If the New York Islanders laid out two distinct plans for the opening day of free agency, it’s fairly evident that one – let’s call it Plan A – would have seen GM Lou Lamoriello make the biggest splash of signing season and lock up star winger Artemi Panarin to the kind of big-money deal he inked with the rival New York Rangers. But the other, Plan B, would have seen them do exactly what they did in the late afternoon of the opening day of free agency: re-sign captain Anders Lee.
Calling Lee, who returns to the Islanders on a seven-year, $49-million contract, a consolation prize hardly seems accurate, though. In colleague Matt Larkin’s pre-free agency rankings, only four players – Panarin, Joe Pavelski, Matt Duchene and Sergei Bobrovsky – were listed as prizes greater than Lee, and some would certainly argue that Lee could have landed anywhere from third to fifth on the list. He’s a proven power play producer, a two-time 30-goal scorer who netted 40 during the 2017-18 season and flirted with a third consecutive 30-goal season and likely would have hit the mark if New York was a more offensively minded outfit or his shooting percentage didn’t dip slightly below his career rate. (He shot 13.7 percent, but was a 14.6 percent shooter entering this past season.)
It is almost assuredly true, though, that bringing Lee back was somewhat contingent on the Islanders’ luck with Panarin, who inked a seven-year, $81.5-million pact with the Rangers. Though we’ll never know the exact offer that was on the table, particularly not with the involvement of the notoriously tight-lipped Lamoriello, the Islanders had surely earmarked a healthy sum for Panarin and the money that would have been used in signing him had he put pen to paper would have made it difficult for the Islanders, who entered free agency with roughly $20-million in cap space, to then retain Lee.
Alas, with Panarin deciding to head to New York’s other outfit, the cap space was available for the Islanders to circle back and sign Lee, which is exactly what they did. And it’s a fit that works for both sides and will continue to work. It’s been clear for some time that Lee didn’t really wish to move on and that he wanted to work out a deal with the Islanders. It seemed, too, that the only thing blocking the way was the uncertainty surrounding Panarin.
But the Islanders can’t stop at signing Lee, and Lamoriello’s work is far from over, particularly with a few areas that could use some touching up. The first order of business, of course, is shoring up the goaltending situation with Robin Lehner set to depart. Where will New York look now? And can some additional depth scoring be added once the crease has been addressed?
Those are questions Lamoriello will have to answer throughout the rest of free agency. The one he will no longer have to, however, is whether or not it will be a second straight summer in which the Islanders say goodbye to their captain.
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