After the tragic passing of Dale Hawerchuk, I went down a rabbit hole regarding the NHL’s all-time point leaders. In-particular it was with respect to guys like Hawerchuk, Peter Stastny Kent Nilsson, & Marcel Dionne (garnering a new appreciation for their incredible accomplishment) who are amongst the all-time greats, but perhaps because they never won (and played predominantly in the 80’s/early 90’s), don’t seem to be held in as high a regard, or perhaps more accurately, come to mind as readily, to many casual or younger hockey fans. This inevitably got me to thinking about Eric Lindros and where his reputation stands amongst the legends of the game.
While many die-hard hockey fans understand just how incredible a talent he was, the average fan (or those who never saw him play) may not appreciate just how absolutely dominate he could be. Let’s be honest, he played in the era of Lemieux and Gretzky who over shadowed most, some of the flashiest stars of all time like Jagr, Selanne & Bure, and he didn’t win Cups like Sakic or Yzerman (who, while I’m a big fan of both, had FAR superior teams around them). So, is it possible a former MVP and HHOF member is under appreciated? And how does he stack up against those not just in his era, but all time?
The most heralded young star since Lemiuex, few players have come into the league with such fanfare, and debate as the Big ‘E’. Known as much for the tumultuous start to his career, both in junior where he declined to sign with the Soo Greyhounds, (though GM Phil Esposito selected him anyway, apparently allowing him to sell his stake in the team for a much higher price) then subsequently refusing to report to the Quebec Nordiques after they selected him first over all in 1991. This elicited the incredibly high price the Flyer paid to acquire him after an arbitrator had to settle the dispute between their offer and that of the rival Rangers (and perhaps soured many who saw him as a prima-donna trying to dictate terms before he’d even stepped foot in the league). Eventually this haul helped Colorado win the cup when they relocated from Quebec City, and ironically proved Lindros’s point about the instability of the then Nordiques ownership, (cited as his reason for not wanting to play there). His dominant junior career with the Oshawa Generals (380 pts, 437 pims in 157 games, leading them to victory in the 1990 Memorial Cup) and early stretch with both senior and junior Team Canada squads, helping them win the 1991 Canada Cup as an 18 year old, and gold at the ‘90 & ‘91 WJHC, showed the hockey world just how special he was. Think of how loaded a roster Team Canada had in that era, so for a kid to come in without even having played an NHL game (contributing 5 pts in 8 gms) would be unheard of today.
He started his NHL career with the Flyers in 92-93 and instantly made an impact, putting up 75 points in 61 games, along with 147 pims, good enough to make the all-rookie team. (Teemu Selanne took home the Calder trophy after shattering the rookie goal record with an unheard of 76 and 132 points in 84* (yes 84) games). In his prime from 92-93 – 98/99 Lindros was third in PPG with 1.39 behind the rival Pens dynamic duo of Lemieux (who averaged a mind boggling 2.10 ppg over that stretch before retiring for the first time after 96/97) & Jagr (1.43). He won the Hart trophy in the strike shortened 94-95 season, (amassing 70 points in 45 games) and had he been consistently healthy it’s not stretch to say he could’ve won another. He’s currently 17th all-time in points per game, (1.138) and that’s after two lacklustre seasons in New York (after one solid campaign) and two extremely dismal, injury plagued years in Toronto and Dallas. He also put up these numbers in the ‘dead puck era’ and is behind a number of players who primarily put up their points in the high flying 80’s. In fact after his first four years he was hovering around 4th all-time in PPG.
