In Defense of Claude Lemieux

Over at my other blogging home, The Sporting Blog at The Sporting News, I've been keeping a close eye on the return of Claude Lemieux to the NHL with the San Jose Sharks. Safe to say, no matter how one might feel about Lemieux, his comeback has been one of the more interesting stories this NHL season.

Heck, when I asked Darren McCarty about it the day before the 2009 NHL Winter Classic in Chicago, even Lemieux's old nemesis admitted he was impressed that a player that far past 40 could make it back to the NHL.

Then again, not everyone is exactly touched by Lemieux's return. One of my posts over at TSB elicited a rather heated response out of George James Malik. And coming from a Detroit fan who will more than likely carry memories of Kris Draper crashing face first into the boards to his grave, I can certainly understand.

Then again, while it's one thing to hate the player, it's quite another to knock his game. Which is what brings me to USA Today's Ted Montgomery. On Tuesday, he posted some "burning questions," concerning the second half of the NHL season, one of which concerned how much action Lemieux was likely to see with the Sharks.

To say the least, Montgomery was dubious:

Lemieux was a player of marginal skill who made his bones by playing dirty and reveling in the messy aftermath of his on-ice indiscretions. If this is the strategy the Sharks want to employ to ensure a Cup, good luck. Lemieux is a train wreck waiting to happen and, mark my words, he will hurt the team more than he helps it. Perhaps the Oilers might consider giving Dave Semenko a call to see what he's doing these days.

Again, I understand the "hateration" when it comes to the player Lemieux was, but to call him a player of "marginal skill" isn't warranted. Lemieux has 379 career goals. In his era, you could say that's not exactly Hall of Fame-type numbers, but it is still good enough for the top 100 all-time. We don't call that marginal. In fact, it's more than respectable. I shouldn't need to remind anyone that Clark Gillies managed to get his ticket stamped to the Hall while scoring 60 fewer goals than Lemieux as he collected four Cup rings with the Islanders.

And that my friends, is where Lemieux excels, with a Jeter-like ability to be in the right place at the right time. Lemieux has four Stanley Cup rings of his own, more than enough to plug up both his ears and two nostrils while he's got his feet propped up on that Conn Smythe Trophy he won with the New Jersey Devils in 1995. Better yet, Lemieux is a certified hero in every place he won a Cup (Montreal, Colorado and New Jersey twice) and there's little doubt in my mind the fans in each of those cities would welcome him back with open arms if they thought he still had something to contribute.

Of course, that last part is an open question, one that we won't be able to answer for a little while longer. At 43, it's doubtful that Lemieux is anything like the player he was when he hoisted his first Cup by in 1986. In two total games with the Sharks, Lemieux has been held pointless while logging 16:38 in total ice time. That's not nearly enough to know whether or not he can stick, never mind whether or not he can make a real impact on a Sharks team that's loaded with talent all through its system.

San Jose General Manager Doug Wilson doesn't strike me as a capricious man. Sure, he might have taken that first phone call from Lemieux out of friendship, but there's no way an NHL GM who has his team on top of the entire league takes a chance on ruining the chemistry in the locker room when they've got a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup. If and when Lemieux shows that he's not up to the job, I don't doubt he'll be handed a one-way ticket back to retirement. Until then, I think it's probably a good idea to keep an open mind.

Thanks to my friend J.P. for the pointer.

In Defense of Claude Lemieux originally appeared on NHL FanHouse on Thu, 29 Jan 2009 10:30:00 EST . Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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