It must be tough to be a defenseman in the New York Rangers organization when a comparison is always made to the legendary Brian Leetch.
The New York Rangers made one of the best draft selections in franchise history in 1986. With the No. 9 overall pick in that year’s NHL Entry Draft, the club selected Brian Leetch from Boston College.
As they say, the rest is history.
A career on the Blueshirts blue line
Leetch made his Rangers debut in the 1987-88 season at 19 years old. The following campaign, he made his presence known by winning the Calder Trophy as the league’s Rookie of the Year. Appearing in 68 games, the then-rookie recorded 23 goals and 48 assists for 71 points.
That was just the first of many accomplishments and awards for the man who spent 17 seasons with the Blueshirts.
Leetch is one of five NHL defensemen to score 100 or more points in a season. He’s won the Stanley Cup along with two Norris Trophies as the league’s top defenseman and was captain of the United States team that won the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.
His skills on the ice were second to none, as is described by Team USA teammate Billy Guerin in a 2017 story written by NHL.com’s Kevin Allen when Leetch was named one of the top 100 players in league history.
“His skating ability was ridiculous,” Guerin said. “It was effortless. He could glide across the ice. His hands and legs would be going in different directions. He could pass the puck in stride, and laser-beam a puck across the ice on your tape.”
Leetch joined the Rangers following the 1988 Olympics in which he played for Team USA in Calgary. The defenseman was a student of the game. He paid attention to how the star players succeeded at the same position, having admired both Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios
In the 1991-92 season, he recorded 102 points, a feat no defenseman has accomplished since.
In 1994, he and the Rangers won the Stanley Cup and broke the 54-year curse. Leetch won the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the most valuable player of the playoffs. It was the first time an American-born player took home the award.
No other American defenseman has won the award.
It was a testament to what he went through that season. Then-newly hired coach Mike Keenan loved to push buttons to get the most out of his players. Leetch was no exception. Keenan benched Leetch in an Eastern Conference Finals game against the New Jersey Devils and also threatened to trade him for Chelios earlier in the season.
All was done to bring out the best in Leetch. In the end, this benefited the team and the city of New York as they celebrated with a parade down the Canyon of Heros.
Then-general manager Neil Smith talked about how Leetch reacted when he earned the Conn Smythe Trophy, reminding fans of how embarrassed he looked to win the award. The defenseman always believed in a team-first attitude.
“If you look at the tape of him getting the trophy from (commissioner) Gary Bettman he was so shy about it,” Smith said to Allen. “It was like, ‘OK, I have to go get this now.'”
Leetch continued to wear the Rangers jersey proudly right up until New York traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs in March 2004. The following year, he signed with the Boston Bruins and retired in May 2007.
The five-time NHL All-Star had his No. 2 jersey raised to the rafters of Madison Square Garden on Jan. 24, 2008. The following year, he earned an induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Tough act to follow
There have been many defensemen to come and go, but none lived up to the standards of Leetch.
He was a pillar of reliability, speed, and scoring every single time he put on the famous Rangers sweater. He finished his NHL career (1,205 games) with 247 goals and 781 assists for 1,028 points.