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A Legendary Pest, A Devils Legend: Claude Lemieux Retires

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With today's announcement of Claude Lemieux's retirement - his second, but first "official" announcement of retirement - it would be best to give a tribute of what he has done for the Devils and how he stands as a legend.  Rich Chere sat in a conference call of the annoucement and was able to get numerous quotes from the now-former agitator.  It's a great article and I suggest you go read it. What follows is my attempt at a summary and a tribute to the former Devil agitator.

His nickname was "Pepe." As in Pepe LePew, most likely.   Not because he was a French Canadian.  Not because he had B.O. (well, I can't verify that, but I'll assume he smelled fine).  But because he was a like a skunk.  Whenever a skunk is around, you can usually tell by their stench and it just makes people irritated and want to go away.  The big difference is that on the ice, Lemieux made a point of it to follow you around.  It didn't matter if you were a tough guy or the top scorer on your team, Claude's role was to knock you off your game and take the puck forward.

Claude Lemieux is the perfect example of someone you'd hate on opposing teams, but would absolutely love if he was on your favorite team.  This sentiment gets thrown around too easily, I think. Anecdotally, I've heard it given to halfwitted chumps (e.g. Sean Avery) or meat-head goons (e.g. Tie Domi).   No.  Claude was very different from a fourth line goon or a drawer of penalties or a simple pain in the butt.  He had slick offensive skills to go with that snarl.  While he took many penalty minutes, he was smart when shadowing the other team's best stars.  He was a three-way threat, beating you going forward, going back on defense, and with the on-ice headgames that agitators love to play.

Consider his career numbers.  Claude Lemieux ends a NHL career with 1,215 games played, 379 goals scored, 407 assists, and 1,777 penalty minutes.  Look at his season-by-season numbers at Hockey DB and you'll learn that he's had 9 20+ goal season - 3 each with Montreal, New Jersey, and Colorado.   However, he will not be remembered as a solid scorer from the second line; he will be remembered as a playoff hero.  The word "clutch" is also thrown around a lot in the world of sports, but Claude is a fantastic example of clutch.  In this tribute to Lemieux by Joe Pelletier at Greatest Hockey Legends, he has this quote from Claude about the playoffs:

"I love playoffs. You know what its like when teams play back-to-back games in the regular season, there's usually a lot of intensity and bad feelings grow. In the playoffs it is even more intense," said Lemieux. "The physical side of the game really became more important and I think that is where I have been able to give my team an edge."

Indeed he was intense (among other adjectives!), and it became apparent in his very first NHL playoff appearance.

Let me point out in his third call up to the Montreal Canadiens in 1986, after a productive time with Sherbrooke their AHL team, he blew up in the playoffs with 10 goals and 6 assists.  As a rookie.  For Montreal en route to their 22nd Stanley Cup and his first.   As Lemieux developed as a player, the scoring came just as much in the regular season and even if his team didn't go deep in the playoffs, it wasn't because Claude wasn't scoring!  

He was acquired by New Jersey before the 1990-91 season, with the Devils trading Sylvain Turgeon for the pest.  It turned out to be an excellent transaction by Lou Lamoriello, that's for sure. As a Devil, his best seasons included 1991-92 where he potted 41 goals and his career high in points the next season with 30 goals and 51 assists. But that is not why he is a legend in the eyes of Devils - again, it was Claude Lemieux raising his game in the postseason.

First, there was the 1994 playoffs where Lemieux topped his 16 points from 1986 with a 7 goal and 11 assist result in 20 games. While that playoff ended in a heartbreaking fashion and Lemieux then suffered one of his worst seasons, he rose up like a phoenix and torched the opposition in 1995.  13 goals, 3 assists, at least four frustrated-as-hell opposing forwards (if I recall correctly, Cam Neely, Jaromir Jagr, John LeClair, and...Keith Primeau?), the adoration of Devils fans everywhere for contributing to the franchise's first Stanley Cup, the respect of his peers by being named Playoff MVP with the Conn Smythe Trophy, and Claude's second Stanley Cup.   Lemieux described his 1995 playoff effort as a highlight of his career per Chere:

"It was very special and I was very emotional," Lemieux recalled of the trophy awarded to the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs. "I see pictures or watch the tapes. Once in a while the kids will pull it up on YouTube and they'll ask,' Dad, why are you crying?'

"It was emotional because I had gone through probably one of the worst regular seasons of all-time for myself and bounced back from an all-time low to an all-time high. And I had gone through personal tough times away from the rink as well, going through a divorce. I think the combination of it all just made it very emotional for me to win that trophy."

The Conn Smythe trophy remains very special to Lemieux.

"It's one that is selected by the media and, over the years, I'd often be highly criticized by the media for my style of play. More times than not with reason probably for some of the goofy things I did or said," he said.

"But it meant a lot to me that the media would select me and consider me to be the winner of that very special trophy. Obviously I'm very proud of having the opportunity to play on such great teams and then winning. I have a picture with the Conn Smythe Trophy and Stanley Cup together sitting in the locker room. It doesn't get much better than that."

