The start of Training Camp means fitness testing, on and off the ice, and on Friday in Westchester it was the on-ice variety for a little more than half the Rangers who have reported here for 2019 Training Camp, including Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov and Adam Fox among four groups of young Rangers on the MSG Training Center ice.
It would be hard to find a player who considers this his favorite day of the season. But that's not the same thing as saying players would rather be somewhere else, and in that regard, consider Brendan Lemieux one of the happier guys to be at the rink.
Lemieux, the hard-nosed 23-year-old winger who came to the Rangers in a February deadline deal with the Winnipeg Jets, had to spend his summer in a slight state of limbo, right up until Wednesday night, when the Rangers and Lemieux's representative - who happens to be his father, Claude - put the final touches on a contract that shored up Lemieux in a Blueshirt for 2019-20 and allowed the second-year winger to start this year's camp, his first with the Rangers, right on time.
"It's exciting; I'm happy we were able to get something done," Lemieux said on Friday, not long after his morning on-ice testing session, and after he had caught his breath again. "And I'm happy to be here with my teammates. We're looking forward to a big year."
That big year will be Lemieux's first full one in a Blueshirt, after playing 19 games as a Ranger following the trade last season. The trade presented a major opportunity in Lemieux's career but also was a jolting experience in more ways than one - the most visible was the way in which his role increased overnight with the Rangers, with whom he saw his average ice time jump from 7:25 per game with the Jets to 12:50 a night, a leap of 73 percent.
And the year will begin, it so happens, with an Opening Night Madison Square Garden matchup with Winnipeg, a first against their former team for both Lemieux and Jacob Trouba, who arrived in a separate deal with the Jets four months after Lemieux.
"I thought that was pretty interesting," Lemieux said with a grin. "I was sitting by the pool this summer and the schedule came out and I was like, 'Holy cow, this is going to be interesting.' … Playing my old team is always like, your heart beats a little faster. You have a little more skin in the game."
Following his Feb. 25 arrival on Broadway, Lemieux shot out of the gates with five points (2-3--5) in his first seven games as a Ranger, and in 19 games gave his coaches a glimpse of what he can contribute, much of which does not find its way onto a scoresheet. Asked on Friday to assess his post-trade 2018-19, Lemieux admitted to "some ups and downs" but overall, "once I came over I felt like I contributed pretty well." By season's end, among rookies who had played at least 35 games, Lemieux ranked fourth in goals per 60 minutes, with 1.26.
His Head Coach already sees a player who is ready to take a step forward in 2019-20.
"If you've seen him, he looks different," David Quinn said on Friday. "He's a guy that's probably lost about 10 or 11 pounds. He's lean, he's in great shape. I think last year coming in was a little bit of an eye-opener for him, because he's coming from a situation where he's not playing a lot of minutes and all of a sudden he's playing 13, 14 minutes a night - big jump for him. He would come to the bench and his face would be beet-red, he'd be exhausted - which you love, because that means he's given his all. But he just wasn't ready to handle that workload, through no fault of his or anybody's, really.
"One thing we talked about was maybe leaning-up a bit, not being as big - he's always been strong enough, but the speed piece is certainly something we thought would improve if he did lean-up a little bit. Boy, he came in in incredible shape. He certainly put an awful lot of work in over the summer to put himself in the position that he's in."
Quinn is in a position where he has an influx of new talent up front - led by Artemi Panarin and backed up by a slew of rookies and second-year Rangers - to begin his second Training Camp as the Blueshirts' bench boss. He also has the task of figuring out where all the pieces fit and how they best combine, with a number of forwards capable of shifting between the wing and the middle. But a player like Lemieux, bringing grit and an offensive upside from the wing, provides unique components whose value is understood by both player and coach.
Lemieux said he and Quinn and GM Jeff Gorton have discussed how "I bring something that we don't have a lot of. And so I just have to stay true to that," Lemieux said. "I'm going to stick up for teammates. I'm going to be in your face, a hard, physical player. But I think that's just part of who I am.
"When I put the skates on every day, I try to just make it hard on other people by playing my game as hard as I possibly can. Finishing people, playing through people, being in front of the net - the harder I play, the more people get pissed off, the harder it is to play against me. So if I just bring that energy, my teammates can follow suit. And then that's the difference between maybe me and some of these obviously incredible players we've got, in Kakko and Bread and those guys that are going to make those plays and shine the way they've shined with the other teams in the past, and the way they're going to shine in New York. I think we complement each other and I just know what I have to bring."