After Monday afternoon’s first major wave of free agent signings — most of which were already leaked the night before — settled, New York Islanders captain Anders Lee was the top unrestricted free agent forward on the market who had yet to sign.
Sometimes that means you’ve missed a shot on the game of musical chairs. But it appeared Lee still had options.
Like fellow Islanders free agent Robin Lehner, Lee always expressed a desire to remain with the Islanders, though season-long negotiations left the two sides still not finding common ground. As other signings were completed and cap space consumed, the choices for Lee (and the Islanders, who swung and missed on Artemi Panarin) became a little clearer.
We don’t know what numbers Lee was chasing — though at one point word was it approached $9 million per year — but we did know which teams could still fit him in.
Told that Islanders have circled back to Anders Lee, who holds every bit of leverage.— Larry Brooks (@NYP_Brooksie) July 1, 2019
The bigger winner on Day 1 is going to be Anders Lee as one team that is now desperate to keep him and another team that is desperate to add *somebody* with all of that salary cap space burning a hole in its pocket get into a bidding war for him.— Adam Gretz (@AGretz) July 1, 2019
The Canadiens had been one of the teams connected to Lee as soon as it became clear he would reach July 1 without an agreement from the Islanders. In the meantime, other teams mentioned like the Avalanche and Wild signed other forwards who consumed cap and roster space. (The Wild could still fit Lee after signing Mats Zuccarello, but it sounded like they were out. The Avalanche still could too, though they have some RFAs to deal with including a tricky one in Mikko Rantanen)
Complicating things: mid-afternoon on July 1, the Canadiens announced they had tendered an offer sheet to (the other) Sebastian Aho of the Carolina Hurricanes. That ties up considerable potential salary cap space ($8.45 million per year, though the actual pay out is tons of money up front), which could mean there is no room for Lee unless he waits to learn whether the Hurricanes match.
It’s a smart move from the Canadiens though: Compensation would not be the crazy, all-out four first-round picks, so the real squeeze here is whether the Hurricanes, who notoriously stick to budget, can stomach so much money up front in the deal. (In that way, it’s just like when the Flyers offer sheeted Shea Weber, front-loading to put the squeeze on small-budget Nashville.)
Hearing that the Habs first discussed the offer sheet scenario involving Brayden Point but then shifted gears to Sebastian Aho after thinking they'd have a better chance to get the player. Both Point and Aho are represented by agent Gerry Johansson.— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) July 1, 2019
Waddell on offer sheet: "It's certainly a surprise, it's a surprise it wasn't more. Literally we got the email at 2:40 today so all people are not fully aware yet."— Sara Civ (@SaraCivian) July 1, 2019
But back to Lee, you see the argument here: He is the top unrestricted free agent forward left, he’s had a number (be it AAV or term) in mind that the Islanders haven’t met all season long, so now it’s about whether an alternative team can meet that and/or how much less he’s willing to take from the Islanders to stay.
There’s also the added insult, or at least tough “it’s a business” news to swallow, that the Islanders put him on the backburner so that they could chase a different free agent, at a much higher salary, who eventually signed with the crosstown rivals instead.
And what if the Hurricanes don’t match? Would they and Lee consider one another? Would other teams — Colorado, for example — “circle back” with Lee? Could he find interest from one of the several other teams that still have the cap space?
No telling where this ends, of course. Ultimately Lee may not get the numbers he was seeking, but he’s still in a position to choose. Especially if he’s willing to let the team that named him captain squirm.
UPDATE: Deal imminent?
Around 4:20 EDT there was this from Arthur Staple. Something may be near, whether here or there.
Sounds like Anders Lee is nearing a deal... Wouldn't surprise me if he's back wearing the 'C' for the #Isles, but we shall see shortly— Arthur Staple (@StapeAthletic) July 1, 2019
P.S. More Offer Sheets Coming?
Meanwhile, there has bene scuttlebutt all summer that maybe Lou Lamoriello would go big on an offer sheet, such as to Mitch Marner of the Leafs. Hard to see how that is worthwhile or would work — the Leafs have just enough space, and can afford any bonus structure imaginable — but we can’t discuss this without mentioning the possibility.