Alexandre Daigle, Hockey History, Long Read, One For the Ages, Wild History

One for the Ages: Alexandre Daigle’s 2003-04 NHL Season

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Alexandre Daigle gets an unfair bad rap. “All-time greatest draft bust”, “primadonna”, “completely lacked effort and motivation”. Strong words for any athlete, though maybe at the time that he broke into the NHL they were partially – maybe even mostly – true.

But let us give Daigle his due. While he never became the next Jean Beliveau or Gilbert Perreault, nor did he become the superstar that the Ottawa Senators needed him to be (hindsight is an amazing thing these days), he would eventually redeem himself to a certain extent.

That redemption should be enough.

Alexandre Daigle
Alexandre Daigle would have a season of redemption – a one for the ages season – with the Minnesota Wild in 2003-04 (Photo by Barry Gossage via Getty Images).

For seven straight seasons Daigle toiled in league-wide disappointment. After taking a two-year absence from hockey – which he probably desperately needed – he endeavored to make a comeback, and did so with decent success. Enough so that he was able to play three more NHL seasons followed by another four in Switzerland.

But it is the 2003-04 season with the Minnesota Wild – Daigle’s one for the ages campaign – that forces us to look at him in a different light, and rightfully so. As it turns out, he was not one of the all-time greats – but he wasn’t the biggest bust either.

Furthermore, he cared about the game and put the effort into contributing for his team. It was enough to impress Hockey Hall of Famer Jacques Lemaire and the league as a whole.

We look back now at what became a season of redemption for Alexandre Daigle.

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Ending up in Ottawa

A native of Laval, Quebec, Canada, Daigle was projected to be the next French-Canadian superstar in the NHL for the 1990s. A 6-foot and 200 -pound center, he possessed tremendous speed and stickhandling skills, and promptly tore apart QMJHL scoring as a teenager.

In the season prior to Daigle being drafted, he potted 45 goals and 92 assists for a staggering 137 points in only 53 games for the Victoriaville Tigres. Subsequently, he would be the QMJHL’s recipient of the 1992-93 Mike Bossy Trophy, the Canadian Major Junior’s CHL Top Prospect Trophy, and was a QMJHL First Team All-Star that same season.

Factor in that Daigle won a gold medal with Canada at the 1993 World Junior Championship in Gävle, Sweden, and it was easy to see how such production and prowess vaulted him to the top of prospects for the 1993 NHL Entry Draft. (NOTE: Worth mentioning that Daigle would win a second gold medal at the World Juniors in 1995 after his NHL career had already begun).

What is crucial to realize about this particular moment in hockey history is that the NHL had welcomed aboard five new teams all around this same time. The San Jose Sharks joined the league for the 1991-92 season. Following immediately in 1992-93 were the Tampa Bay Lightning and Ottawa Senators. Meanwhile, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Florida Panthers were priming themselves to debut for 1993-94.

Alexandre Daigle, in a Victoriaville Tigres jersey
Canadian ice hockey player Alexandre Daigle, in a Victoriaville Tigres jersey, speaks with journalists at the NHL Entry Draft in le Colisee de Quebec, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, June 26, 1993 (Photo by John Giamundo/Getty Images).

Each of these fledgling expansion teams were jockeying to find their cornerstone for the franchise. A player to the effect of a Denis Potvin with the New York Islanders or a Gilbert Perreault with the Buffalo Sabres. Daigle was strongly believed to be that particular type of player.

The Ottawa Senators badly needed him to be that player too. The inaugural 1992-93 season for Ottawa is quite possibly the worst team in NHL history. The first-year Senators lost 70 of their 84 regular season games for a pitiful record of 10-70-4. Four different goalies played between the pipes for them, with none of them having better than a 4.30 goals-against average.

Furthermore, the 1992-93 Senators set three NHL records: the longest home losing streak of eleven straight games, the longest road losing streak of 38 straight games, and fewest road wins in a season with just one.

The only perceived bright spot of such a paltry performance was that the Senators would have the top selection of the 1993 Draft, which all indications pointed towards being Daigle. This would become fact when the Draft took place on Jun. 26, 1993 at the Colisée de Québec.

