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With Brendan Lemieux, it was never a case of if, but when.
The 22-year-old Winnipeg Jets forward just can’t seem to help himself, displaying an alarming lack of self-control over his young career. If the 407 penalty minutes in four years of junior wasn’t the first red flag, then the 300 penalty minutes over two partial seasons with the Manitoba Moose was the proverbial smoking gun.
But beneath the hair-trigger temper is an actual hockey player, one who has shown signs of being able to hang at the highest level when he isn’t sitting in the sin bin. Lemieux isn’t some one-trick pony, a no-skilled, knuckle-dragging thug. He can do plenty of good with his hands, too, as demonstrated by his 19 goals and 24 assists in 51 games with the Moose last year.
So it wasn’t a complete surprise when Lemieux made the Jets out of camp this fall and was inserted into the lineup after a handful of games as a healthy scratch. And until last week, he had pretty much been a choirboy. Lemieux had yet to take a minor penalty, and his only misdeed was a 10-minute misconduct in the final minute of a 4-1 win over Vancouver when a handful of Jets and Canucks gathered for a post-whistle scrum.
No harm, no foul.
It all came undone in one ugly period in Helsinki on Friday that didn’t just change the course of the game against the Florida Panthers, but also may end up sending Lemieux’s NHL career into a tailspin.
The sleeping bear awoke. The leopard finally showed his spots.
Lemieux put himself on thin ice when he recklessly smacked Troy Brouwer in the face with his stick with the Jets up 2-1 early in the second period. In a way, he was lucky to only get a two-minute minor. Florida converted on the ensuing power play to tie the game, and the thought crossed my mind that Lemieux might not see another shift in the game.
But there he was, given another shot later in the frame. He responded by taking a run at Florida’s Vincent Trocheck, catching him with a blindside hit to the head that officials saw from a mile away. MacKenzie Weegar came to his teammate’s defence and instigated a fight with Lemieux, who took care of business by beating the daylights out of the young Panthers defenceman.
Lemieux was sent to the showers, receiving a match penalty on the play. Weegar’s instigating minor turned that five-minute power play into a three-minute man-advantage, and the Panthers ended up scoring the game-winner.
It was selfish. It was stupid. And it was costly, as Lemieux was given a two-game suspension on Monday afternoon by the NHL. In a video announcing the ban, the league said “it is important to note that the head is clearly the main point of contact on this hit, and that the head contact on this hit was avoidable.”
Lemieux, a first-time offender, also forfeits US$9,023.30 in salary, which goes to the NHL Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.
“If Lemieux wants to deliver this check, he must take an angle of approach that hits through Trocheck’s shoulder and core, rather than picking his head and making it the main point of contact,” the league stated.
Now, I’m not here to place all of the blame on Lemieux for the 4-2 loss. The Jets had plenty of time to erase a one-goal deficit against an inferior opponent and couldn’t get the job done. That’s on all of them, not just Lemieux.
But you can’t deny his actions in that second period entirely shifted momentum of a game the Jets seemed fully in control of. Who knows how costly those two lost points will end up being at the end of the regular season.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the department of Jets head coach Paul Maurice comes down even harder than the department of player safety. A one-way ticket back to the Moose after Lemieux is done serving his time is not out of the question.
You have to think Maurice is feeling like he got stabbed in the back for putting his trust in Lemieux. Just look at what the coach said in late September about the player.
“He’s more under control on the bench, but most guys after a while are, right? They pick their spots. I think he’s been focused on just playing the game, and that’s really important because he can’t be in the penalty box for undue reasons,” Maurice said. “But, he is going to agitate the game in a positive way. Being an agitator alone doesn’t keep you in the NHL. It just makes you a pain in the ass for both teams. You’ve got to be able to do something. And he’s got some game.”
When Maurice decided to insert Nic Petan into the lineup for the first time last Friday, he opted to keep Lemieux in and scratch Jack Roslovic. I’m guessing he’d love a do-over on that one.
Maurice has been biting his tongue about Lemieux in the days since the incident and hasn’t exactly rushed to his player’s defence, only saying the referees made the right call and they’d defer to the league to handle it.
It was notable that at Sunday morning’s practice at Bell MTS Iceplex, Lemieux was the last one off the ice. He undressed quietly and by himself in the room, long after all his teammates were gone.
All of that speaks volumes. That eight-hour plane ride home from Finland a day earlier likely felt a lot longer to Lemieux. And maybe also for Maurice, who had to stew over his own lineup decision backfiring in a big way.
Some may wish to point out there are other Jets who are often guilty of taking silly, undisciplined penalties and it’s unfair to pick on Lemieux. But here’s the thing: Lemieux doesn’t have the same pedigree, the same body of work to buy him the kind of latitude Blake Wheeler or Dustin Byfuglien would receive.
As Maurice recently stated, this isn’t recreational hockey where you pay your fee and everyone plays equally. There’s a pecking order, and Lemieux is rightfully at the bottom and has to earn both trust and playing time.
So what’s the deal here? Is it a case of being like father, like son? Lemieux’s dad, Claude, was one of the great villains during his NHL career. Who can forget the nasty hit from behind Lemieux threw on Detroit’s Kris Draper during the playoffs, which left the veteran Red Wings skater with multiple broken bones in his face? It touched off a huge on-ice melee and sidelined the Colorado Avalanche forward for the first two games of the Stanley Cup final as a result of suspension.
Perhaps the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree. Lemieux gave some revealing insight into his mindset following his first pre-season game against the Minnesota Wild, in which he dropped the gloves with Nick Seeler in the third period.
“I told myself I wouldn’t get into anything during the pre-season. And it took me two periods,” he said with a sheepish smile.
Lemieux probably told himself something similar once the puck dropped on the regular season. And this time, it took him nine games.
He doesn’t deserve to play his 10th game any time soon.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.