New York Rangers Finally Add Some Grit

So yes, Kevin Hayes has actually been traded by the New York Rangers, a move that has upset a portion of the fanbase to a surprisingly large degree.

That topic will likely invoke strong emotional reactions for at least the rest of the season. And the return for the big center might turn out to be overlooked as a result by that segment of the faithful who didn’t want to see Hayes dealt under any circumstances, but part of it should give Rangers fans a clear indication of where the building of this roster is headed.

Sending Hayes, a pending unrestricted free agent, to the Winnipeg Jets netted a 2019 first-round draft pick, a conditional 2022 fourth-round pick and Brendan Lemieux. In adding the 22-year-old forward, son of Claude, with an on-ice edge to match, the front office appears to have taken the first personnel step toward in establishing an often-stated desired new identity for the Broadway Blueshirts – grittier, agitating, more straightforward and in your face than the current persona of the roster. Alain Vigneault is gone and David Quinn is in, but the roster remains largely in AV’s image – skill heavy and extra-pass-or-three oriented, with little jam or physicality.

Brendan Lemieux
Forward Brendan Lemieux with the Winnipeg Jets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Quinn, of course, has made it clear since his hiring that the Rangers won’t be playing that way under him – and general manager Jeff Gorton echoed those sentiments shortly after Vigneault’s dismissal following the Rangers’ final game of last season. Declaring a philosophy and having the personnel to implement it, however, are worlds apart.

That’s why the Lemieux acquisition could end up being looked back on as the beginning of truly putting that plan into action. Quinn simply isn’t interested in turning the other cheek, and though he’s had some success in instilling that attitude in his team in his first season, it’s apparent that the Rangers need more than just Quinn’s direction to play that way – they need players for whom doing so is innate.

Rangers Starved for Lemieux’s Hard-Edged Approach

Lemieux certainly fits the bill. His father being one of the most agitating and polarizing players in NHL history, Brendan’s style of play was passed along to him by Claude, and that made the younger Lemieux appealing to the Rangers – a team with which Claude had more than his share of battles during his six seasons with the New Jersey Devils. Brendan’s 85 penalty minutes (PIM) in 53 career games – including 64 PIMs over 44 games this season, his second in the NHL – will make him a most uncommon type of player on his new team’s roster.

Whether the 31st-overall pick in the 2014 Draft by the Buffalo Sabres also inherited his father’s offensive abilities, which resulted in 379 career goals and 407 assists, remains to be seen. The Rangers, however, might sign up for half of that production as long as Lemieux echoes his father in constantly drawing a crowd after the whistle.

“I would think we’re going to give him a pretty big opportunity here,” Gorton said of Lemieux, who last season became the first AHL player since 2014-15 to register at least 40 points and 150 penalty minutes, “with some ice time and playing up in the lineup and see what he can do for us right away.”

Lemieux will be a restricted free agent at season’s end. There’s no way to know whether he’ll prove to be part of the core of a future Rangers playoff contender or just a stopgap. What does appear to be a good bet is that re-signing him and others like him – perhaps bruising defenseman Adam McQuaid, who went to the Columbus Blue Jackets on a busy trade deadline day for the Rangers – will be the trend going forward.

Jeff Gorton
Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

“Well obviously a guy that plays a fast, physical game,” Quinn said of his new forward. “He scored nine goals this year in limited ice time on a really good hockey team, so there’s certainly an offensive side to his game that I’m hoping we can bring out in him.”

Nothing should make the need for a roster dotted with Lemieux types more clear than Sunday’s battle royale with the Washington Capitals. The defending Stanley Cup champions play among the heaviest games in the NHL, and perhaps also the dirtiest. The Caps delivered plenty of cheap shots to go with legitimate physical play, withstood a Rangers rally and won 6-5 in overtime.

The Blueshirts pushed back admirably, engaging Washington in scuffles and one fight (Ryan Strome handling Matt Niskanen), but by the time Evgeny Kuznetsov scored with 40 seconds remaining in OT, it was clear that the Rangers were gassed from trying to go toe-to-toe with a team vastly better equipped to play that kind of a game.

Quinn Envisioning Tougher, More Physical Rangers

Quinn would never say it, but it’s fair to ponder whether watching from behind the bench, he felt more than a tinge of jealousy for the way the Caps are constructed. Washington’s sharp physical edge played a major role in its seven-game upset of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, and the Rangers coach has likely envisioned his team playing the same way in the not-too-distant future.

“I think it’s huge. I think it’s huge moving forward, short-term and long-term,” Quinn said afterward of the importance of his players standing up for each other. “It’s only 200 (feet) by 85 out there, there’s not a lot of space and there’s a lot of confrontation, and if you’re playing the right way, you’re gonna (tick) people off, and that’s what’s gonna happen.

“I’ve said this a lot, I don’t want to be the Broad Street Bullies, but you better play with an edge in this game if you’re gonna have success, and we played a little bit of an edge today.”

David Quinn
Rangers coach David Quinn (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Accordingly, Quinn’s satisfaction with having Lemieux in a Rangers uniform was obvious Tuesday as he smiled broadly while answering questions about Lemieux’s tougher style, apparently thrilled to finally have the type of player he desires.

“I think he’s going to fit in fine with that aspect of his game,” Quinn said. “Again, it’s not about doing it irresponsibly, it’s about playing the right way, and when you do that, you’re gonna (tick) people off, and I think that comes naturally to him.”

That’s what the Lemieux acquisition signifies for the franchise. Quinn – and the front office – want to get bigger, stronger and nastier. It will, of course, take a while to reshape the team into even a semblance of what the Capitals are now. There’s always a first step, though. Perhaps Lemieux’s arrival will prove to be just that.