|Brian Leetch poses for his 1986 Draft Day photo in Montreal. Choosing Leetch would turn out to be one of the most important moments in Rangers history.|
In early 2008, The Hockey News listed its choices for the greatest draft picks in each of the 30 NHL teams' histories.
For the New York Rangers, it was a complete no-brainer, at least when viewed in its overall historical perspective. Simply put, the greatest draft decision the Rangers franchise has ever made to date came 22 years ago, when the Blueshirts invested in an 18-year-old high school star from Cheshire, Conn.
Eight other teams had let him slip through their fingers, but when it came time for the Rangers to choose at No. 9 overall, they did the right thing and called on defenseman Brian Leetch.
No one knew it at the time, but on that day -- June 21, 1986, at The Forum in Montreal -- the Rangers took a major step toward the 1994 Stanley Cup championship. While Leetch was considered to be a legitimate first-round pick, only about half of the NHL's 21 teams had scouted him aggressively because he was an American high school kid in an era when U.S. players could still be considered a gamble.
On that draft day, it wasn't necessarily a surprise that Leetch fell to the Rangers at No. 9. What is a surprise, however, is the list of players taken ahead of him.
Joe Murphy, Jimmy Carson, Neil Brady, Zarley Zalapski, Shawn Anderson, Vincent Damphousse, Dan Woodley and Pat Elynuik were those eight players. Of the eight, only Zalapski and Anderson were defensemen like Leetch. Zalapski would go on to play 637 NHL games, and Anderson would play 255 -- a combined total of 892 compared to Leetch's 1,205. Brady, the player taken at No. 3, played only 89 career games, and Woodley, the No. 7 pick, played only five.
Among the six forwards taken ahead of Leetch, a few would achieve various degrees of NHL stardom, but only Damphousse would join Leetch as players with more than 1,000 career NHL points. That's comparing apples and oranges, however, since Damphousse was a forward and Leetch played defense.
1986 HOCKEY NEWS DRAFT PREVIEW
In the year Leetch was drafted, The Hockey News printed its first annual Draft Preview edition. The publication ranked Leetch 15th in its list of the top 21 prospects. Here are the rankings from that issue with actual draft position and team in parentheses:
In its review of Leetch, The Hockey News said his potential rank had gone down with the emergence of Greg Brown and because scouts weren't sure he had the size or speed needed to play defense in the NHL. The review included the following quotes from anonymous scouts:
"I might say he is a Phil Housley type, but that's not really accurate either. Housley is a much better skater than Leetch."
"He needs to be able to know where the puck is going. He does have an excellent sixth sense for that. He's got outstanding hockey vision."
"He's not physically developed enough to play defense in the NHL. It's OK in the high school league he plays in, but the NHL is another story."
"He might make a good little center if he can pick up the pace a bit. Or he could turn out to be a specialty player. He'd make a good quarterback on anyone's power play."
"I'll tell you one thing about the kid. He loves to play hockey. In fact, he never stops playing it. Day after day, all year long, he just keeps at it."
"He's humble to a flaw. He doesn't really take charge at all. He's very low key. I guess we have to remember how young these kids really are."
The man in charge of scouting New England high schools and colleges was Ray Clearwater, who still scouts that same territory for the Rangers 22 years later. Clearwater, a longtime minor-league and WHA player, had already been working with the team for six years by 1986. He would also leave in the July 1986 management shift from Patrick to Esposito, but would later return to his current post in the mid-1990s.
Clearwater recalls the mood on June 21, 1986, as the Rangers scouts gathered with Patrick at the draft table in Montreal. Since the front office future was uncertain, there was a sense that Patrick might try to trade up in the draft to grab one of top forwards available. Clearwater hoped that wouldn't happen, because the player he wanted was Leetch.
He had scouted Leetch for more than four years by the time he became draft eligible, and he was hopeful that if the Rangers held on to their No. 9 pick, they could get Leetch there. He sensed that other NHL teams felt more comfortable taking major-junior players ahead of high-schoolers.
"I have no idea why some of those guys (were drafted) ahead of him," Clearwater said. "Some of the guys that went ahead of him weren't in his class at all. I guess they (other teams) were just afraid."
By the time Leetch was drafted, Bobby Carpenter, Phil Housley and Tom Barrasso were all off to outstanding starts in their NHL careers and had clearly demonstrated that the very best U.S. high school players were capable of jumping to the NHL. There was still a bit of a stigma associated such players, however, and 1983 No. 1 pick Brian Lawton's struggles with the North Stars were a reminder of it.
