GREENBURGH, N.Y. — For iconic Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch, the timing was finally right for a return to the Blueshirts.
Leetch, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP in the 1994 playoffs when the Rangers last hoisted the Stanley Cup, officially began his job as a hockey operations adviser by skating with some of the team’s top youngsters on Thursday.
“That was step one, being on the ice,” said Leetch, 49, who has been coaching youngsters in Boston and had previously turned down entreaties from Rangers executives Jeff Gorton and Adam Graves and friends in the organization to discuss a job.
“I always said, ‘I appreciate it,’ ’’ Leetch said, but he chose to stay home in Boston with his three children. “They’re getting older now, I just thought it would be a good time to learn about some of the players in the organization, the young guys in Hartford, the prospects, and get to know the current players more. Hopefully this year I’ll have some opinions to be of some use to the guys here and help some guys in their development. My job is to learn as much as I can . . . I’ll go to Traverse City [an annual NHL prospect tournament in Michigan that starts Friday], and watch a few games, I’ll be here at the beginning of camp and in Hartford a bit, and play it as it goes.’’
None of those prospects would have seen Leetch, whose No. 2 was retired after he rewrote every franchise scoring record by a defenseman with 240 goals, 741 assists and 981 points, play live. “I was looking at some of their birth dates, and I was pretty much out when they were 4 or 5 or 6 years old,” he said. Leetch, however, is familiar with Kevin Shattenkirk, 28, the New Rochelle native who idolized Leetch and agreed to a lucrative free-agent contract in July. “I left Kevin a message after he signed and told him I look forward to seeing him in camp; I know he’s happy about it [the move].”
Many former players are joining the coaching and front-office ranks, which Leetch hasn’t ruled out. But learning the organization and developing players is currently his focus. He believes he can help prospects “think a little faster, see the game a little differently,” when today, speed flows throughout the lineup, the transition game rules and goalies are bigger and more athletic. A mentor with Leetch’s resume surely can’t hurt.