Daigle’s Absurd Contract With the Sens

Daigle did not do himself any favors either. After the Senators had selected him as expected, he famously quipped, “I’m glad I got drafted first, because no one remembers number two”. As it turned out, the number-two selection ended up being Hockey Hall of Famer and Stanley Cup Champion Chris Pronger who was chosen by the Hartford Whalers. Another Hall of Fame inductee – Paul Kariya – would go fourth overall to the Mighty Ducks.

If one sorts through the 1993 NHL Draft as a whole, 18 of the selected players would become NHL All-Stars. 17 players would see their names inscribed onto the Stanley Cup. Daigle fell into neither of those categories.

To make matters even more complicated, the Senators and Daigle came to an agreement that saw their newly drafted prospect receive a contract for $12.25 million for five-years – the largest starting salary in NHL history. The number was so steep and Daigle’s performance was ultimately so non-warranting of it that the league eventually introduced a rookie salary cap a few years later to prevent such a gross transaction from happening again.

Things only got murkier from here. There is little – if anything – to justify paying an unproven teenager millions of dollars. Perhaps all this number ultimately did was create consternation. Furthermore, in the years following his rookie season with the Sens there was a continuous battle mostly emblazoned by the media that pitted Daigle against Alexei Yashin – Ottawa’s 1992 second-overall draft pick – over who the better player and the face of the franchise was.

As things would pan out, Daigle had a a decent rookie season in 1993-94. He played in all 84 regular season games, scoring 20 goals and 31 assists for 51 points. That placed him second on the team in scoring behind Yashin’s 79 points (30 goals, 49 assists).

Daigle would end up playing three and a half more seasons with the Senators after that. The finest offensive season of his career came in 1996-97 when he scored a career-high 26 goals, along with 25 assists, to equal his career-high points total of 51. Daigle finished third on the team in scoring behind Yashin (75) and Daniel Alfredsson (71). The Senators would also make the playoffs for the very first time that season since their 1992-93 inception.

This 1996-97 performance was ultimately the high point of Daigle’s time in Ottawa. In 301 regular season games as a Senator, he scored 74 goals, 98 assists and 172 points, but was an abysmal minus-137. While the offensive numbers certainly were not terrible, they were a far cry from being the next Beliveau.

Numerous Stops Around the League

Daigle would end up bouncing around the NHL beginning with the 1997-98 season. Scoring just seven goals and nine assists through 38 games in Ottawa, the Senators shipped him to the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 17, 1998. In return, Ottawa received Vaclav Prospal, Pat Falloon and a second-round pick in the 1998 Draft. The Senators conceivably received the better end of the deal.

Daigle really fared no better with the Flyers. After coming over in the trade, he generated a decent 17 assists along with nine goals for 26 points in 37 games with Philly. Additionally, Daigle played in all five Flyers’ postseason contests as they would lose four games to one to the Buffalo Sabres. Ironically, this would be his second and final appearance in the NHL playoffs for his career, and in both instances Daigle’s teams were eliminated by the Sabres.

The 1998-99 season would go very much the same as the one prior. Daigle scored a mere three goals and two assists in 31 games for the Flyers, which prompted them to trade him on Jan. 29, 1999 in what ended up being a three-way trade. Daigle would be traded to Edmonton to bring Andrei Kovalenko to Philadelphia. However, the Oilers then shipped him to Tampa Bay in exchange for Alexander Selivanov.

Daigle would finish out the 1998-99 season scoring six goals and six assists in 32 games for the Lightning.

The start of the 1999-00 season would see him traded one final time. Tampa Bay opted to trade Daigle on Oct. 3, 1999 to the New York Rangers for future considerations. This would be his final NHL season before his hiatus from hockey by the age of 25. Daigle played 58 games for the Rangers that season, scoring just 8 goals and 18 assists for 26 points.

A Comeback of Sorts With Pittsburgh

Daigle did not play professional hockey at all during either the 2000-01 or 2001-02 seasons. Instead, he set his focus on being involved in entertainment. Once he eventually retired from the game entirely, Daigle went on to maintain a career in the movie industry even to this day, running studios for MTL Grandé and making routine trips to Hollywood.

