Change is a word that has been all too familiar for the New York Islanders. In a 101-point 2014-15 season, their best since 1983-84, the Islanders said goodbye to the Nassau Coliseum, their home of 43 years, for the bright lights of Brooklyn's Barclays Center.
A month and a half into the offseason has the Islanders looking for pieces to lift them to the next level of a playoff series win. With 24 free agents, Brooklyn's newest tenant will certainly have a few new players on its roster. But it is imperative that they hold onto center Anders Lee.
In his first full season with the Islanders, Lee recorded 25 goals and 16 assists for 41 points. His goal output ranked fourth among all rookies in the NHL and his points total placed him sixth. It is the most goals an Islanders rookie has scored since Michael Grabner's 34 in 2010-11.
Lee initially excelled on the Islanders' third line, nicknamed "the kid line," with fellow rookies Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson (another free agent) until injuries forced them to split up. Lee, unlike Nelson, managed to produce no matter where he was put, including a stretch where he recorded at least one point in 14 of 16 games.
He was promoted to the first line and moved to right wing after Kyle Okposo went down with an eye injury, flanking superstar center John Tavares. When Okposo returned, Lee was put on Tavares' left side in an attempt to keep him on the top line.
The long season took a toll on Lee, though. His play declined to the point that Islanders head coach Jack Capuano benched him in their first-round series against the Washington Capitals, which the Islanders lost in seven games.
These struggles are no reason to be alarmed. The playoffs are a grueling experience. With intensity heightened to new levels, it takes many players, let alone rookies, time to acclimate. In a season where he scored 42 goals in 79 regular-season games, New York Rangers left-winger Rick Nash scored just five in 19 playoff games—half of his regular-season output.
At 6'2" Lee provides a big body and a skilled set of hands that could anchor a third-line as a center. He could also easily be inserted as a winger on either a first or second line, especially if surrounded by the right talent.
The Islanders can afford to let defensemen like Lubomir Visnovsky and Thomas Hickey walk. Though the defense might struggle for a short period of time, there is enough depth in the New York farm system that can bolster its blue line.
Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy and Travis Hamonic are three defensemen who will be in orange and blue for the better part of a decade. There is little question that youngsters Ryan Pulock, Griffin Reinhart and Calvin de Haan will provide enough support for the Islanders' back line.
The only way the Islanders could solve any potential holes in their defense would be by testing free agency or the trade market. But the Islanders can score. They ranked fourth in the NHL with 2.99 goals per game and disturbing the chemistry could prove costly, especially to that "kid line." That's why Anders Lee needs to be the Islanders first priority when it comes to signing their free agents.