Lee quickly becoming one of AHL’s top young D-men

by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com

lee2_200.jpgBinghamton Senators rookie defenseman Brian Lee would really love to compare pro notes with his former teammates from his University of North Dakota days.

Taken together, the group forms an impressive database. There’s Buffalo’s Drew Stafford, a first-rounder in 2004. And New Jersey’s Travis Zajac, another 2004 first-rounder. And Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, taken No. 3 overall in 2006. And Matt Smaby, a Lightning second-rounder in 2003.

As the No. 9 overall pick by Ottawa in 2005, Lee would fit right into the conversation. There’s just one problem. Lee can’t find their phone numbers. Actually, he knows exactly where there are – lost somewhere in a waterlogged cell phone.

So, hey, if any of you guys are reading this, first off, thanks. Secondly, give Lee a call, care of the Binghamton Senators. He’d love to catch up with you.

“I haven’t talked with any of the guys all that much this year,” Lee said. “I’m not sure how to get in touch with them. I got my phone wet. It fell into a lake (in Minnesota). I was hanging out on a dock and it slipped out of my pocket and into the water.”

Bummer. But the way Lee is playing, he might soon get a chance to talk with his pals face-to-face, as opponents in the NHL.

The 6-foot-3 Lee is one of the premiere young puck-moving defensemen in the AHL. His nine points (1-8) are third among rookie defensemen. He may not be a brick wall in his own end yet, but his mere six penalty minutes through 16 games suggest that he’s not killing his team with dumb penalties.

“I thought the first seven or eight games, he might have been one of our best players. He was solid defensively. Offensively, he created opportunities,” Sens coach Cory Clouston said. “He’s going to be a good NHL player. The ability is all there.”

That leads to the topic of expectations, a burden Lee could pick his buddies’ brains about since they’ve all preceded him to the NHL. Then again, there’s not much about the spotlight that Lee, 20, should find too bright.

He played high school hockey in the cauldron of Moorhead, Minn. He then jumped under the microscope of tradition-seeped North Dakota for two seasons.

“Growing up, it’s the go-to sport in Moorhead. We’d sell out our high school games almost every game,” he said. “Moving on to college, it was more of the same. It made you focus, bring your best to the table every night. That’s what helps now.”

So does the appreciation that with all the glamour occasionally comes a compost heap.

On a recent off day, the Senators went on a team bowling outing. It was meant as a diversion from Binghamton’s run on the wrong end of three straight shutouts. As the offensive quarterback, much of the weight drops onto Lee’s shoulders, rookie or not.

“I had a couple games where I tried to force things,” was Lee’s diagnosis. “It’s disappointing. It just shows us we’re getting too fancy.”

The bowling didn’t go too well, unless you count laughter as the fix-all. Lee tossed back-to-back gutter balls, at least giving himself and the team something to smile about.

lee_200.jpg“I’m more of a golfer away from the ice,” he said. “I tried to roll a spin ball, and it didn’t pan out for me. They (his teammates) were giving me a real hard time for that.”

The point is, though, that even on a rough patch of this sort, Lee tries to learn. And Clouston figures he’s not far from getting it right, at least in terms of hockey.

“He’s an intelligent person. He wants to learn. He’s trying to be a sponge and be a better player,” he said. “The last couple of games, he’s tried to force things too much. He’s just got to simplify his game.”

For a player in a complex role, though, that can take time. The Senators were by far the worst defensive team in the AHL last season. Any improvement in that department starts with contributions from their new, heralded meal-ticket, and he better not take too long to figure it out.
At the other end of the rink, hockey’s value on a mobile defenseman nearly is off the charts these days, and that’s where Lee is being groomed.

“I feel you’re the quarterback on the ice out there. You get the puck, you get all the players in front of you, both sides,” he said. “You have to find the guy who’s open or ease the puck up the ice. I just like making those decisions and having that control out there.”

The hands-on approach only extends so far. Lee has watched as his former UND teammates have reached – and in some cases are starring in – the NHL. His is a more nuanced journey, where there are responsibilities to be mastered instead of razzle-dazzle to be displayed.

“The team in Ottawa, they are stacked on offense. They are stacked on defense. It’s going to be real tough to crack that lineup,” he said. “It’s all about situations. It’s all about opportunity.”

Some of those can slip by with minimal regret. Cell phones can be replaced. Gutter balls are fogged over with strikes. Rookie mistakes can be countered just as quickly as a rush goes back up ice the other way.

The big chances, now, those are the ones you have to cash in on. Like holding a college reunion at the world’s highest level of hockey.

Then, when all the hitting and grunting is over, you swap pride, excitement, and, undoubtedly, phone numbers.

“You know if you are going to play with those guys you definitely belong in the NHL,” Lee said of catching up with his friends. “It will be a lot of fun to go up there and play against those guys in the future.”