Yes, the Rangers wanted to clear space on the roster and yes, the Rangers wanted to clear space under the cap.
But The Post has learned that in dealing Brendan Lemieux to the Kings for a fourth-round draft choice last Saturday, the Rangers were also accommodating a request by the left winger’s camp that he be moved to a team on which he might gain a more meaningful role.
“It’s going to give Pepe an opportunity to maybe play in a little bit more of a role that he’s looking for,” said David Quinn, whose team is facing the Sabres in Buffalo on Thursday. “He was a good player for us and we’re going to miss him.”
The coach used the player’s nickname that he had inherited from his father, Claude, who is also his agent and who communicated the trade request to general manager Jeff Gorton.
That is believed to have accelerated the trade process even though the team could have attempted to bid him up with the April 12 trade deadline approaching.
But the Blueshirts were indeed facing a numbers crunch up front with Vitali Kravtsov’s arrival from Russia; Phil DiGiuseppe’s return from the COVID list; Brett Howden’s impending return from COVID protocol; and, the anticipated promotion of Morgan Barron, though probably not until roster limits are lifted in conjunction with the deadline.
So while there was time, there was no time like the present.
The 25-year-old had become locked into a fourth-line assignment in his third season in New York, getting an average ice time of 10:13 per, a full 2:29 less than the 12:52 he’d earned through 78 games in his year-plus as a Ranger. He’d been a healthy scratch twice this season, last on March 9 in Pittsburgh. He carries a cap hit of $1.55 million per through the end of 2021-22.
Of course, when Lemieux came to the Blueshirts with a first-rounder from Winnipeg in the exchange for Kevin Hayes just prior to the 2019 trade deadline, the Rangers had not yet signed Artemi Panarin. And when Lemieux was on the third line through most of the first half of last season, the Blueshirts had not yet drafted Alexis Lafreniere. Of course, there is also Chris Kreider, signed through 2026-27.
Lemieux, always willing to come to the aid of his teammates, played a fair amount of top-six minutes immediately after joining the club. That included power-play time as a net-front presence. His assignment shifted to steady third-line duty for the opening months of 2019-20, through which he was a prime agitator.
But the fault line for Lemieux’s Broadway run came when he broke his thumb Dec. 27, 2019. When he returned three weeks later, Howden had been moved from the middle to the wing and usurped his spot on the third unit. So Lemieux played on the fourth line, the same assignment he carried this year.
If you don’t get regular time on the power play or killing penalties, fourth-line ice is going to be relatively limited.
Lemieux’s effectiveness waned even though he was as combative and as ornery as ever. His hands seemed to betray him. He did have a positive differential on minor penalties taken and drawn (Plus-2 this season after a plus-11 a year ago, per evolving-hockey), and he was as mouthy as ever. But he also was prone to taking the wrong penalty at the wrong time. He recorded seven points (2-5) in 31 games.
The Rangers don’t necessarily have a peer group replacement for Lemieux, who almost certainly would have been there for the plucking by Seattle in the expansion draft. The Blueshirts don’t truly have an agitator and they don’t truly have a deterrent, though it’s fair to question how many true deterrents exist in the evolved NHL game.
But Ryan Lindgren and Brendan Smith are always willing to mix it up with opponents who abuse their teammates. They seem to revel in it, actually. And on Sunday in Washington, when Kevin Rooney was taken out by T.J. Oshie on a hit that came moments after an offside whistle, Colin Blackwell immediately jumped the Caps’ winger. That is an illustration of the pack mentality the team will need the rest of the way.
The Rangers needed to clear space on the roster. They wanted to clear space under the cap. Lemieux asked for the chance to go somewhere else where he might compete for a more meaningful role.
Three-for-three. Mission accomplished.