Finding a good bagel is never a problem, and the nightlife is tough to beat. But New York City is no place to break into the NHL. Ranger general manager Phil Esposito, a compulsive swapper, hates to go to lunch until he has at least discussed a multiplayer deal. Short-fused coach Michel Bergeron likes rookies the way W.C. Fields liked children: parboiled and fricasseed. The tabloids are merciless, and the fans would boo Mother Teresa.
So, let's see how this year's crop of Ranger rookies is muddling through.
"Great," says 20-year-old defense-man Brian Leetch, whose 44 points are second among NHL fledglings. "I love it here."
"An exciting and positive experience," says teammate Tony Granato, 24, who leads the league's first-year players in goals and overall scoring, with 31 goals and 50 points.
And the gushing has only begun. "I love these guys," bubbles Bergeron, who certainly can be excused for being enthusiastic. Last season, to his mortification, the Rangers were one of only five NHL clubs to miss the playoffs. As of Sunday, despite a raft of injuries and distractions, the Blueshirts were in first place in the Patrick Division, three points ahead of the Penguins, and their 26-15-7 record was third-best in the league.
Granato and Leetch, good friends and 1988 U.S. Olympic teammates with markedly different personalities and playing styles, have made the difference. In a tie and a victory, respectively, over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 14 and 15, the Super Rookies, as they have been dubbed by the New York Daily News, combined for 11 points and six goals. Last week Granato had a hat trick in a 6-4 win over Chicago, a goal and an assist in a 5-0 win over St. Louis and a goal and an assist in a 5-4 overtime win over Vancouver.
"The great part is that we didn't have to give anyone up for Brian and Tony," says goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, whose razor-sharp play has also helped put the Rangers among the NHL elite. "It's like the stork brought them."
With his breathtaking offensive skills, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Leetch, a first-round pick who played a year at Boston College before competing in the Olympics, gives the Rangers an attacking defense-man from the Denis Potvin and Paul Coffey mold—in effect, a fourth forward, which seems to be a prerequisite for Stanley Cup teams of the '80s. And he even seems to be justifying the comparisons being made between him and Bobby Orr. "I saw Orr at the same age, and I put Brian in the same breath with Orr," says Esposito. "I've never done that with anyone."
Granato, meanwhile, is the surprise of the season. A sixth-round pick in 1982 who played four years at the University of Wisconsin, he is a scavenging, relentless digger who fills any forward position Bergeron needs him to play. Granato kills penalties and annoys opponents to distraction, thereby drawing a passel of penalties. Granato reminds Esposito of Johnny (Pie) McKenzie, one of his Bruin teammates from the '60s and '70s, who was, says Espo, "the most aggravating little bastard that ever played the game."
Leetch was put on 2½ weeks of forced rest on Dec. 8 when a slap shot broke his left foot. Although the Rangers' power play went to the dogs in his absence, Leetch's injury might have been a blessing. Bergeron had been leaving him on the ice for 30 to 35 minutes a night—"I had to do it; we had injuries," says the coach—causing Leetch to become leg-weary.