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Leetch A Hall of Defenseman

This year, former Ranger great Brian Leetch takes his place among hockey’s best when he joins an outstanding 2009 Hockey Hall of Fame class in Toronto during induction weekend on November 6-9. Joining him are Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille and Devils Team President/GM Lou Lamoriello.

After being selected by the Rangers in the first round (ninth overall) in the 1986 Draft, Leetch starred for Boston College playing one season, totaling 47 points (9-38-47) while garnering Hockey East honors including Player of The Year, also being recognized as an NCAA East First All-American.

In 1987-88, he came up with the Blueshirts as a teenager tallying 14 points in 17 games. The next year, Leetch scored a rookie defenseman record 23 goals adding 48 assists totaling 71 points in 68 games to win the Calder as the league’s top rookie.

Leetch continued to excel becoming the first American-born player and fifth ever defenseman to post a 100-point season when in 1991-92, he netted 22 goals and a Ranger franchise record for an individual season 80 assists, totaling 102 points. Good enough to win his first Norris (top defenseman). The club also had on-ice success winning the President’s Trophy but following a brief work stoppage, couldn’t carry over their play, falling to repeat champion Pittsburgh in the Patrick Division Final.

Following a down season in which the club missed the postseason with Leetch missing the most games (46) of his career, the Rangers put together a special 1993-94 season once again finishing with the league’s best record. Leetch was again brilliant registering 23 goals and 56 assists for 79 points along with a plus-28 rating. Teamed with leading scorer Sergei Zubov (12-77-89), they formed the most dangerous tandem on the league’s top ranked power play. It would be a theme during the club’s run to their fourth Stanley Cup- ending a 54-year drought.

After cruising through the first two rounds dropping only a game against the Isles and Caps, the Blueshirts were pushed to the limit by a talented Devil team led by Scott Stevens, Martin Brodeur, Claude Lemieux and Scott Niedermayer. The Eastern Conference Final evolved into a classic series filled with drama including three games decided in sudden death. It also included the infamous Mark Messier Guarantee in which the Ranger captain delivered a natural hat trick, also setting up Alexei Kovalev’s late second period goal which rallied the team back from a two-goal deficit and possible elimination in enemy territory.

After taking Game Six, the Rangers had the crowd on their side and for nearly all of regulation, all that was needed was a remarkable spin-a-rama backhand tally from Leetch. However, Lemieux and Valeri Zelepukin had other ideas when they combined to beat Mike Richter with 7.7 seconds left stunning MSG. Would a championship again elude the Original Six franchise to an upstart with a bright future? Following some tense moments, Stephane Matteau provided the answer surprising Brodeur on an innocent looking wraparound early in the second overtime to send the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final.

In it, they would meet Cinderella Vancouver and the game’s most electrifying superstar Pavel Bure. It was in this series that Leetch was his absolute best torching the Canucks with all his special skills. Offensively, he was lethal scoring and setting up teammates while also being defensively responsible alongside tough partner Jeff Beukeboom. When his No.2 was retired at The Garden on Jan.24, 2008, he credited Beuke for allowing him to be so aggressive and play his game.

In a series that saw the Rangers squander a 3-1 lead with the pesky Canucks forcing a deciding seventh game, they needed Leetch’s very best to deliver the Cup back to Broadway. Following two subpar performances, the club was up to the challenge drawing an early power play. It didn’t take long as Messier dropped off a pass for Zubov, who instead of shooting fed an open Leetch who then patiently waited before firing into an open side for the game’s first goal. That set the tone as teammates Adam Graves and Messier would score as they held off Bure, Trevor Linden and Co. 3-2 to win Lord Stanley.

Not surprisingly, Leetch was named awarded the Conn Smythe for playoff MVP after leading all postseason scorers with 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists) while posting a plus-19. In winning the prestigous award, he became the only American player ever to win it. Pretty fitting for a guy who was in a class by himself and would later captain Team USA to an exciting World Cup of Hockey victory over Canada in a memorable three-game series.

Although the Rangers never won another Cup, Leetch continued to perform well along with Four Horsemen ‘mates Messier, Graves and Mike Richter. In 1996-97, his 78 points (20-58-78) along with a career best plus-31 were good enough to warrant a second Norris. Along with new addition Wayne Gretzky, Leetch and the club advanced to the Conference Final before a bigger Flyer team led by the Legion of Doom (Leclair-Lindros-Renberg) ousted them in five games.

