By Daniel Friedman
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The Islanders’ Anders Lee has played 11 games in the NHL. He has cracked the scoresheet in all but three, and has 12 points overall.
It began last April, with a seemingly harmless wrist shot that caught Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavelec napping. And if that first goal was thought to be a simple case of beginner’s luck, the six he’s scored since being called up following the Olympic break have essentially debunked that theory.
Though, if you ask Lee, he’ll tell you that he’s “gotten lucky a couple of times” and has been “in the right place at the right time.” He’ll tell you that his success is largely due to “other guys working hard out there and creating chances.”
Now, you might look back at some of the goals Lee has scored and notice that, often times, he has in fact happened to be around the net-mouth at opportune moments. When a player does that on a regular basis, I don’t call that luck; I call that awareness, I call that smart hockey.
Coaches will take players who drive hard to the net and are willing to go into the “greasy areas” any day of the week. They’ll order in bulk and choose overnight shipping if they have to. If you’re always around the crease and finding ways to put pucks across the goal line, you’re a very useful hockey player.
It’s important to note that the sample size here is a bit small. Tuesday night’s bout with the Minnesota Wild will be just the 12th of Lee’s burgeoning NHL career. To declare him a star based on 11 games is a bit premature, but I do think it’s fair to suggest that, based on his skill set and track record, he has the tools to be an excellent top-six forward.
The Edina, Minn., native has produced everywhere he’s been: 66 points in 59 USHL contests, 116 points in 125 skirmishes at Notre Dame and 41 points in 54 AHL games with the Sound Tigers. His performance as an Islander (seven goals, five assists in 11 games) appears to be a continuation of that pattern.
Lee has looked quite comfortable on the Isles’ top line with Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo, and the encouraging thing is that he had already been racking up points before his promotion to that line.
Certain players just get it; they know what they have to do to be successful and how to properly utilize their own strengths. Lee definitely strikes me as that type of player. He’s built like a truck and fully embraces the fact that he can use his frame to create scoring chances.
As Lee was getting set to make his season debut with the Islanders, I asked him what his personal expectations were.
“It’s a big opportunity for me,” he said. “Going into corners, getting in front of the net, having the ability to score, feeding off my linemates. I’m just gonna play my game.”
Needless to say, it’s been working.
A few days (and goals) later, he outlined the formula for his success: “Being around the paint, trying to get in front of the goalie’s eyes; that’s kind of what I’ve always been trying to do,” he explained. “I have the body to do it. That’s been my job out there.”
It might be a bit early to be making long-term projections, but if Lee wants to be an impact player, he has the wherewithal to do so.
Speaking of jumping to conclusions, it’s easy in hindsight to suggest that Lee should’ve been in the Islander lineup on opening night. I don’t think that’s particularly accurate. I watched him in training camp and felt that, while he was very close, he needed to spend some time in Bridgeport to polish his game. I think those 54 AHL games served him well and have been a major reason behind his NHL success.
When Lee arrived in February, he was ready. The best part is, he still has plenty of room to grow.
NOTES AND QUOTES
* Okposo was named the NHL’s second star of the week, after recording seven points in three games. He now has 69 points in 68 games this season and, naturally, it’s only because he’s a byproduct of John Tavares and isn’t playing on international ice.
* Isles’ head coach Jack Capuano had strong praise for Nielsen after a 4-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres: “He’s a guy who does all the little things and the intangibles in a game. He does all the right things. If you want to teach a young centerman how to play the game, tell him to watch 51.”
* Lubomir Visnovsky notched three assists on Saturday night and another during an improbable 7-4 win in Vancouver, giving him four points last week. This is a positive sign for Visnovsky and the Islanders. If he can get on a roll here and build up his confidence, perhaps that momentum can carry over into next season.
* Six Islanders have at least four points in their last five games (Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, Okposo, Nielsen, Lee, Visnovsky). Lee and Nielsen have six, while Okposo has eight.
* On Sunday, a Buffalo News article quoted Thomas Vanek as saying he “made up (his) mind a year ago that July 1 was a priority,” essentially confirming what has probably been the worst-kept secret in hockey for quite some time. Vanek also reflected upon the final days of his brief Islander career: “I think after (turning down their contract offer) it was hard to focus, even though the guys in the room on the island were great. They understood it’s business. It’s nothing against them.”
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanOnNYI
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