Twenty years ago, the Minnesota North Stars were at a crossroads and literally faced the most important decision in the franchise’s history since coming into the league in 1968. The team was coming off a horrid season in which they won just 19 games and finished fifth in the Norris Division. The only good news was that the team held the number one pick in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft.
It marked the third time for the North Stars to have the number one overall selection, but this pick had the potential to be much bigger than any other draftee the team had ever taken.
The North Stars had selected Bobby Smith with the first overall pick in the 1978 draft and Brian Lawton with the top pick in 1983. Smith still holds the mark for the fifth-most points scored in franchise history with 554 in 572 games while Lawton turned out to be a disappointment, scoring just 162 points in 303 games for Minnesota.
The Stars were going to take one of two players in 1988 – Mike Modano from the Prince Albert Raiders or Trevor Linden from the Medicine Hat Tigers. The tandem was ranked as the top two prospects by Central Scouting and both were projected for greatness.
A 6-2, 175-pound gazelle on skates, Modano had skill that was unmatched. He scored 47 goals and 127 points in 65 games for Prince Albert the previous season. Linden was already 6-3 and 185 pounds (and he would only get bigger), a power forward in every sense of the word with great hands. He had accrued 46 goals and 110 points with Medicine Hat in 1987-88.
“Modano is an electrifying game-breaker who may be the next Steve Yzerman or Denis Savard,” said North Stars Asst GM Glen Sonmor about a month prior to the 1988 draft. “Linden is a Cam Neely-type, a very, very strong physical presence with considerable talent who is good with the puck.”
Linden was seen as more of a sure thing, a safe pick, while Modano was seen as a possible superstar with no guarantees. Scouts around the league had their differences of opinion on which player would be better in the NHL, and that included the Minnesota group of talent evaluators.
“We have to determine where Modano and Linden will be two or three years down the road, “said Stars Chief Scout Harry Howell at the time. “Because they’ll still have a long time left in their careers by then and we’d like to still have the best player.”
The final decision came down to North Stars General Manager Lou Nanne, in conjunction with owners George and Gordon Gund, and it went right down to the wire. The Stars were offered several trade possibilities for the number one pick on draft day, including one report that had Philadelphia offering five draft picks – all in the first three rounds of the 1988 draft.
But Quebec made the hardest push for a deal, according to reports. Holding the number three overall selection, the Nordiques wanted Linden bad and offered their first round pick and a veteran player (rumored to be defenseman Randy Moller). The North Stars were intrigued and tried to make a deal with Vancouver to not take Modano with the number two pick (offering defenseman Normand Rochefort as compensation), so that they could make the trade with Quebec and also draft Modano at No. 3 (their version of having their cake and eating it too).
“We had some offers for the No. 1 pick, but nothing we were satisfied with,” said Nanne shortly after the draft. “Quebec came the closest to meeting our conditions – a draft pick no lower than fifth plus an excellent player – but I couldn’t get Vancouver to agree to skip Modano.”
In the end, Nanne could not resist the potential that Modano brought and selected him with the first pick in the draft.
“We took Modano because of the upside,” said Nanne. “We feel he is a potential star.”
The jury would be out for a bit on this selection by the Stars, as Linden immediately entered the NHL with the Canucks for the 1988-89 season and played very well, scoring 30 goals and 29 assists for 59 points in 80 games. Modano returned to Prince Albert for one more season, again accumulating impressive numbers (39 goals and 105 points). But the hockey world wanted to see what he would do at the NHL level.
Modano’s rookie season would come in 1989-90, one in which he would score 29 goals and 75 points in 80 games. He arguably should have won the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year, but the honor went to (30-year-old) Sergei Makarov of Calgary, who played his first season in the NHL after 11 seasons in Russia.
Linden went on to play 19 seasons in the NHL, recently announcing his retirement from the NHL as a player. He finished his career with 375 goals and 867 points in 1,382 games with Vancouver, the NY Islanders, Montreal and Washington. He topped 70 points in a season four times, all with the Canucks. Linden’s best season was in 1995-96 with Vancouver when he scored 33 goals and 80 points in 82 games. He led the Canucks to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1994.
Modano became the highest-scoring U.S.-born player in NHL history this past season, currently holding the mark in both goals (528) and points (1,283). He is the Stars’ all-time leader in goals, assists, points, game-winning goals, power play goals, and shorthanded goals. Modano has topped the 80-point plateau eight times in his career, including two seasons with 93 points.
“We chose Modano because we feel if both he and Linden live up to their potential, Modano will be a better player,” said Nanne.
With all due respect to Trevor Linden, a great player in his own right, Nanne was correct.