Chris Lee is coming off of what was arguably the best season of his career. Suiting up for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL, Lee, a defenseman, blasted home 14 goals and 65 points in 60 games, added another goal and 21 points in 18 playoff outings and then capped his year by spending seven games with Team Canada at the World Championship, where he picked up two assists and a silver medal.
And given that he’s coming off of such a spectacular season, now would seem to be the perfect time for Lee to try his hand at the NHL. According to KHL reporter Aivis Kalnins, that’s exactly what Lee is set to do.
There’s a certain amount of intrigue surrounding Lee, too. Even before this season, arguably his breakout year, Lee turned some heads with his offensive ability. It’s clear why. As he’s set to leave the KHL, Lee has managed to post 44 goals and 179 points in 227 games in what is arguably the second-best pro league in the world. It helps, as well, that Lee got a glowing endorsement from Canadian coach Jon Cooper at the worlds. Asked about the defenseman, Cooper told Sportsnet that Lee didn’t look at all out of place playing alongside his NHL teammates.
There is, however, one rub: Chris Lee is 36 years old.
Yes, at a time when most players are getting set to ride off into the sunset, Lee is attempting to saddle up and head to seemingly the only top league in which he has yet to play. Over a career that has spanned 13 seasons, Lee’s journeyman career has taken him from the ECHL to the AHL and then on to Germany, Sweden and Russia, where has spent the past four years. Across those 13 years, he has suited up for 11 teams and come painfully close to a spot in the NHL. Actually getting his chance at the big league, though? That’s yet to happen.
This is certainly the time for Lee to try, though. Lee has never had a bigger stage on which to showcase his ability than the World Championship, as it was his first time representing Canada in one of the major international events. Two previous turns at the Deutschland Cup were the next best thing for Lee, but his stint against some of the world’s best, after spending time against several of those same players in the KHL over the past four years, was proof that he could keep up. He averaged roughly 11 minutes per game — his biggest ice times coming against the lesser teams, with 20 minutes against France and nearly 16 against Switzerland — and was part of the blueline that helped Canada finish in second place.
The biggest uncertainty facing Lee, however, is whether a team will be willing to give up a spot on their roster to a defenseman who is entering the tail end of his career with no NHL experience.
Lee isn’t the first player — and he won’t be the last — to attempt to make the jump to the world’s best league in the late stages of his career. In the post-lockout era, three 30-plus defenders have made the jump from overseas to the NHL. That said, the results haven’t been all that great. Andy Roach, who suited up for the St. Louis Blues in 2005-06, only managed to get into five games after successful stints in Germany and Switzerland. Magnus Johansson came over to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007-08, but he headed back to Sweden in 2008-09 after 45 games in the NHL. But the most recent veteran rearguard to attempt to transition to the NHL might be the most comparable.
Ahead of the 2015-16 season, the Flyers were looking for a way to bulk up their blueline, so they dipped into the KHL to sign Evgeny Medvedev, who had spent the past eight seasons with Ak Bars Kazan. A consistent point producer, Medvedev inked a one-year deal, but his time in Philadelphia was up-and-down. He got into 45 games, but was often a healthy scratch. When he was in the lineup, he averaged 18:50 per game and netted four goals and 12 points. It wasn’t an awful season by any means, but hardly a great one. Medvedev ended up back in the KHL in 2016-17 with Avangard Omsk. (Drunk driving charges in the off-season certainly didn’t help his chances of finding another NHL gig.)
None of those players tried to make the leap to the NHL at Lee’s age, though. Roach was 32 when he got his chance with the Blues, Johansson was 34 when he signed in Chicago, and Medvedev was 33 throughout his time with the Flyers. Though it may not seem like a massive age gap, they were all considerably younger than Lee will be, especially as he’s set to turn 37 on Oct. 3. That means he’ll celebrate his birthday a few days before the regular season kicks off. Only seven players in league history — and not one since 1989-90 — have debuted in the NHL at age 37 or older.
Don’t take that to mean Lee’s endeavor into the NHL, if it becomes a reality, can’t work. In Lee’s favor is the fact that some of his best attributes are things that can continue to make him effective at his age in the NHL.
His foot speed still seems quite sound and he didn’t look out of place against some of the faster skaters on the international stage. There’s also the opportunity for him to slide into a lineup as a power play defender, and given he just set a KHL scoring record for defensemen, a team looking for a power play quarterback might be fairly intrigued by what the veteran can bring to the table. His passing ability and shot from the backend could be nice tools for a team in need. None of the other three defenders — not Roach, not Johansson and not Medvedev — scored at a rate that was similar to Lee. And there’s also the fact that he might come cheap and be effective in a year where the pool of free agent defensemen is fairly thin.
There are teams who are going to be looking for a player like Lee, as well. The Golden Knights, who’ve already dipped into the KHL to sign Vadim Shipachyov and are reportedly after Evgeni Dadonov, could be a potential destination. There’s not going to be much in the way of high-scoring veteran defensemen available in the expansion draft, so maybe Lee’s a fit. Or maybe the Sabres are interested, what with Buffalo reportedly set to sign Lee’s Magnitogorsk partner, Viktor Antipin, to a deal. Teams at the bottom of the standings, such as Colorado Avalanche, could use some help on the back end, and, after saying goodbye to Kevin Shattenkirk, maybe a team in the hunt such as the Blues could even use Lee as a cheaper fill-in to be their point man on the power play.
But no matter where he lands, this is Lee’s chance to make his NHL dream come true after a decade-long globetrotting career, and it sure will be interesting to see how he fares in the big league if someone is willing to take a shot on him.
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