- Scott Burnside, NHL
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We'll never know, of course, what might have happened if Eric Lindros had landed in Toronto back in March 2001.
Would the Big E have carried home the team's first Stanley Cup since 1967?
Would there have been a second MVP award?
A career-ending concussion?
Perhaps a torturous soap opera pitting Lindros against captain Mats Sundin for control of the Leafs' dressing room?
Given the dynamics of that time, perhaps all of the above. Still, it's all just water-cooler fodder signifying nothing.
What is indisputable, undeniable, is that in another time, another space, Lindros finally has fulfilled what many consider his destiny: becoming a Maple Leaf. And against a backdrop of modest expectations, not to mention a modest salary, he has quickly become a dominant player and a team leader.
"No, I'm not surprised at all," said linemate and workout pal Tie Domi, who has known Lindros since both were teens playing in the Ontario Hockey League. "I was pretty confident in him before he even got here, and when he was here, I knew that he would excel under the pressure.
"And all the things that people say about him, and over his whole career, I know that none of that was true because I know him as a person and he's a great guy and he's a great team guy. And he's well-liked in this dressing room. And so all those people that have criticized him and tried to peg him always as something or something or another, they can do all they want."
It is an illustration of how dramatically the perception of Lindros' value has changed that, when he was signed late in the offseason, it created only a minor ripple in Leaf Nation.
The overriding feeling was that he was an acceptable risk at $1.55 million for a single season.
Back in March 2001, Philadelphia GM Bob Clarke agreed to send Lindros, then one of the highest-paid players in the league, to Toronto for Nik Antropov, Danny Markov and a draft pick or two. The prospect sent Leaf Nation into a frenzy. Blue and white Lindros No. 88 jerseys magically appeared in stores, and call-in shows lit up with excited discussion of a Leafs juggernaut.
But Clarke was jerking Leafs coach Pat Quinn's chain, no doubt enjoying the simmering media stew he was creating for his old friend in Toronto. The trade never happened, and ultimately, Lindros went on to New York, where he played well on a bad team.
By the time Lindros arrived in Toronto this summer, fans were more concerned that the Leafs had an aging goalie with a bad back and no cap room to bring in the bevy of stars on the open market. Lindros and Jason Allison, who hadn't played since January 2003 with a variety of injuries, merely illustrated the sad position the team was in.
Many prognosticators and fans believed the team would be lucky to make the playoffs.
But early in this campaign, the Leafs once again have shown a knack for resiliency, and that resiliency has been carried largely on the shoulders of Lindros and, more recently, Allison.
In the absence of Sundin, who took a puck to the face before he registered his first shot on goal, Lindros has defied detractors by exhibiting the kind of play that made him a Hart Trophy winner in 1995 and the captain of Canada's Olympic team in 1998.
After Lindros scored a crucial goal in the Leafs' 4-2 victory over the Flyers last week, Ken Hitchcock -- his former coach -- said he was surprised that Lindros had become such a dominant force so early in the season.
He has seven points in six games and leads all Toronto forwards with 20:12 of ice time per game. He has been a stalwart on the power play and has turned what looked to be a checking line with Domi and Chad Kilger into an offensive unit and generally has been considered the team's best player night in and night out.
"Ah. I don't know about that. I don't really get into that," Lindros said in a recent interview. "We go out as a group of 20 and hit the plane as a group of 23, and whatever 20 is in the next night, you go with that. I don't really look too deep into that. Everyone wants to go out and do their part."
For a player who seems to have been at odds with the hockey gods much of his career, never quite fulfilling the wondrous expectations so many had for him, laid low by concussions and involved in bitter, personal squabbles with Flyers management that cost him a year of playing time, perhaps Lindros has found just the right karma in Toronto now.
"You come in and it's a different stage of my career," Lindros said. "Mats is our captain, our leader, he's our horse. I come in and do my job, whatever needs to be done. Whatever needs to be done, you've got a responsibility."
Quinn agrees that perhaps this situation is much better than if Lindros had arrived here back in 2001.
"That's a possibility. Toronto is the greatest place to play, but there's a lot of pressure involved with it," Quinn said. "Not every athlete wants to play there. You're under the scope every day. And I know the fans in Toronto pretty much love their players and they excuse a lot of things. So, I think Eric's in a good spot right now and I think he'll do very well.
"Yeah, I've been quite pleased with how he's approached his play. It's better than my expectation at the start," the veteran coach added. "Part of it might be because Mats is away, but I think all that's done is increase [Lindros'] focus or others' focus on him, to watch how he's playing and he's just concentrating on being a solid player. … He clearly has determined to set some goals for himself to be the player he has been and he's doing everything he can to get back to his level of play."
Always at or near the center of attention his whole career, Lindros seems remarkably at ease with the media crush that follows the Leafs and fuels the incessant discussion of the team's fortunes or misfortunes.
"People want to win. Hockey's a big thing back home, and people want to win. They want you doing well," Lindros said.
But is he comfortable with all of that, being the hometown star, the big man on the only team in town?
"Who doesn't want to win?" Lindros replied. "I wouldn't have signed in Toronto unless I knew what things were about, and I feel comfortable in Toronto. I really do."
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
Eric Lindros is finally a Maple Leaf. Against a backdrop of modest expectations, not to mention a modest salary, he quickly has become a dominant player and a team leader.