What came first, the chicken or the egg?
The prospect’s talent or the opportunity to develop it?
Now that former first round draft choice Brian Lee is settling in with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and trade opposite Matt Gilroy has already played a game for the Ottawa Senators, it’s worth discussing opportunity for young NHL players.
Both Lee and Gilroy can make a case they’d be further along in their development if their NHL entry team had given them a greater chance. Both might also admit they could have done more with the chance they had. Regarding the case for the defence, the NHL clubs involved will contend they gave these young defencemen the opportunity they earned.
It’s the old story in hockey. Coaches and GMs lament that a player doesn’t exude confidence, but the player lacks confidence in part because he doesn’t have unconditional support. Sometimes, trading places is the answer.
Gilroy, 27, a Hobey Baker award winner from Boston University, broke in with the New York Rangers in 2009-10 and was often in the doghouse of head coach John Tortorella, who did not tolerate mistakes. As an offensive-minded defenceman, Gilroy made lots of them. He signed as a free agent with Tampa Bay last summer, a one-year deal for $1 million.
Lee, 24, making $875,000 on the final year of his contract, had the misfortune of being drafted by a general manager, John Muckler, who was gone from the scene by the time Lee broke into the NHL in the spring of 2008.
Their styles could not be more different. Gilroy likes to wheel with the puck. Lee tends to stay at home. Gilroy needs to find a home, now with his third NHL club in three years.
As for Lee, the wonder is that he was in Ottawa this long. If the NHL gave out an award for the player that endures setbacks such as reduced minutes and healthy scratch time, surely this pleasant young man from American hockey country would have won one.
Lee was remarkably patient, bordering on saintly, about his ordeal. Night after night he’d be a healthy scratch in the press box, but never grumbled publicly.
I still remember Lee, baby-faced beneath the blonde hair – “who did you draft, the paper boy,” one Senators staffer had said after the kid was selected in 2005. Lee made his NHL debut on March 26 of 2008, his 21st birthday, if you could believe it. And what a debut it was. Broadcaster Garry Galley, a long time NHL defenceman, called Lee Ottawa’s best defenceman on the night. Lee played 18 minutes in a 6-3 win and stopped a certain Buffalo goal with his skate on the goal line.
The next day, I phoned Lee’s former high school coach in Moorhead, Minnesota to talk about his protege. As excited as Lee himself, Dave Morinville said he hurried to a local sports bar to get the Senators broadcast that night.
“I would have paid off the bartender to get this game on, if I had to,” Morinville said.
Such joy, when a player reaches the show. Such disappointment when it doesn’t pan out and a player like Lee is shown the door at 24.
Prior to the trade, a former NHL defenceman told me that if Lee had been given the kind of opportunity Erik Karlsson was given here – Lee a 9th overall pick in 2005, Karlsson 15th overall in 2008 – Lee would be a regular top-four defenceman in the NHL today, instead of a sixth or seventh.
Interesting discussion point. Certainly Lee would have had more opportunity if the GM that drafted him had stayed on. Bryan and Tim Murray drafted Karlsson and were giddy with excitement when the club was able to move up in the draft to get the flashy Swede. With that foundation, Karlsson would receive no end of opportunities to succeed, and has already exploded into a star.
Lee, on the other hand, with lesser talent, was a player the Senators should have passed by to get Marc Staal, or even Anze Kopitar, with the benefit of hindsight. So, his presence here was a constant reminder that Ottawa blew that pick (but we could play that game all night).
It’s also true a player has to mine whatever opportunity he gets. Karlsson had his setbacks, though minor. He was sent back to AHL Binghamton for a dozen games in 2009-10 and returned a different player.
Lee spent the bulk of three seasons in Binghamton and when he did finally get his one-way contract in 2010, he sat out 31 games as a healthy scratch, including 25 in a row! This year, he has played well, when in the lineup, well enough to get dealt.
It’s hard to improve without playing the game. Lee and Gilroy both hope to play more – and run with the chance – on their new teams.