Big Notre Dame center and Minnesota native Anders Lee has agreed to a two-year entry level contract with the New York Islanders. He joins the NHL roster immediately and will be at the team's morning skate in Newark today. Making room for now, defenseman Joe Finley was placed on IR, retroactive to March 22.
Lee is 22 and took a deliberate path to the pro ranks: Committed to Notre Dame, like several ND recruits he first played in the USHL with the Green Bay Gamblers, where he won a championship under current Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper.
Three years ago we spoke with the 2009 draft pick (6th round, 152nd overall) about that decision and about his commitment to academics. Though the Islanders reportedly tried to sign him last summer, he offered insight in that 2010 interview that strongly hinted that he would pursue school as much as possible before making the jump:
The way I look at that is: No matter what, hockey is going to end at some point. Whenever that is, I will need some sort of fall-back, and I want that to be as good as possible.
Fast-forward three years and here we are. Lee completed three years at Notre Dame, and though they were ousted in the semifinal of the NCAA regional, Lee still goes out a "champion" after captaining the Fighting Irish to the final conference championship in CCHA history. He was one of the conference's top NHL prospects.
Now the question is where does he fit on the Islanders' current roster?
At 22 (23 in July), he's further in age -- and at 6'3", 227 lbs., further in physical development -- than the average prospect who jumps right in without stopping in the AHL. Lee is a left-handed shot, drafted as a center though he played a lot of wing at Notre Dame before returning to center this season.
Just eye-balling his game, he looks like more of a wing at the NHL level and you'd have to imagine that's how the Isles would ease him in when the time is right. He's big and has good hands in front of the net, which helped him lead the CCHA with 20 goals this season.
But it's a new level now. First, he's signed and in camp (and wearing #27). They'll figure out when and how to debut him from there.
Lee's signing is a moment some Isles fans feared would never arrive since, as a collegiate who played in the USHL after his draft day, Lee could have left college this spring and made himself a "loophole" free agent in June like ex-Ducks pick Justin Schultz and a couple of low-profile Islanders draft picks have done in the past.
But unlike those picks, Anders Lee is skating with an NHL club right now.
A big incentive for Lee is to get into NHL games now, potentially "burning" the first year of this two-year ELC and enabling him to come up for restricted free agency in summer 2014, when he'd be approaching age 24. In this lockout-shortened season, he can do that if he plays in six of the Islanders' remaining games.
On that note, here are quotes from Lee after the morning skate:
Lee, on coming to a team making a playoff push right now: "It's great. These guys have been battling hard all year. We're right there. If there's anything I can do to help that push, I'm all for it."
Lee, on how much thought he gave to playing in the NHL: "It's a dream come true. My focus was the team at Notre Dame and the guys in that locker room. Unfortunately, we were knocked out, but this was the opportunity that comes from that."
Lee, on if the chance to play right away enticed him to sign the ELC: "Yeah. When you have this opportunity - it's a once in a lifetime - you've got to take advantage of it and be ready for it. As a hockey player dreaming to play in the NHL, you can't turn away from that."
Credit for calming Isles fans' angst should go to Arthur Staple of Newsday, who reported multiple times this season in a variety of platforms that the Isles were likely to sign Lee and put him on the roster as soon as his NCAA season was over.
Separately, the Isles also officially assigned Ryan Strome to AHL Bridgeport today, after his OHL season (and career) ended last week. He's skating in Sound Tigers practice this morning on a line with fellow first-rounders Brock Nelson and Nino Niederreiter. He's expected to play out the season in Bridgeport.