The season following the 2004-2005 lockout was an odd one for the Boston Bruins. The Bruins went from being one of the best teams in the NHL, finishing 1st in the Northeast division in 2003-2004, to falling all the way down the ladder during the 2005-2006 season, ending the season in last place in the division. All of this happened despite having signed the greatest American-born defenseman, and arguably the best American-born player of all-time, Brian Leetch, in the offseason.
Before signing in Boston, Leetch had some strong connections in New England. He grew up in Cheshire, CT and attended Boston College for a season, where he became an All-American before entering the big league. His most memorable accomplishments though, came in the NHL.
Leetch was selected by the New York Rangers in the first round, ninth overall in the 1986 NHL Draft, and spent all but a season and a half of his career with the team. His best regular season with the team was the 1991-1992, when he scored 22 goals, 80 assists, and 102 points in 80 games. That is well over a point per game and it was the season where he cemented his offensive skills in the NHL.
His best playoff season with the Rangers was when the team won the Stanley Cup in 1994. Leetch recorded 11 goals, 23 assists, and 34 points in the 23 postseason games played which led to him winning the Conn Smythe Trophy, the first American-born player to win the award. The Conn Smythe Trophy was not the only individual award that Leetch won while on the team, in 1989 he won the Calder Trophy, he won the Norris Trophy in 1992 and 1997, and he holds many Rangers regular season and playoff records.
Most hockey pundits anoint Leetch as the greatest New York Ranger in team history. So why would they ever let him go?
Leaving New York
In 2004 the Rangers weren’t doing so hot, so they decided to get rid of their players with high priced contracts before the trade deadline. Leetch was included in these moves, being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for 2 prospects and a first-round pick in the 2004 draft, all of whom turned out to be of no value to the Rangers.
Leetch did not leave the Rangers on good terms. He loved the team he had been on for his whole career to that point and did not understand how they could let him go so easily and for a low price. He had well-documented hard feelings against the team and how they handled the situation.
He played the rest of the 2003-2004 season with the Leafs. After that season he still had 1 more year on his contract but the Leafs never got his second season of play because of the lockout that year. When the lockout ended, Leetch was free to sign with any team he wanted.
Leetch’s time with the Boston Bruins
Leetch decided to sign with the Bruins on a one-year, $4 million deal. He was more than excited to come back to his home and to play with the B’s.
“I have been going to Boston in the summers for a long time and spending my last 12 years down the Cape. My dad’s from Braintree so Boston is a city I’m more familiar with. I grew up knowing a lot more about Boston than New York, where I started, so it is nice to be back and see a lot of familiar sites,” Leetch said in his first press conference as a Bruin.
He also brought up how he believed the team was a real playoff contender, and boy was he wrong. The Bruins would end up finishing last place in the division with a 29-37-16 record, therefore not even close to qualifying for the playoffs. It did not help that the B’s had a roster full of scrubs such as Dave Scatchard, Milan Jurcina, Brad Isbister, and David Tanabe among others.
Individually, Leetch did not have a terrible season. On October 18, 2005, Leetch made an assist on a Nick Boynton goal and recorded the 1,000th point of his NHL career. This achievement has only been recorded by a handful of elite players and was a major milestone he recorded with the Bruins.
He ended his season with the Bruins scoring more points than any other defenseman on the roster, with a stat line of five goals, 27 assists, and 32 points in 61 games played. He finished his career as he started it, by being the best d-man on his respective team.
Leetch announced his retirement from the NHL, after taking a year off, on May 24, 2007. This ended the 18-year career of the best American-born defenseman to ever step foot on the ice. His career stat line was 247 goals, 781 assists, and 1,028 points in 1,205 games played. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009.
His affiliation with the Bruins did not end after his career was over. This past season he took the ice in the Bruins vs. Canadiens Alumni Classic before the Winter Classic between the two current rosters. It is questionable that Leetch deserves the Bruins alumni title, as he only played that one season with the B’s, but management probably took into account his Boston College days as well. However, no one is complaining because having Brian Leetch a part of your alumni and your team’s history is never a bad thing.