As it turned out, Patrick's decision not to trade up in the draft was a stroke of genius, as was his confidence in the scouts like Clearwater who had pushed for Leetch.
"To Craig's credit when it came down to it, and Brian was there, he had no qualms (about drafting him)," said Clearwater.
After nearly three decades of scouting, Clearwater still considers Leetch to be the best draft-eligible player he has ever seen in New England. Clearwater was also likely the first NHL scout to ever watch Leetch play, and even that involved a bit of luck.
A Connecticut resident who had played his last three pro seasons for the old New Haven Nighthawks, Clearwater was still fairly new to scouting when he first discovered Leetch.
It happened that a mechanic who worked on Clearwater's car had a son playing high school hockey and liked to tell the Rangers scout about youngsters from around the state. One day, Clearwater brought his car into the shop and was bombarded with stories about a phenomenal kid from Cheshire named Brian Leetch. Intrigued by the stories, Clearwater went out to see Leetch play, even though freshmen were not typically on his radar.
"Even from that first time I ever saw him play, he had total control of the game," Clearwater remembers. "Back then, you would watch Connecticut high school hockey and it was just a bunch of kids scrambling for the puck. But when Brian Leetch stepped on the ice, it was a different hockey game. All of a sudden everybody on Cheshire's team looked like a million dollars."
Clearwater continued to follow Leetch throughout his high school career. After two years at Cheshire, Leetch transferred to Avon Old Farms School, where he would face better competition in the New England prep circuit. During Leetch's two seasons at Avon Old Farms, the team lost only one of 54 games, with Leetch scoring 70 goals and 90 assists during that stretch.
"His hockey sense was far superior to everybody else," said Clearwater. "He knew what was going on so much ahead of everybody else."
Brian Leetch's Early Years
It was during that 1986 bronze-medal game that Clearwater said he realized just how great Leetch could be.
Team USA went into the bronze-medal game against Sweden having never won a medal at the World Juniors and without the services of star forward Craig Janney, who was hurt. Clearwater knew the odds were against the Americans and he was also shocked to see that Leetch wearing a different pair of skates for the big game.
Throughout the tournament, Leetch had worn a blue and white pair of skates, but in the game against Sweden, Leetch's skates were brown. Clearwater couldn't figure out why Leetch would do something like that, but it didn't seem to matter, because he led the U.S. to victory that day and firmly established himself as one of the top draft prospects for 1986.
After the game, Clearwater asked Brian's father, Jack, about the change in skates. The response came as a huge surprise.
LEETCH'S DRAFT CAPSULE
Here is the report NHL Central Scouting issued on Leetch for draft day of 1986:
Excellent skater with good stride, acceleration, agility and quickness … excellent pivots … excellent backward skater with good lateral movement … good scorer … clever around the net … excellent offensively, especially in close … good, accurate shot with quick release … excellent wrist shot and good slap shot … excellent passer who leads man well on both sides … fast and accurate passer … finds the open man … great anticipation … good peripheral vision … excellent control … smart with the puck … able to go end to end … makes great rushes … good positional player … uses speed to advantage … uses stick very effectively … good strength … plays the finesse game … good desire and attitude … plays with confidence … consistent … makes things happen … strong, creative team player.
Clearwater also didn't know until later that he had personally provided Leetch with some real motivation to succeed. In a 1985 interview with a local Connecticut newspaper, Clearwater was quoted as saying he thought Janney might be a slightly better draft prospect than Leetch, based on what he had seen at that year's Hockey Night in Boston event.
That assessment didn't sit too well with Leetch, who took the article and pinned it to the wall of his bedroom as a form of motivation during his senior year in high school. It obviously helped, since Leetch was taken four spots ahead of Janney.
In those days, Clearwater said Leetch had only one minor deficiency, which involved his skating. But after a year at Boston College and another on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, Leetch developed into an outstanding skater, giving him all the tools he needed to flourish in the NHL.
Had he been a bit more widely known and skated just a little better in 1986, Clearwater says Leetch would have been a legitimate No. 1 overall draft pick. Rangers fans everywhere can be thankful that at least eight other teams didn't think so and because the one that did appreciate Leetch believed so strongly in him.
June 21, 1986, is a powerful reminder that the road to the Stanley Cup truly does begin at the draft table. The number the Rangers retire on Jan. 24 will be No. 2, but from a scouting perspective, the most magical number involving Leetch will always be seven digits higher -- the No. 9 spot where he fell into the Rangers' collective lap and began his journey to the MSG rafters.