However, at the time of his break from hockey he was still in his mid-20s. Ultimately Daigle’s realization that – superstar or not – he possessed a God-given talent for hockey and could earn good pay from playing, he endeavored to make a comeback by offering his services to a variety of teams for the 2002-03 season.

The Pittsburgh Penguins would sign Daigle as a free agent on Aug. 13, 2002. He would split the season between the parent club in Pittsburgh and their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

Daigle’s 33 games in Pittsburgh saw him score four goals and three assists for seven points. He spent a sizable chunk of that time playing alongside two Czechs, Martin Straka and Jan Hrdina. However, interestingly enough, it would be Mario Lemieux who would pick up the primary assist on Daigle’s fourth and final goal as a Penguin when he scored against Carolina Hurricanes’ goalie Kevin Weekes on Nov. 9, 2002.

Spending the majority of his time with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Daigle was nearly a point-per-game player with the AHL Penguins. He potted nine goals and 29 assists for 38 points in 40 games. If anything, Daigle proved he could still play professional hockey.

Daigle’s 2003-04 NHL Season

The 2003-04 Minnesota Wild were fresh off of an improbable run which saw them make it to the Stanley Cup semi-finals the season prior, in only their third year of existence. The Wild’s head coach Jacques Lemaire had won eight Stanley Cups as a player for the Montreal Canadiens and one as head coach for the New Jersey Devils.

Lemaire was a master of a defensive-minded coaching system which called upon use of a neutral zone trap strategy. He also possessed a tremendous ability to slot players into specific roles where they would best strengthen the team as a whole. Lemaire was able to devise a Wild team that consisted primarily of NHL cast-offs into a winning recipe.

On Sept. 30, 2003 Daigle signed as a free agent with Minnesota. Having impressed Lemaire and the rest of the coaching staff enough upon his arrival, he was inserted into the regular lineup for the Wild and ultimately put together the finest overall season of his career.

The 2003-04 season saw Daigle appear in 78 of Minnesota’s 82 games – his fullest NHL season since 1996-97. Perhaps imbued with a newly found confidence stemming from the belief of his coaches, or maybe just more mature, he ended up being the team’s most consistent player. Daigle led the Wild in scoring with 51 points in his 78 games – the third time in his career that he reached his career-high total. His 20 goals were also the most among all Minnesota scorers.

Daigle’s solid performance in 2003-04 was not entirely statistics-based either. The turnaround season that he was able to generate gained league-wide notice of a positive kind, and he was most-deserving of the respect. With just 14 penalty minutes to his name at season’s end, Daigle finished in 16th place in NHL voting for the Lady Byng Trophy for his sportsmanship.

Maybe the truest nod of appreciation towards Daigle came with him being the Wild’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy given annually to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

We take a look now at some of the finer moments from Daigle’s 2003-04 NHL season:

Oct. 10, 2003:

In his second game of the season, Daigle scored his first for the Wild and his first goal in more than three years. Minnesota would take a 5-3 win over the New York Rangers after finding themselves down 3-1. Daigle’s tally gave the added insurance as the fifth goal of the game for Minnesota. Marc Chouinard and Andrei Zyuzin earned the assists on the goal.

Oct. 28, 2003:

Playing on the road in Buffalo, Daigle scored the game-winning goal on the power play. The tally came in the second frame of a 3-1 Wild victory. Defensive specialist Wes Walz scored shorthanded in the opening period to put the Wild up 1-0. With Buffalo’s Ales Kotalik in the box serving a too-many-men call, Daigle fired one past Martin Biron with assists coming from Minnesota defensemen Willie Mitchell and Nick Schultz. In addition to nabbing the decisive goal, Daigle was named the game’s second star as he put four shots on net to boot.

Nov. 22, 2003:

The Wild would lose at home to the Detroit Red Wings by a score of 5-2. The Red Wings’ firepower from Brett Hull, Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom and company proved to be too much for Minnesota. Still, Daigle did his darndest to help his team. After Hull and Minnesota’s Richard Park traded goals in the first, Daigle briefly put his team ahead in the second when he scored his eighth of the season. His five shots on goal were the most for either team, and he was subsequently named a second star yet again. Unfortunately, the Red Wings scored four straight goals to take the win.

