Lee the forgotten man, but he deserves better

In all the chatter about who will make the Ottawa Senators’ defence corps this season, you don’t often hear a lot about Brian Lee. Maybe that’s justified.

Lee the forgotten man, but he deserves better
PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 13: Jason Spezza #19 of the Ottawa Senators handles the puck against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on April 13, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Senators defeated the Penguins 3-2 in a shootout. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)


In all the chatter about who will make the Ottawa Senators’ defence corps this season, you don’t often hear a lot about Brian Lee.

Maybe that’s justified. He did sit for 25 straight games as a healthy scratch early last season after quickly finding a dark corner in then-coach Cory Clouston’s doghouse. There Lee was in the press box every night, closely watching his teammates struggle and keeping his mouth shut like a good soldier. It looked for a time like Lee’s Senators career (and maybe NHL?) might be coming to an end.

But a funny thing happened after that. Eventually injuries and circumstances opened a door, and Lee took full advantage. Not in the way that was expected of him when the Senators made him the surprise No. 9 overall pick in the Sidney Crosby draft — he was seen then as a strong puck-mover with good size — but in a more decidedly low-key fashion.

Lee was just…solid. Gone were the boneheaded decisions with the puck. Gone was the super-soft play that got on coaches’ nerves. Lee was paired up with Chris Phillips as the team’s shut-down pair and he did the things expected of a shut-down defenceman. He used his size, he made smart, simple choices in his own end and he played big minutes against the top players on opposing teams. Maybe he learned something from Phillips.

While it seems like Lee has been around forever, he’s still only 24 years old. He stands at 6’3, 208 lbs. with fine speed and possible upside. His cap hit is a very manageable $875,000 for someone who could turn out to be a solid NHL defenceman. Is this the kind of player the Senators want to give up on now? It was an easy decision last winter, when Bryan Murray tried to move him so he could play somewhere (anywhere). But now?

The easy move, roster-wise is the hardest one to pull off. Filip Kuba’s points totals have fallen every season he has played with the Senators, and he has missed 47 games due to injury the last two years. He’s 34 and will cost the team $3.7 million against the cap in the final year of his contract. If Kuba bounces back with a strong start, perhaps he could generate some value before the trade deadline. That’s the argument made by Graeme Nichols over at The 6th Sens blog recently and it has merit.

Yet you get the feeling the market has changed for these players somewhat. I mean, at the end of the day, how much value is Kuba going to have, even if he does return to his form of 3-4 years ago (which is a major, major stretch)? Not a decent prospect. A pick, maybe a lousy second or third-rounder if the Senators were really lucky. Meanwhile, if David Rundblad were to crack the lineup in a big way, it would probably be at the expense of Lee, who has shown flashes of being a decent NHLer.

I’m a big fan of value plays, but sometimes you need to cut your losses. If it’s a question of ice time and healthy scratches this season, finding out what the rebuilding Senators have in Lee once and for all should take precedence over playing a creaky veteran on a non-playoff team. Kuba would have made a fine buyout candidate this summer, his salary replaced with a couple of forwards who could plug holes this season.

On the plus side, watching how the Senators unclog this logjam should be one of the more interesting storylines in training camp.

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