As it turned out, that was the final time Leetch would play in the spotlight as Messier soon bolted for Vancouver. The team would never recover even with No.2 wearing the ‘C.’ Indeed, it became a struggle yet he was there for Richter’s club record 266th victory which passed Eddie Giacomin netting the winner. Somewhat appropriate. He also was there for his teammate’s 300th win along with Gretzky’s final game. While he was still an All-Star, the losing took its toll with No.2 sacrificing his body on poor clubs leading to injuries. That aspect of his game was often overlooked.

Leetch remained a Blueshirt long enough to become the all-time franchise leader in assists with his 741 easily besting Rod Gilbert (615). He also ranked second to Harry Howell (1,160) in games played (1,129) while finishing second to Gilbert (1,021) on the all-time club scoring list with 240 goals and 741 helpers totaling 981 points.

Unfortunately, he didn’t get to finish his career as a Ranger when GM Glen Sather unceremoniously traded him on his birthday to Toronto in a 2004 purge. The unpopular deal brought back Jarkko Immonen, Max Kondratiev, a first round pick (Lauri Korpikoski) and a second rounder (Mike Sauer). It’s been well documented how bad that deal looks with both Immonen and Kondratiev long gone while Korpikoski was sent to Phoenix for Enver Lisin. Sauer remains in the organization and really is the final link to the trade. Whether it’s a total bust depends largely on him and whether Slats’ Lisin experiment pans out.

Instead of scoring his 1,000th career point in a Blueshirt, Leetch instead accomplished the feat wearing Bruin colors during the 2005-06 season. His final year saw him make his MSG return to thunderous cheers. Though an improved home club led by Jaromir Jagr prevailed, the night was truly about a former player who was still beloved. He later thanked the fans for the acknowledgment. That season, he played 61 games tallying five goals and 27 assists for 32 points. Respectable figures at the age of 38.

Over a brilliant 20-year career, Leetch finished with 247 goals and 781 assists for 1,028 points. The 1,028 rank 65th on the all-time NHL scoring list including seventh best among defensemen. He was a 11-time All-Star, two-time First Team All-Star, three-time Second Team All-Star and Olympic Silver medalist at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake. He was also inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame last year along with Richter.

THE LEETCH LEGACY

ALL-TIME SCORING NHL DEFENSEMEN

Player                    Pts              Team(s)

1.Ray Bourque     1,579         Bos, Col

2.Paul Coffey         1,531         Edm, Pit, LA, Det, Hfd, Phi, Chi, Car, Bos

3.Al MacInnis       1,274         Cgy, Stl

4.Phil Housley      1,232         Buf, Wpg, Stl, Cgy, NJD, Wsh, Chi, Tor

5.Larry Murphy   1,216         LA, Wsh, Min, Pit, Tor, Det

6.Denis Potvin      1,052         NYI

7.Brian Leetch 1,028         NYR, Tor, Bos

MOST ASSISTS AMONG DEFENSEMEN

Player                 Assists       All-Time Rk

1.Ray Bourque    1,169          4th

2.Paul Coffey       1,135           5th

3.Al MacInnis         934          14th

4.Larry Murphy     929          15th

5.Phil Housley         894          19th

6.Brian Leetch 781          33rd

*7.Nick Lidstrom      769         36th

*8.Chris Chelios         763         37th

9.Larry Robinson    750        39th

10.Denis Potvin        742        40th

11.Scott Stevens       712         T 46th

12.Brad Park               683        54th

13.Bobby Orr              645        57th

14.Gary Suter              642       58th

Most Assists American Born Players

Player                           Assists

1.Phil Housley             894

*2.Mike Modano           786

3.Brian Leetch 781

*4.Chris Chelios            763

*5.Doug Weight            732

*6.Jeremy Roenick     703

*Still active

LEETCH RANGER RECORDS

Regular Season

Most assists: 741

Most goals by defenseman: 240

Most points by defenseman: 981

Most assists, single season: 80 (1991-92)

Most points by defenseman 1 season: 102 (1991-92)

Most power play goals by defenseman 1 season: 23 (1993-94)

Playoffs

Most points: 89

Most assists: 61

Most points 1 year: 34 (1993-94)

Most assists 1 year: 23 (1993-94)

Most goals by defenseman, career: 28

Most goals by defenseman, 1 year: 11 (1993-94)

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