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Isles’ Lee and Lehner still awaiting deals

Eberle’s signing leaves team captain and Vezina finalist in limbo

June 18, 2019 JT Torenli
Anders Lee, the Islanders’ team captain and pending unrestricted free agent, could be skating out the door if Team President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello can’t ink the forward to a multi-year deal. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
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After signing a five-year, $27.5 million deal to remain a New York Islander last week, Jordan Eberle cited the team’s favorable “direction” as well as the “tight-knit” group he was eager to remain a part of as reasons for his return to Brooklyn/Long Island in 2019-20.

“The whole time my mindset was to try to get a deal done with Long Island,” Eberle said via a teleconference last Friday, shortly after the pact was announced by Team President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello.

“I liked it there, I enjoyed the community, the playoffs were great,” added Eberle, who racked up four goals and five assists during the Isles’ eight-game run through the Eastern Conference playoffs.

“I liked the direction of where the team is going. I love the way that we play. I think the biggest aspect of our team is just the camaraderie that we have and how tight knit of a group [we have]. I think that’s why we’re a good team.”

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That direction, which saw New York go from the worst defensive team in the league to the very best within a span of a single season under head coach Barry Trotz, is now being threatened by the in-limbo status of pending free agents Anders Lee and Robin Lehner.

Lee, the Isles’ captain following last summer’s defection to Toronto by former team leader and face of the franchise John Tavares, is in the market for a maximum deal, something in the seven-year, $7 to $8 million per year neighborhood.

Lamoriello, who has already inked forwards Brock Nelson and Eberle to lucrative long-term deals this summer, apparently is willing to wait until July 1, when Lee will become an unrestricted free agent.

The 28-year-old Minnesota native has amassed 102 goals over the past three seasons, including a career-high 40 in 2017-18.

That ranks him 13th overall in the NHL in goals during that span, and doubtlessly will heighten his value on the open market in the next couple of weeks.

But Lamoriello isn’t blinking.

The Hall of Fame architect of three Stanley Cup champions in New Jersey seems more than willing to wait out the other offers Lee will receive before making a pitch to keep the career Islander in Orange and Blue.

“Ultimately, it’ll be [Lee’s] decision,” Eberle said of the captain’s pending status.

“Anders is on his own path. No one can really blame him for taking his time or going to free agency. He’s earned the right to that.”

Lee has made it clear that he wants to be an Islander for the foreseeable future, but he won’t cut a deal, most likely for a five-year pact, to remain with the only NHL franchise he has skated for since New York selected him in the first round of the 2009 Draft.

“People know how I feel about this place,” Lee noted shortly after the Isles were eliminated by Carolina in the East semifinals.

“Lou and [my agent] Neil [Sheehy} are going to figure that out.”

They aren’t likely to figure out anything until after Lamoriello handles this Friday’s NHL Draft and Lee hits free agency following the official completion of a four-year, $15 million deal that made him one of the best bargains in the sport.

“You would and could not find a finer captain,” Lamoriello gushed when asked about Lee last month.

“He did a tremendous job and as I’ve said all along, we’re going to do everything we possibly can to keep him.”

Except giving him what he and his agent want, that is.

Robin Lehner led the Islanders to the best defensive improvement in modern NHL history last season. Now, the pending free agent could be headed elsewhere if the team doesn’t bring him back before the July 1 deadline. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Robin Lehner led the Islanders to the best defensive improvement in modern NHL history last season. Now, the pending free agent could be headed elsewhere if the team doesn’t bring him back before the July 1 deadline. AP Photo/Julio Cortez

As for Lehner, who is one of three goalies up for the Vezina Trophy after posting a 2.13 goals-against average in 46 starts between the pipes for New York, Lamoriello is also taking a patient, wait-and-see approach.

The 27-year-old Swede was literally picked off the scrap heap by Lamoriello after suffering a well-chronicled meltdown in Buffalo the previous season, one that was followed by revelations that Lehner had been battling bi-polar disorder and a substance abuse problem.

He inked a one-year, $1.5 million pact to back up Thomas Greiss here last season and instead found himself leading the team back to the playoffs and through a postseason round for just the second time since 1993.

If Lamoriello has his way, he will be able to sign Lee and Lehner shortly after the free agency period opens at his price, not theirs.

Otherwise, the Isles’ direction and tight-knit locker room will both be back in limbo, much the way Lee and Lehner are as July 1 approaches.

Isle Have Another: The Annual NHL Awards will be presented Wednesday night in Las Vegas with Lehner up for the Vezina as the league’s top goalie against fellow candidates Ben Bishop of Dallas and Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevsky. … Trotz is a leading candidate for the Jack Adams Award, a.k.a. Coach of the Year, after orchestrating a turnaround for the ages with the Isles. The Brooklyn/L.I.-based franchise went from allowing the most goals in the sport to the least, something that hadn’t occurred in the NHL in over a century. Trotz, who guided Washington to its first-ever Stanley Cup crown in 2017-18 before joining the Isles, will be up against Craig Berube of the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues and Tampa’s Jon Cooper.

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