Captain remains on board, but Isles lose Lehner
Lee’s seven-year pact provides stability as Lehner leaves for Chicago.
Though it paled in comparison to the free-agent windfall the Brooklyn Nets enjoyed over the weekend, the New York Islanders did some serious business during the first day of the NHL’s annual swap meet Monday.
Team President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello couldn’t land his biggest free-agent target, Artemi Panarin, who turned down a reportedly “bigger” offer from the Islanders to sign a seven-year, $81.5 million deal with the archrival New York Rangers.
The Hall of Fame executive quickly pivoted and re-signed team captain Anders Lee, the Isles’ leading goal scorer in each of the past three seasons, to a seven-year, $49 million pact that provided some stability for a franchise that had lost long-time captain John Tavares to Toronto via free agency the previous summer.
Lamoriello, who had openly gushed about Lee’s leadership skills and intangible assets while allowing the 28-year-old forward to dangle during his pursuit of Panarin, insisted he never intended to let the veteran winger leave Brooklyn/Long Island.
“We didn’t bring him back,” Lamoriello said. “He never left.”
No, he didn’t.
But starting goaltender Robin Lehner did.
The Vezina Trophy finalist and Masterson Trophy winner, who gave an impassioned speech regarding his battles with bipolar disorder and substance abuse at last month’s NHL Awards ceremony in Las Vegas, inked a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Lehner’s departure opened the door for Lamoriello to sign veteran Colorado netminder Semyon Varlamov to a four-year deal worth upwards of $20 million.
Varlamov will join goalie Thomas Greiss, who shared the Jennings Trophy with Lehner last year after the two combined to yield the least goals in the league, in giving the Isles a solid, if not spectacular, duo between the pipes.
“I had some different options, but I wanted to sign with the Islanders because I thought this was the right place for me and my family,” Varlamov said. “I think this is a strong organization with a great coaching staff. I wanted to be a part of that.”
As did Lee, who revealed that he hadn’t seriously considered any of the offers coming in during the free-agency frenzy as he patiently awaited Lamoriello’s attention to turn back to him.
“It’s a process that always seems to work itself out. I’d always told [my agent Neil Sheehy], ‘Just keep working with Lou and we’ll figure this out,'” Lee said.
“Those two would hammer this out and we’d get this all done. Obviously, it took a little bit of time. That’s just how these things work. There were some ups and downs, but at the end of the day I knew that we would figure this all out together.”
Losing Lehner, who resurrected his career here after Lamoriello picked him up off the scrap heap following a well-chronicled end to his stay in Buffalo, could prove costly for the Isles.
They went from the worst defensive team in the league to the NHL’s best in their first season with Lehner in goal and Jack Adams Award-winning head coach Barry Trotz on the bench this past campaign.
“Unfortunately, things didn’t work out for different reasons and we have to never look back, we have to go forward,” Lamoriello said of Lehner’s move to Chicago.
“But the personal relationship and how he’s touched a lot of people and will continue to do that. He’s a quality human being, certainly an outstanding goaltender and we wish him the best.”
Lee was also saddened by the loss of Lehner, who posted a minuscule 2.13 goals-against average during the regular season and backstopped the Isles to a first-round sweep of Pittsburgh before they were ousted in four games by Carolina in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“It’s really tough to see Robin go,” the captain ceded. “Everything that Robin brought to the table outside of his great play, into our room, character guy that’s gone through a lot. He really put himself in a great position.
“I think all of us as teammates are disappointed it didn’t work out, but he’s got a full group of guys who have his back no matter what. We wish him nothing but the best in Chicago. He’ll do great there and I’ll be looking forward to watching him play.”
Varlamov will likely play the role of place holder and mentor to highly touted Isles goaltending prospect and fellow Russian Ilya Sorokin, who is currently playing in the KHL for CSKA Moscow.
“You have a young man with one year left and potentially coming over the next year with a language barrier and now having someone in the same position to possibly look up to,” Lamoriello said of his potential goaltending tandem.
“They’ve played on a couple of teams together, so in my opinion, [it’s] absolutely [a factor].”
Lamoriello had already brought back forwards Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle prior to the free-agent signing period, keeping last year’s 103-point squad as intact as possible despite the loss of Lehner and veteran forward Valtteri Filppula, who went to Detroit.
“We’re very pleased with the end result of this window because it was our intention to sign all of our players who potentially were free agents,” Lamoriello said.
“We were able to get a couple of them earlier than later, so we feel very good about our team, we feel very good about our core players and having them all back – for the most part – is very important.”
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