, they’re not going to win a Cup, and either way, they’re going to cost themselves a franchise centremen thanks to medical mismanagement. If championships are the best metric for defining who wins a trade and who doesn’t, then the Avs should be thankful they made the deal in the first place; after all, I’m sure a lot of fans would trade a top player in the game for two Cups.
I’ve written better endings, for sure.
Anyway, next month, I’ll scale the work back, but cover one of the most infamous moments in NHL history: What if Brett Hull’s goal was called off?