Leetch and Blackburn Injured Before Season


Greenburgh, N.Y. — Training camp is still three days away, but the Rangers’ run of misfortune is already in midseason form.

Brian Leetch hobbled around the MSG Training Center on crutches Monday, the result of being struck by a puck on his left ankle in the same spot where he was hit in a game last season. That perplexing injury, a bruised ankle tendon that refused to heal, kept Leetch out for 31 games, and that was with him in midseason condition. Barring a speedy recovery, Leetch will miss the start of the regular season on Oct. 10 in Minnesota.

The worst part is that this injury was avoidable. Leetch has worn a protective brace on the ankle since he returned to action in February, but he was not wearing it on Friday during an informal skate here with a few teammates in town early. He was trying out a new pair of skates when the shot off Bobby Holik’s stick hit Leetch. He knew it was the same spot that had been hit and skated off immediately, hoping the ankle would not hurt like it did last season. No such luck, naturally.

“This is something that never should have happened,” said Leetch, who has the ankle wrapped as if it were broken and is wearing a boot.

“I guess we’re better prepared this time, as far as keeping off it and doing as little as possible on it. But to have it happen at just the wrong time, skating around with a few guys, it’s frustrating.”

Leetch said he plans on attending training camp, but skating during the five-day camp is not possible. So he will already be behind his teammates in terms of on-ice conditioning whenever he returns.

“This is why you’ve got to have eight [defensemen],” said GM/coach Glen Sather said. “There’s no telling how long he’ll be out.”

Sather made re-signing Leetch a priority this summer, and the two-year, $13-million deal Leetch signed on July 30 seemed to ensure Leetch would be the centerpiece of the Rangers defense for at least a couple more seasons. After missing those 10 weeks last season, he was far and away the team’s best player over the final 22 games, with eight goals and six assists.

Leetch said Monday that he has tried not to think about how much time he missed with the same injury barely eight months ago. “It has to heal quicker this time,” he said. “It’s a setback since you want to be ready for camp. I’ve got to be back sooner.”

Perhaps the only positive news is that 20-year-old prospect Fedor Tjutin has a better chance to crack the veteran lineup with a defense slot open, at least for now.

The Rangers are already planning on a season without Pavel Bure, who is scheduled to report Wednesday for Thursday’s physical exams but is not expected to play a second with a right knee in need of a third ligament reconstruction. Dan Blackburn is not in the Rangers plans either – he is ticketed for some needed development time at Hartford -– but he too is on the shelf indefinitely after a freakish offseason injury.

Blackburn has a damaged nerve in his left shoulder, suffered while lifting weights last month at the team’s development camp in Calgary.

The 20-year-old goaltender now has no shot to challenge recently acquired Jussi Markkanen to be No. 1 goalie Mike Dunham’s backup.