Brian Leetch holds the distinction of being the first American-born player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as Playoff MVP. The 2009 Hall of Fame inductee was one of the best offensive defensemen in the history of the game, and is arguably the finest player in the New York Rangers’ 86-year history.
In Part One of this series, here is a look at Leetch’s career leading up to the 1994 Stanley Cup Playoffs:
By the time the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs began, New York Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch was already regarded as one of the best blueliners in the National Hockey League. In six full NHL seasons, Leetch, who turned 26 on March 3rd in 1994, had already accomplished more than most players.
After representing the United States at the 1988 Winter Olympics, Leetch immediately joined the Blueshirts. In his rookie season in 1988-89, the blueliner scored 23 goals and recorded 71 points in 68 games. His terrific debut season earned him the Calder Trophy as the league’s top freshman.
Despite a sophomore slump, Leetch rebounded in 1990-91 as he registered 72 assists and 88 points. However, the defenseman’s game reached new heights during the 1991-92 season, thanks in large part to the arrival of Mark Messier in Manhattan.
“Mark was the ultimate captain, and the ultimate teammate,” Leetch said of Messier. “He was able to express to me in his words and by his actions the level of dedication and commitment needed for me to be at my best, and the responsibility that came with that.”
Leetch was not only at his best in 1991-92, but he was at the top of the class in the NHL. The Rangers’ first round pick in 1986 became only the fifth defenseman in league history to record at least 100 points in a season, joining Bobby Orr, Denis Potvin, Paul Coffey, and Al MacInnis as the only blueliners to tally that many points in one campaign.
The Rangers blueliner scored 22 goals and added 80 assists for 102 points, good enough for ninth in the NHL. Leetch’s 80 helpers are a Rangers single-season record, and he was awarded the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in hockey.
The next season, however, was an injury-riddled one for the Rangers’ assistant captain. Leetch was averaging over a point per game through the first two months of the season, and was poised to have another big season. That vision came to a screeching halt during a Rangers win in St. Louis on December 17th. Leetch was tripped up and slid on his stomach into the boards.
For Leetch, the diagnosis was a nerve injury in his neck and shoulder that kept him out of action until early March. But, just five games after Leetch returned to the lineup, he had a freak accident getting out of a taxi cab that ended his season. Leetch stepped on a patch of black ice and broke his fibula. His final stat line for 1992-93 read: 36 GP, 6 G, 30 A, 36 P.
Back at full strength for the 1993-94 season, Leetch was looking forward to a full season on the ice. Although he was healthy, he initially had a tough time earning the trust of the Blueshirts’ new bench boss, Mike Keenan.
Leetch was benched by Keenan early in the season, and the head coach would often criticize him by screaming, “You’re no Chelios!” in reference to Keenan’s former star defenseman in Chicago. Despite the struggles early on, the Rangers star defenseman had an all-star season. Leetch played in all 84 games, and totaled 79 points (23 goals and 56 assists) while helping the Blueshirts win their second President’s Trophy in three seasons.
Be sure to come back for Part Two of Brian Leetch: The Road to the 1994 Conn Smythe Trophy for a look at the Rangers’ first two series in the 1994 playoffs against the New York Islanders and the Washington Capitals.