Dec. 15, 2003:

Daigle had his first 2-point game of the season and the Wild received goals from five different shooters in this 5-2 win over the Phoenix Coyotes. With the score tied 2-2 after the first two periods, Jim Dowd and Daigle set up Andrew Brunette for the game-winning goal at 11:43 of the third. With less than a minute to go in the game, and with the Coyotes’ Sean Burke pulled for an extra attacker, first Walz and then Daigle would each score an empty-net goal. Daigle’s goal was his ninth of the season.

Jan. 7, 2004:

Every player ends up playing in a barn burner from time to time. Even though the Wild were out-shot 29-19, they still defeated the Chicago Blackhawks by a score of 7-4. Daigle earned the primary assist when Jason Wiemer scored Minnesota’s first to tie the game 1-1. With the score 4-3 in favor of the Blackhawks after two periods, the Wild scored four straight goals in the third period alone. Daigle would assist on their sixth goal of the game from Pascal Dupuis to earn his second helper of the night and his second 2-point game of the season.

Jan. 23, 2004:

This time around the tables would be completely turned against the Wild. Facing the Mighty Ducks on the road in Anaheim, Minnesota was horribly out-shot 47-11. The Ducks would take a decisive 6-2 win, even though Wild goaltender Dwayne Roloson made 41 saves. The only other bright spot for Minnesota was that Daigle provided both of their goals – both power play tallies – on his only two shots of the game. This would be his first of four 2-goal games during the season.

Feb. 13, 17 and 19, 2004:

The Minnesota Wild faced the Edmonton Oilers (Feb. 13), Calgary Flames (Feb. 15), New Jersey Devils (Feb. 17) and Vancouver Canucks (Feb. 19) within a 6-day span. Though he would go pointless in the game against Calgary, Daigle recorded pairs of assists in each of the other three games to give himself six points in four games.

The Wild would shutout the Oilers 3-0, with Daigle earning helpers on goals from Chouinard and Dupuis. He would also be named the third star of the game.

After the game against the Flames, the Wild would play the Devils to a 4-4 tie while in “The Garden State”. Daigle grabbed the primary assists on two of Marian Gaborik’s three goals, including Minnesota’s fourth of the contest.

Lastly, in the final span of the four games the Wild defeated the Vancouver Canucks 6-2. Daigle set up Brunette for the game-winner, and then picked up another helper when Chouinard scored Minnesota’s fourth.

Mar. 25, 29 and 31, 2004:

Daigle proceeded to mirror what he had done back in February. The Wild played four games in a span of six days: Chicago Blackhawks (Mar. 25), Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (Mar. 28), Detroit Red Wings (Mar. 29) and Colorado Avalanche (Mar. 31). In four games he scored six goals and an assist. This was the type of scoring that forecasters had expected Daigle to perform as a teenage NHLer, and yet here he was doing it when the majority of those same forecasters had written him off long ago.

The Wild trounced the Blackhawks 8-2 in their first game of this stretch. Daigle scored his team’s fifth goal and their seventh. He and Gaborik tied for five shots a piece on goal – that being 10 of their team’s 25 total shots. With Dupuis earning four assists – two of them from Daigle’s goals – the Three Stars of the Game were Dupuis, Gaborik and Daigle respectively.

Daigle would go pointless in Minnesota’s 2-1 victory over the Mighty Ducks, but would strike for two more goals in a 5-3 loss on the road to Detroit. He led his team in shots on goal with four and was the only Wild player to have more than one point during the game. Even though the game was played in unfriendly confines, Daigle still earned the game’s second star.

On Mar. 31, 2004, Daigle played his finest game of the 2003-04 regular season. Facing the Colorado Avalanche at home in Minnesota, he pushed his team to a thrilling 5-4 overtime victory.

Daigle opened the scoring of game with his 19th of the season, coming from Chouinard and Dupuis. With the score tied 2-2 after two periods, Daigle broke the deadlock when he scored his 20th goal of the season at 8:25 of the third. He then picked up the primary assist on Chouinard’s ninth of the campaign just over three minutes later. It was Daigle’s 30 assists of the season.