It really doesn't.

Unfortunately, a nasty contract dispute saw Lemieux traded to Colorado literally hours after an arbitration hearing per this article in the NY Daily News. In Colorado, Claude hit the early 30s of his career yet became just as important to the Avalanche (and their fans!) as he was in New Jersey.  While his regular season numbers started to dip after a great 1995-96 season, Claude's game didn't change and that included the playoffs.   The numbers at Hockey DB almost tell the whole story! In 1996, he put in a solid 7 goal and 5 assist result en route to his third Stanley Cup and Colorado's first. In 1997, while the Avalanche didn't go all the way, Lemieux must have played out of his mind with a 13 goals and 10 assists - his best totals in a single playoff year.  In 1998, while the Avalanche were bounced out of the first round, Lemieux put up 6 points in 7 games.  His last playoffs with the Avalanche may have only lasted 19 games, but he still put up 14 points in the process.   All while angering opponents and the fans of opponents along the way.   All Claude's way: nasty, aggressive, and effective.

A more complete account of Claude's time in Colorado can be had here at Mile High Hockey, where Joe ranked him as the 11th best Avalanche player of all time.   Like I said, he was an important player for Colorado.

As noted in the same NY Daily News article, Claude Lemieux returned to New Jersey in the early part of the 1999-2000 season.   At this point, Claude was 35 and played in a more checking role as he did in Colorado.  Yet, as always he became a contributor on the ice in some way or form (sometimes in a quasi-legal way).  Again, this included the playoffs where he chipped in 4 goals, 6 assists, and loads of heart and fire.  While he wasn't a key factor as he was in 1995, he did play a role in securing New Jersey's second Stanley Cup and Lemieux's fourth.

From then on, the sun in Lemieux's career was setting.  After a few seasons with Phoenix, two full ones with the Coyotes and one where he split time with Phoenix and Dallas, his NHL career seemed to be at an end.  He played abroad for a little bit, but it was the end of his career.  

Or so we thought, as Claude attempted a comeback at the ripe old age of 44.  James Mirtle summed up his path of his comeback to the NHL in response to the retirement announcement.  Lemieux worked out in Arizona, went as far as to China, and eventually got interest by the Sharks organization and was signed in this past season.  He had a few games with Worcester, their AHL affiliate, and put up an assist in 18 games with San Jose.  He only had one playoff game appearance, but unfortunately, he did not put up a point as it would have been a perfect point at what is now the end of his career.

In response to the announcement, Rich Chere comes right out and says that his #22 should be retired by the Devils for what he did in his 6 seasons with New Jersey:

Two of his four Stanley Cup championships came with the Devils. He may not have been Scott Stevens or Martin Brodeur, but he taught the Devils to win and should have his No, 22 retired by Lou Lamoriello and the team.

To be frank, I disagree.  I feel a number should only be retired if the player has spent significant time with the organization as well as significantly contributing to their success while his talents are one-of-a-kind.  Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko fits  While he was massively important in 1994 and 1995, as well as useful in 2000 - as well as a legendary NHL pest in the late 80s and throughout the 90s - we are only talking about 6 seasons in New Jersey  A very good player for the Devils? Yes.  Should he be honored in some way? Yes.  But a number retirement? No.

That shouldn't take away from the fact that he is, yes, a legend in the eyes of many Devils fans.  If you're new to the team, all you need to know is that "Pepe" knew what it took to succeed on the ice, knew how to upset the opponent enough to take advantage (He's the greatest pest I've ever seen play), and almost literally raised his performance in the postseason.  And without him, the Devils don't win their first Stanley Cup in 1995 and maybe they also don't win their second in 2000.

UPDATE: Should have done this when I wrote this. Anyway, if you're new to the team or not, these videos are perfect examples of what made Lemieux great in New Jersey. Lemieux finishing a breakaway to help finish the Flyers in Game 6 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals. Lemieux flying down the ice to put home a John MacLean rebound with the eventual game winner in Game 1 against Detroit. Lemieux pouring on the misery on Detroit in Game 3 of the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals by 5-holing Mike Vernon. Lemieux's game winning goal against Buffalo in Game 7 in an epicly-long the first round of 1994.  Lemieux holding the puck in, playing it forward, and going into the slot uncovered to put home a Bobby Holik rebound in Game 6 against Philly in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2000. 

And if you must watch only one, make it this one:  His legendary late goal in Philly in Game 5 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals; a slapshot that tore past Ron Hextall and disappointed an entire arena.

Claude Lemieux played 423 regular season games as a New Jersey Devil, took 627 penalty minutes, scored 142 goals and had 155 assists for a total of 297 points.  In the post season, he played 82 post season games, took 171 penalty minutes, scored 34 goals and had 23 assists for 57 points, won one Conn Smythe Trophy, and two Stanley Cups in New Jersey.  For all of this, I can only say:

Thank you, Claude Lemieux, and best wishes in the future.