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Lindros Gets Assist in Helping to Build Avalanche

As it turns out, Eric Lindros did the Quebec Nordiques a huge favor by refusing to play for them after they drafted him first overall in 1991.

Because Lindros wouldn’t play in French-speaking Quebec City, the Nordiques traded him to the Philadelphia Flyers in June 1992. Four years later, Lindros and the Flyers haven’t gotten past the second round of the playoffs, but the Nordiques--who moved to Denver before this season and became the Colorado Avalanche--are in the Stanley Cup finals.

Colorado has nine players it acquired either in the Lindros trade or by trading players it got in the original deal, and most of them are key figures in the team’s success.

The Flyers gave up Peter Forsberg, Chris Simon and Mike Ricci--who are still with Colorado--as well as Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, Ron Hextall and their first-round picks in 1993, which Quebec used to take Jocelyn Thibault, and 1994. In June 1993, the Nordiques sent Hextall and a first-round pick to the New York Islanders for Mark Fitzpatrick and a first-round pick, which they used to take winger Adam Deadmarsh, who is still with them.

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In January 1994, the Nordiques traded Duchesne to St. Louis for Ron Sutter, Garth Butcher and Bob Bassen. Five months later, they sent Sutter and a draft pick to the Islanders for a first-round pick and Uwe Krupp, one of their top defensemen. Soon after, they traded Butcher and two other players to Toronto for Sylvain Lefebvre, a stalwart on Colorado’s defense, and Wendel Clark.

In October 1995, the Avalanche traded Clark to the Islanders in a three-way deal for Claude Lemieux. And last December, Colorado sent Thibault and two other players to Montreal for Patrick Roy and Mike Keane.

“Obviously, it meant everything,” center Joe Sakic said of the Lindros deal and its offshoots. “We got great guys in that trade and great guys in the other trades we made with the guys we got. All of [their success] goes back to that trade.”

Said Florida Panther President Bill Torrey: “Quebec--now Denver--had five years of misery and paid the price. They bit the bullet on the Lindros thing, but it paid off.”

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AU REVOIR, MARIO?

The Pittsburgh Penguins still don’t know what hit them in their seven-game loss to the Panthers in the Eastern Conference finals.

Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, who scored 15 goals against the New York Rangers in the quarterfinals, were held to one goal each by Florida’s defense and the stellar goaltending of John Vanbiesbrouck.

“I never would have believed it,” Penguin Coach Ed Johnston said.

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Believe it. This series was won by defense and goaltending, as so often happens in the playoffs.

“They wore us down a little bit,” Penguin winger Dave Roche said. “Speed and determination can win games. It was a battle as to who was going to break who and with the team they have, they were able to break us.”

Lemieux has acknowledged that he’s contemplating retirement and he did nothing to dispel speculation when he said he will think for a month before deciding. Being so frustrated at the end of a season that was grueling physically and emotionally might sway him toward retiring. The only way the Penguins will contend again is by rebuilding their defense, which may take more time than Lemieux, 30, is willing or able to invest.

THE HARDER THEY FALL

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What does it mean that Scotty Bowman, whose teams had the best record three of the last four seasons--Pittsburgh in 1992-93 and the Detroit Red Wings the last two seasons--failed to win the Cup with any of them? Did he fall short as a coach or as a judge of talent, since he was director of player personnel for the Penguins and the Red Wings?

Probably both. Players seethed when Bowman invented injuries to explain their absences from the lineup and didn’t tell them. Other players resented the attention given the Russian unit, which flopped in the playoffs.

“Players today want to be treated right,” said Bryan Murray, who was Detroit’s general manager from 1990-94 and is now the Panthers’ general manager. “They want to get answers to their questions like, ‘Why are you doing that?’ and Scotty isn’t the type who gives them answers.”

Bowman also miscalculated Detroit’s depth on defense. It was fine to spot Mike Ramsey and Viacheslav Fetisov during the season, but when Bob Rouse was injured and Bowman had to use Ramsey and Fetisov on regular shifts, both showed their age. When Paul Coffey was hampered because of back spasms--which has him fearful for his future--the Red Wings were done.

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“I was surprised their whole playoff run was difficult for them,” Murray said. “I certainly felt they had the forwards to score more and be assertive. I think age on the blue line hurt them. Colorado out-muscled them and outplayed them most of the series. They didn’t seem to have the chemistry you need.”

Bowman said he’s likely to return. It’s worth wondering, though, whether his time has passed--or if the Red Wings’ time has passed.

SIGN ON THE DOTTED LINE

It’s far from certain that Wayne Gretzky will return to St. Louis. He said last week he hoped he can agree on a new contract with the Blues, but a few breaths later said he’d love to finish his career alongside New York Ranger center Mark Messier, his longtime pal. And when he spoke of the Blues, he often used the past tense, as in, “They’ve been great to me,” and, “I enjoyed my time in St. Louis.”

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The Rangers need help at center, but they won’t match the three-year, $21-million contract--much of it deferred--the Blues have discussed.

“I think overall, we were happy with him,” Blues’ President Jack Quinn said. “Yeah, I think you’d have to look back and say it was a thrill to see 99 in a Bluenote sweater.”

Again, note the use of the past tense.

SLAP SHOTS

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The Florida Panthers discourage fans from throwing plastic rats onto the ice at Miami Arena and say they will revoke the season tickets of offenders. OK, so who’s going to revoke the ticket of Marti Huizenga, wife of club owner Wayne Huizenga, and a regular rat-tosser?

New York Ranger General Manager Neil Smith was disappointed that the first contract extension offered by his Madison Square Garden bosses began at $600,000 a year, with raises built in over four or five years. Can’t blame him for being unhappy when the Garden is still paying off former Knick Coach Don Nelson and committed $1 million a year to rookie Coach Jeff Van Gundy, when Smith won a championship in 1994. But this is only the start of negotiations.

The price of success: The Panthers will raise ticket prices next season by $3 in the lower bowl of Miami Arena and $1 in the upper bowl. Prices will be $48 for the best seats and $31, $25 and $21 for the upper regions. . . . Red Wing forward Kris Draper was incensed that Colorado’s Lemieux was suspended for only two games for the check that left Draper with a broken nose, jaw and cheekbone and facial cuts. “Whatever respect I had for [Commissioner] Gary Bettman and [NHL disciplinarian] Brian Burke is out the window,” he told the Detroit News. . . . Lemieux was reluctant to discuss his punishment. “Obviously, it’s disappointing to miss the Stanley Cup finals. The positive side is there are 20-some odd players ready to jump into the gap.”

Flyer center Lindros denied allegations made by a Philadelphia magazine and radio station that he’s a friend of reputed mob boss Joey Merlino, who served two years in prison for an armored truck holdup and another year for a probation violation.

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Florida’s players noticed the difference in altitude in mile-high Denver during practice Monday. “The air is as thin as my hair,” said center Brian Skrudland in a moment of painful honesty.


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