GREENBURGH, N.Y. — When the Rangers acquired Brendan Lemieux at the deadline a year ago as part of the Kevin Hayes deal, they had big plans for the abrasive winger.
But in his second full NHL season and first full season as a Ranger, it’s been difficult for the 23-year-old Lemieux to gain any traction with the team. He struggled to score for long stretches of time in the first half of the season, and then, right after Christmas, just as he seemed to be finding a niche as the left wing with 20-year-old Filip Chytil and 18-year-old Kaapo Kakko, a broken hand kept Lemieux out of the lineup for three weeks.
While Lemieux was out, Brett Howden filled his spot on the Kid Line quite nicely, so that when Lemieux came back, just before the NHL All-Star break, there was a question of just where he would fit best in the lineup.
Coach David Quinn is still trying to figure that out.
Lemieux had 12 goals and five assists in 63 games for the Jets and Rangers last season. This season he has six goals and nine assists in 42 games. But in the five games since the All-Star break, Quinn has used him on the fourth line, the third line, and for a time — when Chris Kreider was out with a neck injury — even the first line.
At Saturday’s practice, Lemieux was on the fourth line with center Greg McKegg and Howden. But the way Quinn changes line combinations within games, that’s hardly set in stone.
“I think it’s just a matter of, you know, our team finding some chemistry,’’ Lemieux said. “We’ve had a lot of moving parts, [and] just to be frank, it’s not easy to negotiate ice time. We have a lot of skilled players and a lot of good players, and somebody’s got to play on the fourth line. That’s the bottom line. And that whoever that is that night, not going to play as much.
“And so, I think Coach [Quinn] has just been trying to find what works for our group, and who can step in and out, and who’s playing good that night.’’
Quinn said the three weeks out of the lineup has been a factor in Lemieux’s inability to nail down a spot among the top three lines on an every-night basis.
“It’s hard to come back when you miss — he missed almost a full month, and then we had the break, so that compounded the situation,’’ Quinn said. “But we’ve talked to him about things he needs to do to put himself in a more solidified role.’’
Those things include playing better defensively and making sure to not turn the puck over, Quinn said.
The coach, though, has always raved about the straight-to-the-net, in-your-face game that the 6-1, 215-pound Lemieux plays. He’s made it clear that he’s a fan.
“He obviously gives us something we don’t have a lot of, so he’s a very valuable player,’’ Quinn said. “But we think there’s a lot more there, and so does he. This isn’t something he’s not aware of.’’