Brendan Lemieux returned to the New York Rangers’ lineup Sunday after missing just over three weeks with a fractured hand. The Blueshirts missed his unique skillset, and Lemieux was immediately promoted to the team’s top line in his first game back.
In two consecutive games against the physical New York Islanders, Micheal Haley filled in for Lemieux as a winger. He played just 4:15 in the first game and 3:03 in the second. He provided the toughness the team needed with Lemieux out, and dropped the gloves with Ross Johnston in one game; however, he couldn’t replace Lemieux in other aspects of the game.
One of those areas where Haley struggles and Lemieux excels is killing penalties. Lemieux is fearless in the defensive zone and often sacrifices his body to block shots, which is how he was injured in the first place. He has already blocked 39 shots in 36 games this season. Despite the injury, the only other forward on the team with more blocked shots is Brett Howden, with 41.
In addition to killing penalties, Lemieux has become an important member of the second power-play unit and has done many of the same things that Chris Kreider has done on the first power-play unit. While Lemieux has only one goal and one assist on the power play so far this season, he has helped the team score by repeatedly screening opposing goaltenders. Like Kreider, he has the strength to stay in front of the net while fending off opposing defensemen.
Lemieux is also very important for the Rangers because of his effectiveness on the forecheck. He skates well and can get to the puck quickly after the Blueshirts dump it in. He is also leading all forwards on the team with 90 hits, and his physicality often forces opponents into giveaways.
As hockey has turned away from enforcers and fighting, Lemieux remains a valuable player because he is so much more than a tough-guy. He has speed, strength and fearlessness in the trenches, both while defending and in the offensive zone.
His unique skillset is especially valuable for the Rangers. They no longer have forwards like Brandon Prust, Brandon Dubinsky or Ryan Callahan, who played with intensity and physicality at both ends of the ice. They are a young, skilled team that looks to play with speed but struggles defensively and is often outmuscled by opponents.
In Lemieux’s absence, Steven Fogarty often played in games when Haley was scratched from the lineup. In those games, the Rangers missed Lemieux’s physicality as well as the protection his toughness provided teammates.
In a game against the Nashville Predators during the 2017-18 season, both Jimmy Vesey and Marc Staal were knocked out of the game with injuries because of dangerous hits by Filip Forsberg and Alexei Emelin. Neither player was challenged by a Ranger. That will not happen as long as Lemieux is in the lineup.
Lemieux is still just 23 years old and can set an example for the other young players on the team. He plays hard each time he steps on the ice and takes pride in playing well defensively, as well as consistently contributing to the team offensively. He has five goals and eight assists this season.
After losing on Sunday, Lemieux called out the Blueshirts for not playing a complete game and acknowledged that they had to be better. While he was critical of the team after the game, he has repeatedly stood up for teammates on the ice and has yet to back down from an opponent. On a young team without a captain, that is especially important.
His fearless attitude and his patience were exemplified in a fight with Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals, during a game earlier in the season. Wilson was physical throughout and challenged Rangers’ players repeatedly. Lemieux took note but showed maturity by waiting until the Rangers led by three goals late in the third period to drop the gloves with Wilson. He held his own in the fight, bringing teammates and fans to their feet.
With his contract expiring after this season, the Rangers could sign Lemieux to a long-term extension. His value extends beyond the number of points he has produced and he is becoming a respected leader on the team. As the Blueshirts try to figure out which young players to hold on to and build around, Lemieux certainly looks like an important part of the team’s future.