After the NHL lockout, the Ottawa Senators got pretty lucky: Against very long odds, the Sens moved up to ninth overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, and were poised to make their highest overall pick since 2001. When they drafted Brian Lee, there wasn't much known about him; he was pretty big, and he was putting up big numbers in Minnesota high school hockey. Given the Senators' blue line at the time, which included Zdeno Chara, Wade Redden, Andrej Meszaros, Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov, and Brian Pothier, it looked like he was going to be given time to develop in the NCAA, and even the AHL, before being asked to step up to Ottawa's squad.
And he was given a few years. Two at the University of North Dakota, and he put up 53P (6G, 47A) in 82GP and looked ready to take the next step--which was Binghamton. Lee had a few games in 2007-08, but wasn't expected to stick in the NHL, and didn't, although he put up good numbers in a shortened season with Bingo--and actually looked like one of the Senators' best defenders in their ugly first-round sweep at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Higher expectations came in 2008-09, and Lee played 53 games with Ottawa that season (mostly in the second half), registering 13P in 53GP. He was expected to get a real shot at full-time minutes this past season, but was outplayed by all of Erik Karlsson, Alex Picard, Chris Campoli, and Matt Carkner, and--perhaps a victim of his two-way contract--was demoted to the AHL again, taking a serious step back in his career. It was hoped Lee would use the demotion as motivation and step into a leadership role with Binghamton, but instead he wallowed and put up his worst AHL season statistically (on a per-game basis) in 2009-10. Late in the season, though, Lee was given a two-year contract, and this time he wouldn't be a victim of a two-way clause: It was an NHL-only deal.
It seems like we've been waiting for an eternity to see Lee step up and stake his claim on the Senators' NHL roster, but it's worth noting that he's still only 23 years old. The journey has seemed longer because he's been given short stints in the NHL, and those raised expectations for the following season. It certainly hasn't been a conventional path to the NHL (high school, USHL, NCAA, AHL, NHL, AHL... and so on), but with another shot at the NHL this season, everyone in Ottawa is wondering: Is Brian Lee finally ready to take the next step?
If he is, it won't be easy. The Senators have four defenders on one-way deals aside from Lee (Phillips, Matt Carkner, Filip Kuba, and Sergei Gonchar) as well as Karlsson (who, despite his two-way deal, is a sure thing), restricted free agent Chris Campoli, and highly-touted prospects Jared Cowen and Patrick Wiercioch waiting in the wings. That makes at least five, and as many as eight, players higher than Lee on the depth chart. So he's going to have to have a hell of a training camp.
Which might be a problem. If the past two seasons are an indication, Lee is a slow starter. Part of the reason he started the past two years in the AHL were poor showings in training camp, only offset by solid play or holes in Ottawa's lineup that opened up a spot for him in some NHL games. I can't speak to his off-season workout routine, but Lee had better be spending a few hours in the gym everyday if he hopes to make the NHL roster--and, beyond that, if he hopes to play anything other than benchwarmer (or press-box seat warmer).
Lee's best chance for making the Senators lies in his size. At 6'3" and 206lbs, he's a big kid. He hasn't regularly used his size in the NHL, but he has shown that he knows how to use it at times in both pro leagues he's played in, and playing within a system like Cory Clouston's might simplify the game for him and allow him to excel. But there is a well-documented need on Ottawa's blueline: shutdown defenders. Darren wrote about it on Friday, but with the loss of Volchenkov and apparent loss of Andy Sutton, the Senators need big players who can play defence to balance the offensive play of Karlsson, Gonchar, and Kuba. If Lee can incorporate some degree of physicality and defensive soundness into his fairly strong passing game, he could make himself a valuable, cap-friendly sixth defender--with room to move up in the lineup due to injuries, trades, or poor play from other players.
The key to Lee might be the comfort level head coach Clouston has with his play. They'd spent a couple seasons together in the AHL, and although it didn't help Lee much last season, Clouston knows what he can do. A comfort level and knowledge of Kommand Kloustonom (that is, Cory Clouston's highly regimented playing style) helped Ryan Shannon, Matt Carkner, and Peter Regin become NHL players, so there's reason to believe it could help Lee, as well.