It will have been 217 days since Anders Lee last laced up his skates and played in an NHL game that counted when he hits the ice on Thursday for the New York Islanders season opener in Carolina.
In that time, the Islanders clawed their way to the end of the 2020-21 regular season, knocked off the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins and came within a game of advancing to the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 1984. All the While, Lee had to watch from afar as he recovered from surgery to repair an ACL injury he suffered on March 11 against New Jersey.
While having to watch his team play without him for all that time was tough on Anders Lee, it gave the 31-year-old a new perspective on how to lead the group that is once again expected to compete for a Stanley Cup.
“Having to adjust a little bit and take things on in a different way, whether it was during the recovery or in the middle of a run,” Lee said. “You can’t take for granted this opportunity to play each day. It’s just a huge privilege and I’m excited to get back to getting on the ice and playing with the boys in a real game. I mean that’s all you really want.”
🎥 Wahlstrom & Lee Availability 🎥 pic.twitter.com/mR38VvNS6v
— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) October 13, 2021
The Islanders forward will be back in his usual spot once the puck drops on Thursday. Lee will be the big body in front of the net that the Islanders lacked for most of the previous season and struggled to replace.
Lee’s net-front presence often creates scoring opportunities for New York’s top line, in particular Mathew Barzal. The top line couldn’t find the same offensive output following Lee’s injury in March, but that should change with him back in the fold.
In the two preseason games that Anders Lee did participate in he finished with a combined four points (three goals, one assist), which included a pair of goals and a helper in the preseason finale against the New York Rangers. Lee’s chemistry with Barzal returned almost instantaneously and he’s worked out well with Kyle Palmieri on that line.
The Islanders will be happy to have one of their key pieces back on the ice, as well as one of the team’s largest influences.
While Lee didn’t play during the Islanders’ run to the Stanley Cup Semifinals, he was around the team. He was famously captured in the team’s dressing room give a pregame speech before exiting the room in dramatic fashion.
“He found different ways to lead even though he wasn’t on the ice,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “He found ways to keep the group together. He’s just grown. He understands he missed it. It could have been a great opportunity. I mean how big could have Anders Lee been for us in that Tampa Series. We lost in Game 7 1-0, could he have been a difference? We’ll never know.
“What he’s understanding is that it might have been a missed opportunity for him. He doesn’t want to miss another opportunity. He wants to make sure it happens for him to take the next step and this group to take the next step.”
The Islanders are expected to take that next step this season in a big way. New York, according to most experts, is picked to at least reach the Stanley Cup Final this year. Others expect them to win the whole thing.
It’s a far cry from where the Islanders were when Lee busted onto the scene in 2013.
“We take it day by day, game by game,” Lee said. “We can’t get to where we want to go right off the bat. There’s a lot in between and a lot we have to work on still, and get better at. All those little things. It’s no surprise, but we’re just taking it game by game right now and looking forward to getting after it.”