Friday, May 25, 2007

Future Hall of Famer Brian Leetch Officially Retires

Yesterday, future Hall of Famer Brian Leetch officially announced his retirement. This is the first retirement by a player I consider a future Hall of Famer since Joe Nieuwendyk.

Brian Leetch was born in Corpus Christi, Texas on March 3rd, 1968. However, he was raised in New England. He first came to prominence in 1983/84 playing high school hockey for Cheshire High School in Connecticut. As a player who was 15, he scored an amazing 101 points in only 28 games. He attracted the attention of a high school with a much more elite hockey program and transferred to Avon Old Farms for his next season. Playing against a higher level of competition, he scored 76 and 84 points in 26 and 28 games respectively in his final two high school seasons. This success attracted the notice of NHL scouts and he was drafted in the first round ninth overall by the New York Rangers in the 1986 entry draft. Leetch then went on to play college hockey at Boston College. In his season there he was the Hockey East rookie of the year, player of the year and made the Hockey East first team all star. He also made the NCAA East First All American Team. The following year, being an Olympic year, Leetch was recruited to join the US National Team program where he scored 74 points in 50 games. He also played on the US Olympic Team adding 6 more points in his six Olympic games.

This success was enough to earn him an NHL job. After the 1988 Olympics he made the New York Rangers and scored 14 points in the 17 remaining games and added 5 more in four playoff games. In his first full NHL season (1988/89) Leetch again scored at better than point per game rate from defence. He scored 71 points in 68 games. This won him a spot on the NHL All Rookie Team and the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. He followed that up the next year with his first of nine All Star Game appearances. In 1991, he made the NHL Second Team All Star for the first time. In 1992, he had his best offensive season with 102 points. This earned him a First Team All Star spot and the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenceman. Unfortunately he could not follow that season up as injuries limited him to only 36 games. But his full season in 1993/94 made up for it when his regular season placed him back on the second team all star and his playoff run with a league leading 23 assists and 34 points placed won him the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP as he led the New York Rangers to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. In 1996, he made the second team all star again and in 1997, the first all star team and won the Norris Trophy for a second time. When professional players were allowed into the Olympics he was chosen to be one of the key players on the 1998 and 2002 US Olympic Teams. Leetch remained the Rangers top defenceman and regularly led the team in ice time for many years.

In 2003, when Leetch was an unrestricted free agent, his rights were traded to Edmonton on the eve of his free agency in exchange for Jussi Markkanen and a 4th round draft choice in 2004. The Rangers resigned Leetch and his career remained in New York until the 2004 trade deadline.

Leetch was traded along with the same fourth round pick involved in the Edmonton trade (Toronto selected Roman Kukumberg with it - I think this is the only case of a player being traded twice involving the same yet to be used draft pick) to Toronto for Maxim Kondratiev, Jarkko Immonen, a first round pick (traded later to Calgary- Kris Chucko) and a second round pick (Michael Sauer). That's a steep price to pay for the 15 regular season games and 13 playoff games Leetch played in Toronto, though that potential is not yet in the NHL.

After Leetch's brief stay in Toronto came the lockout. He did not play during it. He signed as a free agent in Boston once it completed. Injuries limited Leetch to 61 games, but when he played he was a key contributor finishing second in ice time per game on the Bruins.

Leetch was a victim of the CBA, in that it is a dangerous move to sign 35 plus players to longer than one year contracts and this forces them to possibly move to a new city annually as a free agent. The CBA pushes legends of the game to retire early. Leetch wasn't willing to travel wherever for a one year contract. He wanted to stay in the northeast, but the contract never happened at he sat out the entire season waiting. After having sat out two of the last three years, Leetch officially announced retirement.

Leetch goes down as one of the all time great offensive defencemen and one of the best American players of all time. Leetch's 1028 career points make him the seventh highest scoring defenceman ever. That career success coupled with two Norris Trophies and a Conn Smythe make him a future Hall of Famer.

With Leetch's retirement, there are 15 currently active NHLers I consider future Hall of Famers regardless of what they do for the rest of their careers. Here they are:

Ed Belfour
Rob Blake
Martin Brodeur
Chris Chelios
Peter Forsberg
Dominik Hasek
Jaromir Jagr
Nicklas Lidstrom
Mike Modano
Scott Niedermayer
Chris Pronger
Joe Sakic
Teemu Selanne
Brendan Shanahan
Mats Sundin

There remain a handful of games this season for another player to possibly be added to this list, otherwise it may shrink a bit with this summer's retirements.

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