Alongside John LeClair and Mikael Renberg he formed the infamous ‘Legion of Doom’ line whose mix of size and skilled made them arguably the most dominant in the league. A perennial All-Star, he dragged the Flyers to the ’97 cup final, putting up 26 pts in 19 games, defeating the Pens along the way. However, they were promptly swept by the powerhouse Red Wings. After a few more campaigns in Philly, GM Bobby Clarke ended their often tempestuous relationship, but only after Clarke had dragged him in the media bout being ‘soft’ for missing so much time to injury. (and we wonder why guys played through concussions…) This included a much publicised incident with what turned out to be a punctured lung after a game in Nashville. Lindros put up 59 points in just 55 games in ’99-00, his last year Philly as he was repeatedly hampered by injures. He became embroiled in a tumultuous contract dispute after the season, as he and Clarke continued to butt heads, with the latter refusing to deal his rights to Toronto as requested, leading to Lindros sitting out the entire 2000-01 season. After this a deal was sorted out and he was (finally) a big acquisition for the Rangers, acquired for Jan Hlavac, Kim Johnsson Pavel Brendl & a third round pick. He shone his first year on Broadway, forming one of the leagues more effective lines alongside Theo Fleury and Mike York, (Dubbed the FLY line) amassing 73 points in 72 games. However, it all came to a crashing halt after that. He had two more down years in the big apple, before playing out his last two seasons in Toronto (33 gms) and Dallas (49 gms). The mounting effects of a multitude of injuries finally taking their toll he retired after just 760 NHL games at 34 years of age. His career totals of 372 goals, 493 assists, 865 points and 1398 pims don’t immediately leap off the page at first glance (maybe the Pims…) when reading over the record book, or equate with the massive totals others have amassed, but when you consider the rather limited time in which he accomplished it, and the injury issues he battled through, it’s perhaps all the more impressive.
So the question becomes did this precipitous drop off hamper his stature? It seems his is up for debate more than most, and it’s fair to say it’s likely because he was often such a polarising figure throughout his career. Perhaps it’s because he didn’t skate off while he still had some game left like contemporaries Gretzky, Yzerman or Sakic. His was more akin to the Pavel Bure, Mario Lemieux mold where we can’t help asking what if? Over the seven seasons I considered his prime (taking the strike shortened season out) he average only 64 games a year. Combine that with sitting out the following season, that’s a lot of hockey and a lot of points left on the table. He has the international accolades, but the critics will be quick to point out that he was on a Team Canada full of stars. That said he was a presence on those teams, even as an 18 year old in ’91. Few players, if any, ever, had his combination of power and skill. Mario was as tall, but never had the brute force or physical element Lindros could provide. (Nor did he need to play that way to be successful). Cam Neely a precursor in the prototypical power forward realm was a fantastic goal scorer but not nearly as skilled over all. That menacing presence and ability to physically impose his will on the game was second to none. This may also have also been his undoing as being so physically dominate he was used to just plowing forward with his head down and while he was able to get away with it at younger levels, the NHL boasted the likes of Scott Stevens & Darius Kasparaitis who were more than ready. Now, understandably, there are those who have little sympathy as Lindros himself would’ve been just as happy to run over a guy (just ask former Senator Andreas Dackell) and doled out his share of punishing hits, leaving plenty of victim in his wake. However, it’s still lamentable that we as fans were robbed of seeing a truly unique talent limited by concussion problems.
Then there was the supporting cast… or lack thereof. If we look at his contemporaries, Lemieux, Sakic, Yzerman, even the man he was once traded for in Peter Forsberg, they all played with a litany of future Hall of Famers, and put up a ton of points on definitively stronger teams whereas, at times, it seemed like Lindros bore the Flyers entire franchise on his massive shoulders. With respect to the fellow Legion of Doom & FLY line members, he never had that same amount of help. What could he have done with more talent around him? And should he be held up in the same regard as those elite players? Detractors will be quick to point out he only ever managed 1 100+ point season (115 in 95-96) and never cracked the fifty goal plateau. Defenders will note he cracked 90 points on several other occasions and had 4 40+ goals campaigns, and it simply was his limited playing time that was clearly the reasons he didn’t reach those totals. So where does he stand in the eyes of the average fan? Is he over rated? Under appreciated? Or maybe they simply look at how dominant he was and say yeah, he was one of the greats. Maybe it’s merely one of those debates where there’ll never be a true answer. Where it’s up to the individual to determine, and the younger audience to seek out old clips, garner a new respect, and we’ll all just have to appreciate that he was easily one of the most physically dominant players to ever lace them up, and is rightfully enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.