Brendan Lemieux Scouting Report

Brendan Lemieux has potential. Will the Rangers be sensible enough to move on if he doesn’t reach it?

Whereas last season’s fire sale resulted in the Rangers acquiring a fair number of players, the 2019 deadline was draft pick oriented. Only one player (of consequence) was acquired, as General Manager Jeff Gorton acquired winger Brendan Lemieux from Winnipeg in the Kevin Hayes trade package.

The 22-year-old winger is the son of former Devils’ forward Claude Lemieux, though there is little doubt that Rangers fans will get over that fact relatively quickly. One imagines that Lemieux will quickly endear himself to the fanbase within his first few games at Madison Square Garden. He plays an aggressive style, seeking out physical battles all over the ice for the puck. He’s an eager participant — if not the catalyst — in lots of the shenanigans after the whistle. Ever since Dan Carcillo and Derek Dorsett departed five years ago, the fanbase, and maybe even the team, has been craving a shit-stirrer with actual NHL ability.

Brendan Lemieux is that. Well, hold on; Lemieux is that in theory. Looking under the hood reveals a handful of red flags.

Lemieux was a relatively successful offensive contributor back to his days in the Ontario Hockey League. Nobody would have mistaken him for being spectacularly gifted, but 27 goals and 53 points in 65 games is plentiful for a player like him. Maybe he was not the ideal selection at 31st overall, as Buffalo made him the following June, but he was certainly within  range. He steadily improved the following seasons, including in the AHL. Last season he produced 43 points in 51 games for the Manitoba Moose. Not a hair-raising number for a 21-year-old by any means, but definitely indicative of someone with a possible NHL future — especially as 30 of those 43 points were primary.

That scoring ability has not translated to the NHL yet. Yes, he has 9 goals in 44 games for the Jets so far this season, but that is fool’s gold. Per Evolving Hockey, Lemieux is shooting an absurd and unsustainable 24.32% this season. In fact, based on his shot quality, his expected goals on the season is 3.88, or about five fewer than what he has actually produced. The video more or less backs this up.

There is something to be said for Lemieux’s willingness to drive towards the net with the puck, and it’s not unheard of for him to score some grimy goals. However, shots originating from behind the goal line should not be going in this often. Horrid goaltending or fortunate bounces are the causes here, and it’s unlikely that Lemieux will continue to get on the scoresheet with frequency on these types of plays.

Arguably even more concerning is that Lemieux has been a liability away from the scoresheet.

Granted, there are some sample size issues here, but Jets players tend to have a higher rate of the shot share (Corsi) away from Lemieux as opposed to with him. His defensive impact seems to be passable, though hardly great. The bigger issue appears to be that he is limited  in creating offense. Sure, he battles for pucks behind the net and creates some chaos atop the crease, but that’s about it at the NHL level so far. He’s not particularly adept at carrying the puck or making passes. Pull away the frills that are the antics and fisticuffs, and what the Rangers have in Lemieux right now is a forward who has few, limited positive impacts on the NHL game and some notable deficiencies.

There are still reasons to be hopeful that Lemieux can become an NHL contributor. For one, he does turn just 23 in March and has just 53 NHL games under his belt. There is leash left here.

That aside, it’s quite possible that he was a victim of Winnipeg’s success. That is a team with quite a group of forwards, and so there hasn’t been much of an opportunity for him to get meaningful playing time. He’s averaged under eight minutes per night in a limited fourth-line role. Those minutes haven’t exactly been with Winnipeg’s best players, either. The Rangers lack talent on the wings as well as any particular motivation to win, and so he’s going to have a dramatically increased role under Head Coach David Quinn in these final 20 games. The ice time will go up, as will the quality of his linemates. He’s going to get special teams opportunities for the first time. Maybe Lemieux is a suppressed talent waiting to finally spread his wings.

Truth be told, Lemieux is the supplementary piece of the Hayes trade. If he proves to be a capable, cost-controlled bottom-six winger for the foreseeable future, then that would be a nice addition. If he’s on waivers by 2020, then it’s not a particularly big deal, either. Any success for Lemieux would be a hell of  a perk, but Winnipeg’s first-round pick, and what the Rangers do with it, will almost certainly drive the perception of this trade five years down the line.

There is a meta aspect to the trade, though, and it’s that Lemieux is a potential Poison Pill. NHL teams are attracted to physical, energetic wingers like a moth to light, and too often the moth flies directly into the fire. The Rangers don’t exactly have a terrific track record in this regard over the last five seasons. There is some danger the Rangers become enamored by a player who has the facade of bottom-six grinder but not the substance. The Rangers absolutely cannot afford another multi-year cycle of productive players getting demoted to the fourth line or press box in favor of a lesser player in the name of toughness.

The Rangers acquired a double-edged sword from Winnipeg. If he develops into the player he is certainly capable of, then he’s going to be a nuisance for the rest of the NHL to deal with. But if the Rangers become entranced by an unproductive player, then he could become a booby trap of their own making.

Brendan Lemieux has the potential to develop into an effective NHLer. Will the Rangers be sensible enough to swiftly cut their losses if he doesn’t reach it?