If Josh Bailey, Casey Cizikas and the returning Matt Martin are the longest-serving current Islanders, Anders Lee can make a case for being the most important of the pre-2010 cohort.
Though he has fewer games played than the other three, in part thanks to a later start to his pro career with three years in the NCAA after a year in the USHL, Lee has steadily improved his game to the point that he will be a highly sought unrestricted free agent next July just days before his 29th birthday.
His 40-goal season in 2017-18 cemented a growing reputation as one of the NHL’s top “net-front” presences, a guy with deft hands in tight who can tip, redirect, or corral-and-deposit goals with the best of them.
His 6’3”, 231 lbs. frame is particularly hard to move in an era when the NHL actually calls penalties as described in the rulebook.
And his reputation is of one of those beloved, solid-character guys through and through. (How many people, much less NHL players, would have so gracefully handled the awkward scenario last season where his own charitable efforts were inadvertently caught up in a public cry to fire his boss?)
Yet the Islanders, and Lee, face a decision. With immense amount of term tied up in mid-depth forwards and defensemen, and a superstar contract for Mathew Barzal looming two summers from now, the Islanders will have to pick and choose what to do with looming unrestricted free agents Lee ($3.75 million current cap hit), Jordan Eberle ($6 million) and Brock Nelson ($4.25 million).
Eberle is the sniper, Nelson the underachiever (but regular 20-goal scorer), Lee the big finisher with captain potential.
The decision, from the Islanders perspective: Who’s more likely to live up to the contract they are most likely to command? Who stays, and who goes?
Of course the easy and real answer right now is: It depends.
It depends whether Nelson finds new life under the new regime, with coaching from Barry Trotz and yet another opportunity to grab a role at center ice.
It depends whether Eberle continues his chemistry with Barzal, or perhaps proves dangerous again on another line, and secures belief from the new regime.
And it depends on how Lee performs without John Tavares (14 of his goals last season came on the power play), and whether he becomes the leader Trotz and Lou Lamoriello want to build around.
This summer, both sides agreed to what was an obvious and logical mutual punt: Let’s let the dust settle, and get to know each other first (also unspoken: Let’s see how close you come to repeating that 40-goal season, which would put Lee in a different echelon).
Lee knows what’s at stake and how his situation is different from that of the departed Captain Pajamas, as the Post reported this week:
“You see the pros and cons. You learn from the good ways of doing it, the bad ways of doing it. Every case is different,” Lee said. “Everyone has an individual case, what’s best for the family, what’s best for what their goals are. There are a lot of things behind the scenes that don’t get put out there.”
The prediction here, given everything we know three days into September training camp, is that Lamoriello retains Lee and possibly even Eberle and tries to find a way to “make it work” when other cap commitments make the next contract for Barzal a puzzle to navigate. (“When you have time, use it,” as the Lou phrasing goes.)
If only one of Lee, Eberle, and Nelson are retained? If the season goes south quickly and they decide a firesale of their top UFAs is needed? I’m still betting on Lee being that guy who stays. He just has those intangible “culture” attributes the new regime is so fond of.
Lamoriello and Trotz are aiming to reshape the Islanders culture to their liking, and they have a few chances in front of them to part with the culture of the past. But Lee is one piece I expect they’ll determine is worth building around.