Publish date:

Double Trouble Struggling stars Brian Leetch and Mike Richter may hold the fortunes of the Rangers and the U.S. Olympic team

When Colin Campbell was on the short list of prospective coaches
for the Canadian Olympic team last summer, the trio of NHL
general managers interviewing the candidate joked that his
chances would improve immeasurably if somehow he could "screw
up" defenseman Brian Leetch and goalie Mike Richter, the New
York Rangers stars who are the cornerstones of the U.S. Olympic
team as well.

"Well," says Campbell, the Rangers coach who lost out on the
Team Canada job to the Colorado Avalanche's Marc Crawford, "I
guess I'm a lock for 2002 now."

The subpar performances of Leetch and Richter through New York's
first 45 games this season have been Campbell's problem, if not
his fault. But for six games next month, when the Rangers' stars
will be the foundation of the Olympic team, the fortunes of the
U.S. squad may hinge on them. Richter, whom many general
managers rank second only to the Buffalo Sabres' Dominik Hasek
among NHL goaltenders and who played brilliantly in leading the
U.S. to the 1996 World Cup, has been maddeningly inconsistent.
Leetch, who won the Norris Trophy as the league's best
defenseman last year and who usually offers a potent mix of
creativity and daring, has been occasionally spectacular but
frequently bumbling.

At week's end Richter ranked 19th in the league in goals-against
average (2.58) and Leetch was scoring at about half his career
point-per-game average, but in some ways they've been even worse
than their numbers. While Richter's average is just a hundredth
of a goal higher than his career best, leaguewide scoring is
down .54 goals a game from last season and 1.19 since 1993-94,
when he had his 2.57, and he is clearly not as effective.
Leetch's plus-minus rating (-21 through Sunday) is sixth-worst
in the league, which is slumming for a player of his pedigree.
All of which has contributed to the Rangers' 14-19-12 record, a
woeful mark for a team that reached the conference finals last

Washington Capitals coach Ron Wilson, who will coach the U.S.
team in Nagano, recently had a close, if not lingering, look at
Richter and Leetch. On Jan. 3 in Washington, Richter allowed two
goals on four shots and lasted just 6:20 before Campbell lifted
him. The coach showed great restraint in waiting three more
minutes before also benching Leetch for the rest of the period,
the first time since the 1994 Stanley Cup semifinals against the
New Jersey Devils that anyone has told Leetch to take a seat.

Leetch obviously was a not-ready-for-pine-time player. He was
the best player for the final two periods in Washington, as the
Rangers rallied for a 3-2 win; he had two goals against the
Carolina Hurricanes in a 4-2 victory three nights later; and he
scored again and blocked a game-high five shots last Thursday in
a 5-3 loss to the Caps at Madison Square Garden. As for Richter,
perhaps he deserved more compassion than he got from the crowd
after whiffing on the Caps' game-winner--an exquisitely placed
50-footer by Peter Bondra--but he hasn't earned that luxury this

"We've lost a lot of games this year, but not everything we're
doing is wrong," Richter says. "As a goaltender I have to look
at it the same way. I'm doing a lot of things right out there."

He is a netminder who is working without a net, having allowed
11 goals in the first five minutes of games. His early largesse
has forced him to depend on an offense that ranked 15th in
scoring to get him back in the game, and no one can stay on that
tightrope forever. Richter, who has allowed more goals through
the five-hole than usual this season, has also run into some
hard luck--five of his losses have come when the Rangers were
shut out and seven have been by one goal--but when he was
winning the Stanley Cup in 1994, when he was robbing Canada in
the World Cup in 1996, when he was stoning the Devils in the
playoffs last season, he was making his own luck.

If Richter misses Glenn Healy, the veteran who offered him a
sounding board and first-class backup before signing as a free
agent with the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer, Leetch seems
most affected by the loss of Mark Messier, the former captain
whose rancorous off-season departure as a free agent to the
Vancouver Canucks stung his friends on the team. When Messier
arrived in New York in 1991, he roomed with Leetch. They
traveled to practice together. They ate together. Most
important, they were on the ice a lot together.

For six years Messier, leftwinger Adam Graves and Leetch were
the keys to a formidable five-man unit. Messier was a
straight-ahead, 100-mph player, and Leetch knew precisely when
to slip into the jet stream and join the attack as the late man.
With Messier gone, Leetch has been playing with a variety of
centers. Wayne Gretzky, with his little curl move inside the
blue line that has been fooling NHL defensemen for only 19 years
now, is a little tougher read than Messier. Leetch has yet to
mesh with the line centered by Messier's replacement, Pat
LaFontaine. Messier's presence also helped Leetch's plus-minus
rating--it was +98 from 1991-92 through '96-97--because their
five-man unit played almost exclusively against checking lines,
ham-handed grinders unlikely to embarrass a defenseman.

Not that Leetch worries about his numbers. After a badly
sprained right wrist in the conference finals rendered him
virtually useless against the Philadelphia Flyers, he took
painkilling injections between periods so he could continue
playing. "The doctor would stick the needle in and twist it
around--it was tough to watch," Campbell says. The wrist injury
was still bothering him when, to make matters worse, Leetch
broke a finger on his right hand on Nov. 18. He often took
injections in that finger, too, until the fingertip began to
turn black and blue in mid-December, at which point Campbell
pleaded with Leetch to take some time off to let the finger
heal. Leetch declined.

The finger is finally getting better, and Leetch seems ready to
turn a corner. "In the beginning of the year I got caught out of
position a lot," he says. "I was trying to make something happen
offensively, but I became a liability defensively, and that just
can't happen. It has to be the other way around."

"Maybe he's guilty of nothing more than trying too hard,"
Washington's Wilson says of Leetch. "People say the Rangers lack
finishers. Well, he takes it upon himself to join the attack,
and that's going to affect your defensive play. He's just trying
to win games."

For three weeks in February the NHL will be turned on its ear,
and Wilson, who usually worries about how to stop Leetch, must
find a way to jump-start him. After being glad to see Richter
yanked against the Capitals, Wilson must be wary of the fact
that the goalie's confidence may be low heading for Nagano. But
if Leetch and Richter get turned right side up, the
Americans--and the Rangers--should be fine.

COLOR PHOTO: B. BENNETT/BRUCE BENNETT STUDIOS Too often this season Leetch (2) has gotten caught out of position trying to make the offense go. [Brian Leetch in game]