Brendan Lemieux has done the time.
But can the gritty Jets forward tread carefully enough to avoid the increasingly punitive reach of NHL justice in the future?
The 22-year-old Lemieux was tagged for a two-game suspension and fined US$9,023 in salary after an illegal check to the head of Florida Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck during a game in Helsinki Nov. 2.
He was assessed a match penalty on the play.
“I just saw a guy in the middle of the ice,” Lemieux, speaking publicly for the first time since being suspended by the NHL’s department of player safety, said Tuesday after practice at the Bell MTS Iceplex.
“(He) had the puck, just moved it. (I) had a chance to make the hit, made a hit, didn’t catch enough of his shoulder, his upper body and caught a piece of his head there. It’s where it’s at right now and you’ve gotta be cautious and you’ve gotta be careful and you’ve got to make sure you catch shoulder, you’ve got to. And you’ve got to finish through their body and not through their head.
“When you catch the head, that’s what’s going to happen in today’s game. It’s a good thing, it’s to protect guys. So obviously, it’s unfortunate that I had to sit two there but it’s a good learning experience for me.”
Lemieux is expected to be a healthy scratch Wednesday when the Jets face the reigning Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals at Bell MTS Place. Game time is 7 p.m.
The Jets, 10-5-1 and third in the Central Division, are two-for-two midway through a four-game home stand, while the Capitals — 7-6-3 prior to Tuesday’s game in Minnesota — were seventh in the Metropolitan Division and had lost two straight.
Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice’s chief concern is for Lemieux to be able to continue to play an edgy game without sacrificing his effectiveness. Maurice said the punishment was just and reasonable.
So, what was the coach-player discussion about?
“Our conversation was related to strengths,” said Maurice. “He’s a very powerful young man that is strong and finishes checks that can handle himself on the ice. That is what he’s selling, so we need that. We’re not going to have him try and play a completely different game. To be an effective player, whether you’re a dangler or a grinder, you can’t be in the penalty box as part of a game that can’t be fixed.
“An adjustment to your game? I think it’s just an adjustment to the NHL game and what you’re selling. To play that role, you have to have certain physical gifts, and those he has. He also has a really good set of hands. He’s not here to be the heavy, he’s here to play a heavy game and not cross the line.”
Lemieux insisted he does not need to rewire his game or approach. He just needs to be smarter about administering hits.
“I don’t need to retrain anything,” he said. “It’s just, like I said, just a mistake on a hit but if you look over the course of a game, even the hits that are not counted, you make maybe 15 attempts depending on how much you play, to make a hit. There’s maybe one or two or three of those open-ice (hits) and then it’s just like the smallest detail. It’s something to focus on, not something you retrain. If I went back through tapes and looked at my last 20 games I’ve played, I probably wouldn’t have had a chance to make that hit one time in 20 games…
“All those plays are weird. It wasn’t like the typical, I’m-on-the-forecheck-D-gets-the-puck-he-turns-his-back-I-hit-him-from-behind-type play where you see a lot as a forward. It was the middle of the ice, I’m backchecking, a weird play — we’re both kind of on intersecting courses. So it’s a rare thing and a minor detail I’ve gotta focus on to stay away from the head.”
The return of the defending NHL champions to Winnipeg coincides with the return of forward Tom Wilson to the Caps’ lineup. Wilson, who had his 20-game suspension commuted to 14 games Tuesday, is expected to play Wednesday.
Wilson was suspended for an illegal check to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist during a Sept. 30 pre-season game.
“It’s fun anytime you play one of the top teams,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry. “(Wilson) is an important player to their lineup. That’s a big addition. It’s going to be a tough game. They’ve got such a potent power play and they’ve got a bunch of guys that can put the puck in the net. We’ve played well at home and we hope to continue to do that tomorrow.”
Lowry’s linemate, Patrik Laine, is well aware of Wilson’s presence.
“You’ve gotta watch out for him, I think that’s something everybody’s gotta realize,” said Laine. “That he’s made some questionable hits and so you’ve gotta be ready for that. I mean, he’s a pretty good player. He plays hard and he’s obviously played with (Alex) Ovechkin a lot. He’s kind of a grinder who gets in those corners and creates a lot of loose pucks and he can still score. So I think it will be a good addition to their team.”
There’s always added hype whenever Laine matches up against Ovechkin, his childhood hero. The Washington winger went into Tuesday’s game in St. Paul with 12 goals, four more than the Jets’ young sniper.
Laine was asked if he gets an added boost playing the seven-time 50-goal scorer.
“I’ve played against him a few times now and it’s just like a regular game. Obviously, they’re a good team so it’s kind of special. It’s going to be a good challenge for us, but it’s not that exciting anymore,” he said.
“Obviously, everybody knows what he’s capable of doing and he still does it every single night, so I think he finds some new ways to score, goes hard to the net; obviously he scores a lot of goals on the power play as well, but I think he has a lot of things he can do on the ice.”
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.