New York Islanders captain Anders Lee had struggled before, but his slow and sluggish start to the 2023-24 season produced doubt from a concerned fanbase that wondered if the 33-year-old still had what it took to turn his season around. Lee isn't fast or flashy and never has been. When he's not producing goals, it's easy to question where else he's contributing to the team, and when that team is repeatedly blowing third-period leads, and he's the captain, you understand the criticism.
Lee had just one goal through 15 games this season, as he bounced back and forth between playing with Mathew Barzal and Bo Horvat and on a line with JG Pageau. He even was given a shot to get things going by skating alongside Brock Nelson and Kyle Palmieri when Pierre Engvall was scratched for a game after a costly turnover.
Lane Lambert's willingness to leave the door open for Simon Holmstrom or someone else to claim that spot on the first line appeared to signal that the coach, too, had reservations as to whether Lee's slump was about a bad luck poor shooting percentage (it was 3.% after 12 games) or if there as something missing from his usually consistent game.
Last night, his two third-period goals in the Isles' thrilling 3-2 OT win over the Los Angeles Kings was the 37th multi-goal game of his career and an exclamation point on a recent stretch where Lee has been making an impact whether it results in adding to his goal total or not. “He was a beast tonight,” Barzal said of Lee. “You see him on that goal just not going to be denied.”
In the previous game vs. Columbus, the Lee-Horvat-Barzal line combined for four goals and three assists, 19 shot attempts, and a +11 rating. Detractors were quick to point out that Lee didn't score a goal or register an assist, but his contributions weren't lost on his teammates. “Lee was the unsung hero tonight,” said Barzal after the 7-3 win vs. the Blue Jackets. “I don't know if he got on the scoresheet, but he did a lot of good things out there that allowed us to score. He made good wall plays, sent picks, and whatnot. He had a great night."
After scoring just one goal in the first 15 games of the season, Lee has six goals over his last 11 games and is back to his usual 20+ goal pace. His two goals on Saturday night gave him 37 multi-goal games in his career, and there's, for the moment, no questioning that he belongs on the top line.
“He's been playing really well,” Lambert said after the game. “He's been leading. He's been forechecking, he's battling. He's getting to the netfront and he got rewarded tonight and so I'm very happy for him.”
There will undoubtedly come another time when fans question whether Lee has anything left to give. and his $7M AAV will keep him a target of criticism until the end of his contract. However, perhaps the next time he goes into a slump, fans will be a little more patient before deciding he won't be able to work his way out of it.