Chouinard would eventually win it for the Wild just 53 seconds into OT. With the game going to Minnesota and his three points on the night, Daigle was quite easily named the game’s first star.

End of His Success With the Wild

Despite their unexpected success of the season prior, the 2003-04 Wild failed to make the playoffs. With a (slight) winning record of 30-29-20-3, they finished in last place in the Northwest Division. Minnesota’s 188 goals scored put them in a four-way tie for the third-least scored in the NHL. However, only the New Jersey Devils (164) allowed any less than the Wild’s 183.

Daigle on the other hand was rather brilliant and does not receive enough credit for his performance this particular season. He did not just lead his team in goals and points – rather, it was the consistency with which he did. The Alexandre Daigle that the majority had long doubted had 12 games of at least two points. Six of his goals came on the power play, while three were game-winners. His 145 shots on net were second-most on the team only to Gaborik, while he 13.8% shooting percentage was the best among all Wild players with at least 100 shots on net.

After a lockout cancelled the 2004-05 NHL season, Daigle was back with Minnesota once more when the league reconvened for 2005-06. Now at the age of 30, he could not string together a followup season that closely matched 2003-04.

Daigle split his time between Minnesota and the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs. In 46 games for the Wild, he scored five goals and 23 assists for 28 points. There are two interesting things to note about this:

First, Daigle’s 23 assists were still the fifth highest total on the Wild even though he only played a half-season. Had he remained in Minnesota for the entire time, it is conceivable that he could have led the team in assists and been among their top scorers.

Second, Daigle was with the Monarchs for their playoff run. Though they would lose in seven games to the Hartford Wolf Pack, he was the team’s leading playoff scorer with 11 points (4 goals, 7 assists) in seven games – the only Manchester player to reach double digits in points.

How Should We Remember Alexandre Daigle?

After the 2005-06 season came to a close, Daigle would finish out his professional career playing four seasons in Switzerland. His final season played was in 2009-10 which he split between three different teams in the top Swiss National League.

Looking at him today, is it really fair to consider Alexandre Daigle “the all-time greatest draft bust”? This writer does not think so.

At the close of his NHL career, Daigle had played 10 seasons in the league. His official statistics are 129 goals, 198 assists and 327 points in 616 regular season games. All of those numbers are far more than most players who grace the NHL at one time or another.

Daigle told the Ottawa Sun in an Apr. 7, 2017 interview:

“I had a great life out of it,” he said. “I played a lot of games. Everybody’s criticizing careers, saying I ‘should have been.’ Yeah I should have been. But if you tell me my son will win two world championships, play 650 games, 200 in Europe, travel the world … I will sign him up (for that career) tomorrow. Anybody would.”

Perhaps some of the consternation comes from the comments he made when he was drafted, and how an 18-year-old was bestowed with $12.25 million. A similar sort of argument is made these days when it comes to the concept of “everyone gets a trophy”. Sure, many of today’s young adults were given participation trophies as kids rather than having to earn one… but… who gave them the trophies? Same concept – who gave Daigle the $12.25 million?

Maybe it was wrong of the scouts, coaches, and managers to herald a teenager so strongly. We have toned it down to some extent these days, but occasionally get worked up all over again – Connor McDavid? Rasmus Dahlin? Which unfortunate soul ends up being “the next Alexandre Daigle”?

Something to Be Happy About

“We’re so focused on the selected few who are amazing,” Daigle went on to tell the Ottawa Sun, “which is great, but the reality is, there’s not too many guys who ‘do it’. To do it for that long is so tough. The average career is what, four-and-a-half years or something like that? So I’ve got to be happy with what happened to me. It’s a great thing.”

If anything, Alexandre Daigle can indeed be happy with his 2003-04 season with the Minnesota Wild. Sure, it was not a 50-goal, 100-point performance. Regardless, he proved an ability to play the NHL game, lead his team in scoring, and earn the respect of his teammates, coaches, opponents – and maybe even his critics – alike.

Daigle’s one for the ages season is a prime example of why we should never judge too harshly.

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