Lindros Wears Hockey’s Can’t-Miss Tag
Eric Lindros is a proficient scorer, playmaker and brawler, a proven winner and a natural leader.
Only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux are more famous in Canada, which is why Lindros, though only 17, is already featured on hockey cards and has a stick endorsement contract.
“Eric Lindros has only one problem--he doesn’t have an identical twin brother,” Vancouver Canucks vice president Brian Burke said. “Seriously, you hate to use this term, but he looks like a can’t-miss player.”
Obviously, Lindros is a fine junior hockey player. But is he worth losing for?
Unlike the NBA, which involves all non-playoff teams in a lottery to determine draft order, the NHL’s No. 1 pick goes to the worst team. The contenders to draft Lindros include Quebec, Minnesota, the New York Islanders, Winnipeg and Vancouver.
The Toronto Maple Leafs would have been a favorite in the Lindros Sweepstakes had they not traded their top pick last year to the New Jersey Devils (for defenseman Tom Kurvers, who was subsequently benched and traded).
Except for the Devils, who theoretically could pull off the astonishing perfecta of winning the Stanley Cup and drafting Lindros, the others must lose to get their man.
“He is the best prototype of THE National Hockey League player to come along in a long, long time,” says David Conte, assistant player personnel director for the Devils.
“Other players have done the things he does, it’s just how he does them that makes him special. He runs over people, goes right through them. He’s intense and competitive and shows no mercy.
“We have the best of both worlds, no question about it. I don’t think any of us expected this to happen when the deal was made.”
Toronto appeared to be on the rise last year but has returned to its customary doormat status. Pilloried by the Canadian press, the Maple Leafs have been in a trading frenzy recently, hoping to improve and avoid the embarrassment of being known as the team that dealt Eric Lindros.
Other clubs insist they won’t lose for the 6-4, 220-pounder.
No team needs Lindros more than the North Stars, who trail the NHL in attendance for the fourth straight year, have seemingly lost all credibility with their fans and desperately need a drawing card. Minnesota is just ahead of Toronto in the Norris Division.
“If we happen to lose, he would be a great bonus,” North Stars owner Norman Green says. “But to actually design losing, for people who have never accepted that philosophy, I don’t think it’s (possible).
“Let’s say we’re playing Quebec in the last game of the season, with the loser to get Lindros. Do we both play without goalies? Do we both score on ourselves?”
Actually, the North Stars meet St. Louis while Quebec plays Montreal in the finales.
“If we both played to lose,” Green says, “whatever we tried in our game, they would try in theirs.
“And let’s say you made the effort to lose and you didn’t succeed in getting Lindros. You’ve been dishonest to your fans. They might forgive you for losing if you got Lindros, but they’d never forgive you if you didn’t.
“Besides, I think we’re too good to come in last.”
Says Burke: “I would resign here in an instant if anyone suggested that we lose a game for any reason.”
Before the season, the Canucks were considered a young, improving team. But they are battling Winnipeg for fourth place in the Smythe Division and Burke says heads may role if Vancouver misses the playoffs.
“Let me put it this way,” Burke says. “If we draft Eric Lindros, I suspect I won’t be negotiating his contract.”
That contract, as so much of what Lindros has done, will set precedents. Two years ago, top pick Mike Modano held out to get $200,000 a year from the North Stars. Lindros, the subject of a rare junior hockey bidding war in 1989, is expected to ask for a million-dollar signing bonus and an annual salary approaching seven figures.
A team like Quebec might be hard-pressed to come up with that kind of money.
“I don’t really look ahead that far,” Lindros says. “I don’t have a little chart at home (to follow the Lindros Sweepstakes). I can only do my best and no one knows how good my best is going to be. I don’t even know.”
Others have a pretty good idea.
“Whether or not he can turn a franchise around, who knows? In the heat of the NHL, not everyone’s flower blossoms,” Green says. “But he’s about as good a bet as you can make.”
How good is Lindros?
“I don’t see this guy as a finesse player who will put up 190 points like Gretzky or Lemieux,” Burke says. “But I see someone who can get more than 100 points and 200 penalty minutes and that guy’s every bit as valuable, if not more valuable.”
Lindros is scoring at more than a goal-a-game pace for Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League. He is also averaging well over a penalty a game. He has led the Canadian team to titles in the last two World Junior Championships.
He reminds many observers of Mark Messier, the intimidating leader for Edmonton’s defending Stanley Cup champions and the NHL’s MVP last season.
“He doesn’t remind me of Gretzky. He’s more like Messier,” says Mike Craig of the North Stars, who played on Lindros’ line during the world tournament. “He handles the puck well, yet he’s so big and dominating.”
A mean streak separates Lindros from other skilled teen-agers.
“He’s a big, tough, mean kid. He’s a good fighter. He won’t hesitate to finish a check or use his stick. Everybody’s looking for a guy with a belligerent, robust style who has skill,” Burke says. “He’s got a backbone you could pull a Jeep with. The excitement over him is justifiable.”