If Anders Lee never does another thing for the Islanders, which has become a startling possibility, he can know that his team and its fans always will owe him huge thanks for an unforgettable season.
In his own quiet way, the first-year captain helped make the 2018-19 Islanders much more than we all thought they would be. Along with the obvious improvements — notably the defensive scheme, goaltending, disciplined coaching and overall franchise direction — Lee’s subtle work as a leader turned a potential disaster into a heartening step.
Lee’s presence made the absence of John Tavares less palpable. Lee earned an “A” by the way he wore the “C.” He was a good captain when things were going well for him, such as leading the team with 28 goals, and when they weren’t, being held to no goals and one assist in the Hurricanes series.
“He’s everybody’s favorite teammate,” Thomas Hickey said. “At the start of the year, I didn’t know what we were going to do. Then when [the captaincy] was announced, we were like, 'That’s the obvious choice.’
“The biggest thing in being a captain is knowing that there is going to be frustration but you want to put on a good front to make sure that your team knows that everything is going to be OK. He did a tremendous job with that,” Hickey said.
Lee, when asked about his first experience as successor to Ed Westfall, Denis Potvin, Brent Sutter, Michael Peca and others, said, “It was extremely special. It was a huge honor and a big learning experience . . . It’s not easy, when you’ve got 25 guys in the room going through 25 different things. You have to be someone guys can lean on. You like to put a lot of other people first, make sure everyone else is good and then, come puck-drop, you’ve got to make sure you’re going.”
Lou Lamoriello said, “You wouldn’t and could not find a [better] captain.”
So, it is a little surprising and somewhat concerning that Lee’s and the team never have agreed on a contract. He is a potential unrestricted free agent on a team clearly hungry for scoring and not flush with alternatives. As much as we’ve heard about the Islanders’ young prospects, statistics show that none of them were superstars in the minors or college this season. Maybe Lamoriello is just using time as an ally, as he says he likes to do. Or perhaps Lee’s agent Neil Sheehy wants the forward to be paid like the 40-goal scorer he was while playing alongside Tavares last year.
“As I’ve said all along, we’re going to do everything we possibly can to keep him,” Lamoriello said at breakup day Monday.
Whether or not that happens, Lee can know that this year’s team considered itself well-led. Mat Barzal said, “He’s such a genuine guy. I think that’s the one word you get when you talk to him, 'genuine.’ Day in and day out, he works hard. Having a guy like that is great for me and great for this locker room.”
Barry Trotz said, “He was fantastic as a captain. He had really big shoes to fill. I think he was a natural at it because he does things the right way. He thinks of himself last rather than first and that’s what good captains do.”
Do the Islanders really want to face the thought of losing good captains two years in a row? Can their chemistry and confidence afford that? These are questions Lamoriello is weighing, while trying to figure out how to pay for upgrades.
Lee’s situation highlights a dicey summer ahead. A year ago, Lamoriello came up all aces with a series of low-risk moves (hiring the reigning Stanley Cup champion coach, taking a one-year flyer on Robin Lehner, bringing back Matt Martin). Everything is trickier this year, now that he has to deal with the team’s core.
It would help the Islanders if the general manager does as well with the offseason as Lee did with the “C.”