In a weeklong series, The Post is looking at alternate realities in New York sports. We are examining “what if” scenarios for our teams, reversals of fortune that would have radically changed not only the franchises themselves but dramatically altered their leagues, too. There are two rules: The scenario must be grounded in reality and have taken place within the last 30 years.
Just as Harry Bailey wouldn’t have been there to save the transport in World War II if he hadn’t been rescued as a child by big brother George, Tony Amonte wouldn’t have been there to trade for Stephane Matteau (and Brian Noonan), Doug Weight wouldn’t have been there to trade for Esa Tikkanen and Alex Kovalev wouldn’t have been there to score the first goal for the Rangers in the We’ll Win Tonight Game 6 at the Meadowlands, which never would have occurred, anyway.
That’s because Amonte, Weight and Kovalev would have been in Quebec (or Colorado) if arbitrator Larry Bertuzzi had ruled that the Nordiques had in fact not traded Eric Lindros to the Flyers before then trying to trade No. 88 to the Rangers in June 1992.
That “What-if?” — as in what if the Blueshirts had acquired Lindros as a 19-year-old — represents arguably the greatest unknown in franchise history. What if Bertuzzi had led the Rangers through the other sliding door?
The crux of it is simply this: Would the Rangers have won more Stanley Cups with Lindros joining a 31-year-old Mark Messier on the team that had won the Presidents’ Trophy the previous year than they did without him?
“It’s the question every Rangers fan asks me. ‘Would we have done better?” then-GM Neil Smith said by phone on Wednesday. “Do you know what I say? Thank God we were able to win one [Cup].
“Let’s not be too greedy.”
Greedy would have been the perfect description of the dealings of Quebec president Marcel Aubut, who turned out to be a literal two-timer in dealing with the Flyers and the Rangers in the matter of Lindros, the first overall selection in 1991 who refused to sign with the Nordiques. First, Quebec accepted an offer from Philadelphia. Double dipping, he then accepted an offer from Smith.
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As contemporaneously reported, the various iterations of the deal the Blueshirts thought they’d made with Aubut included Mike Richter or John Vanbiesbrouck, Kovalev, Amonte, Sergei Nemchinov, James Patrick, two first-rounders and $20 million of owner ITT’s money. Smith, though, corrected the record.
“Ricky was never in it,” the Rangers’ only living Cup-winning GM said. “Johnny was, but there was a kind of an asterisk on that because there was a question about him becoming an unrestricted free agent that summer. If he had become unrestricted, then James Patrick would have been substituted for Beezer. It was never going to be Patrick and Vanbiesbrouck.
“I don’t think Sergei was included, but Dougie Weight was. So it was the first-rounders, the money, and Kovalev, Amonte, Weight and either Vanbiesbrouck or Patrick for Eric. I know it seems like a lot, and it would have been, but you have to remember that Lindros was going to be The Next Great One, and everyone, starting with our ownership and [team governor] Stanley Jaffe, wanted him badly.
“And even though I wouldn’t have been jumping up and down with glee at trading all of those young assets, we would have been getting a special player we all thought was worth it. Remember, Eric was 19.”
The offer, in fact, was in line with the package the Flyers ultimately sent to the Nordiques that featured Ron Hextall, the rights to Peter Forsberg (selected sixth overall the previous year), Mike Ricci, Steve Duchene, Kerry Huffman, Chris Simon, a first-rounder and $15 million.
What was it that Colin Campbell, then the Rangers coach, said so famously following a game in Philadelphia where No. 88 had ridden roughshod over his team? Oh, right: “Lindros commits a major penalty on every shift.” The quote was so good and so on point that Smith the other day said he might have said the same thing.
Anyway, Lindros rode roughshod over the NHL from his Calder Trophy-winning rookie season of 1992-93 until he sustained his first concussion on a blow from Pittsburgh’s Darius Kasparaitis in November 1998. The idea of the Rangers being able to send out twin pillars Messier and Lindros in concert with a young Brian Leetch and a young Adam Graves in front of a young Richter is irresistible. No one would have touched a soul on that team. Havoc would have been wreaked.
But would the Rangers have won a Cup? Well, the Flyers sure didn’t, even if blame for that largely rests on deficient goaltending when No. 88 was at his peak between Legion of Doom mates Mikael Renberg and John LeClair. The Blueshirts would not have had to contend with problems in nets, but you are a better person than I if you can fill in the blanks up front that would have been left in the wake of the trade with Quebec and then build a roster strong enough to have gotten through New Jersey in 1994. (The Flyers didn’t beat the Devils in 1995.)
No Kovalev. No Amonte (or Matteau and Noonan). No Weight (or Tikkanen). No Steve Larmer, either, if Patrick had wound up going to the Nordiques because then he wouldn’t have been available to ship out as part of the deal for the winger. So I am checking out the young forwards within the organization at that time and here’s who I see: Darren Turcotte, Corey Millen, Steven King and Peter and Chris Ferraro. Maybe I missed someone. Problem is, the Rangers would have been missing almost everyone. Full-scale free agency didn’t kick in until the later-’90s, and by the way, the Rangers weren’t very good at that.
(Oh, and obviously with Messier and Lindros on the hypothetical 1996-97 roster, Wayne Gretzky would never have found his way to New York.)
Honestly, as much hype as Lindros generated and as dominant as he was through the ’90s when he was the league’s most compelling athlete, it seems as if the Rangers probably dodged one when Bertuzzi ruled the other way. Doesn’t it?
“I never felt that way,” Smith said. “I was in disbelief when I heard the ruling. We wanted him. Ownership wanted him. It wasn’t a, ‘Thank God it didn’t go through because I didn’t really want to do it.’ That wasn’t it at all.
“I think we could have won with Eric. But we did win without him. Would we have done better? Would we have won three or four? I’m just thankful we got one. I always will be.
“It worked out the way it was supposed to.”