After signing Kevin Shattenkirk and acquiring Anthony DeAngelo in a trade, the New York Rangers have a bevy of American-born defenseman. Being a defenseman for the Rangers, especially an American, means always playing in the shadow of a banner that hangs in the rafters. That banner honors perhaps the greatest Ranger ever, Brain Leetch.
New York Rangers fans were reminded often on how special a player Brian Leetch was last season. As American-born rookie defenseman, Brady Skjei had a season to remember, and Leetch’s name was always in the next breath. Skjei’s 39 points in 80 games were the most by a rookie defenseman since Leetch’s ridiculous 71 points in 68 games in the 1988-89 season.
It marked an explosive start to a storied career which would see Leetch acquire many major league accolades. Let’s take a look back on Leetch’s career and accomplishments as we appreciate the best American-born defenseman to play in the NHL.
The New York Rangers drafted Brian Leetch 9th overall in the first round of the 1986 NHL entry draft out of Avon Old Farms. Leetch was the Rangers’ first American first round selection in franchise history.
For a team that is infamous for first round busts, the selection of Leetch almost makes up for their numerous failures.
Leetch was the prototypical offensive defenseman. He was a smooth and quick skater, along with immense hockey IQ and vision. Like the number on his back, he would often play the entirety of a two minute powerplay, or less since the Rangers often scored.
Leetch played one season (1986-87) for Boston College where he piled up numerous accolades: he was conference Rookie and Player of the Year as well as tournament MVP.
Due to playing in the 1988 Winter Olympic Games as a member of Team USA, Leetch’s career as a New York Ranger did not begin until late in the 1987-88 season. He would ‘only’ tally 14 points in 17 games in what would a brief teaser for his true rookie season.
As mentioned, in his first ‘full’ NHL season, Leetch would tally an impressive 71 points in only 68 games. It should be noted that this was still in the heyday of the high flying 80’s where the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemeuix posted well north of 150 points.
However, Leetch was a still just 20 years old and a defenseman. His 23 goals that season still stands as the record for rookie defensemen. Naturally, his efforts earned him the Calder Trophy.
Norris and the Mountaintop
After a brief step backwards in the 1989-90 season, Leetch roared back with a vengeance. Just a few seasons after his record-setting rookie season, he captured his first Norris Trophy in 1991-92.
During that season, the 23 year old Leetch scored an eye-popping 102 points in 80 games to lead the Rangers to their first President’s Trophy.
Those 102 points were the first and last time an American-born defenseman broke the 100 point barrier. Given the nature of the game today, it is unlikely that we will see another season like that again.
After a heartbreaking loss to the New Jersey Devils in the second round of the playoffs, the 1992-93 season was a disaster. With Leetch limited to only 36 games, the team missed the playoffs and the curse of 1940 seemed as strong as ever.
I shouldn’t have to tell you what happened next. Behind a resurgent Leetch, the Rangers captured their second President’s trophy and booked a date with destiny.
Matteau exorcised the Devils, Richter stopped Bure and Messier cackled like a madman as he accepted Lord Stanley’s Mug from Commissioner Bettman.
However, just before that immortal moment, Leetch was awarded the Conn Smythe trophy, becoming the first American to receive it. In their historic run, Leetch took his game to another level. He lead the team with 34 points in those 23 games.
Leetch would capture his second Norris Trophy in 1996-97 after a 78 point campaign.
International play and Legacy
Fittingly, Leetch was also a star for another team who proudly wears red, white and blue. For Team USA, Leetch captained the team to their signature win in the 1996 World Cup. In 2002, he helped Team USA to an Olympic silver medal on home ice.
Sadly, Leetch would not end his career as a Ranger, going to the Toronto Maple Leafs in an infamous trade. Leetch would end his career with his college town Boston Bruins.
However, he would ultimately be rightfully immortalized as a New York Ranger. On January 24, 2008, Leetch’s jersey was raised to the rafters of Madison Square Garden.
Leetch is second on the Rangers all-time list for Games Played (1129) and Points (981). His 741 assists is a franchise record.
Next, he received his call to the Hockey Hall of Fame on June 23rd, 2009. Last season, the NHL named Leetch was one of the league’s top 100 players.
Leetch is the measuring stick to which all Ranger, American-born, and most other offensive defenseman are compared. He is the reason that a generation of American-born hockey players wear number 2.
Just ask newly acquired Kevin Shattenkirk which players he looked up to as a kid:
"“there is one for sure and his name is Brian Leetch. I think I tried to take a few things out of his game and put them into mine. If I had to name others, Mark Messier, Adam Graves, Mike Richter, Jeff Beukeboom. I watched these guys at Rye Playland when I was a kid and watched them practice. From that moment on I knew that was where I wanted to be.”"
The Rangers or the NHL will probably never experience a player with the transcendent skill of Brian Leetch ever again. All Rangers fans are looking forward to seeing what two of the current top American-born defensemen in the league can do together. And they, like us, will look at that number 2 banner for inspiration and appreciation of arguably the best player to don a blueshirt.