Is this the last chance for Brian Lee?

Though everyone will be excited about Matt Cullen's debut with Ottawa tonight, the player most fans should be watching is none other than defenseman Brian Lee.

The struggles of Ottawa's first round pick in 2005 have been well documented, as he has repeatedly failed to make the club. Lee was expected to play for the Senators this year, but was unable to beat out Matt Carkner, Erik Karlsson, Chris Campoli, and Alexandre Picard for a roster spot. Lee was reportedly "shocked" by the decision, but those who watched him play in training camp were not.

He was recalled sparingly during the beginning of the season, managing two goals and one assist in 13 games and a minus one rating. When he was returned to the AHL on November 27th, I wrote that it was clear he was no longer in the team's long-term plans.

However, professional hockey is a fickle business, and the trade of Picard and injuries to Karlsson and Campoli have opened the door for Lee once again.

Lee's biggest detriment to his chances this year has been his two-way contract, which allows the Senators -- a team very close to the NHL's salary cap -- to pay him far less in the AHL. Campoli and Picard had no such contracts, and Matt Carkner offered a physical element Lee was unable to provide. Likewise, Erik Karlsson provided an offensive element Lee was also unable to provide.

Unfortunately, Lee has done nothing to convince the team he can be a part of their future. He is an atrocious minus ten in 27 games with Binghamton, though it should be noted that he missed a large chunk of time with an unknown injury.

Though it's unfair to compare the two, Lee's closest analog is Erik Karlsson. Both players were sent to the AHL after under-performing at the NHL level -- Lee at the end of training camp; Karlsson early in the season. In both situations, the evaluation of the players was similar: specifically that they had to recapture their confidence. Karlsson appears to have done so, fighting through adversity (including being a healthy scratch during the World Junior Championship) to become a productive member of the team before his injury. Lee, quite simply, has not done the same.

So, what does this latest recall mean for him?

He is a restricted free agent after this year, which essentially means that he has to take Ottawa's offer or hope for a trade or offer sheet. The Senators will almost certainly offer him another two-way contract, and that may not be what he's looking for.

His opportunities to make the team next year will be even more limited if two things expected to happen do come through: Anton Volchenkov is re-signed and Jared Cowen makes the team. We know that Volchenkov has received an offer from the team this week and that Cowen was recently signed to an entry level contract - a sure sign that he is expected to compete for a roster spot next year. Those moves would leave one roster spot open next year. Lee was not able to beat out Chris Campoli this year; there is no reason to believe he will be able to do so next year. Campoli, also a RFA after this year, has been able to play (though not necessarily well) at the NHL level, and may be more attractive to GM Bryan Murray.

That does not bode well for his future with the team, and therefore, this recall probably doesn't present him with any kind of real opportunity to change his chances. The NHL's trade deadline this year is March 3rd, which gives Lee two or possibly three games to make an impression. The best case scenario for him is to shine brightly enough to become an attractive, tradeable player. The worst case is to flop miserably, squandering any chance he has of becoming a full time Ottawa Senator.

It will be interesting to see how he approaches what is almost certainly his last opportunity, especially being handcuffed with Filip Kuba. Only one thing is certain: No player in the Senators' system has more to play for this weekend than Brian Lee.

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