It's become so regular in the nation's capital that you could set your clock to it: training camp begins, and Brian Lee is once again in the position of having to earn his spot on a crowded Senators' blueline. And really, if it doesn't happen this season, one has to think it's the end of his time in Ottawa. His contract will be up, and there will be yet another crew of young blueliners (Mark Borowiecki, Patrick Wiercioch, and Eric Gryba in particular) looking for a spot.
A lot has been made about the Senators' logjam on defense for the 2011-2012 season, but for those who haven't kept up, here's a quick recap: the team has five defensemen on one-way contracts (Chris Phillips, Filip Kuba, Sergei Gonchar, Matt Carkner, and Lee), another who is a lock to make the team (Erik Karlsson), and a couple of prospects (Jared Cowen, David Rundblad) who have both been called NHL-ready by just about everyone in the Senators organization. Bryan Murray also hasn't been shy to say that if he needs to, he'll move some bodies on the back end.
Out of the players that Murray might move, Lee is an obvious candidate. Let's not forget that this is a guy who was benched for most of the early season (missing 32 games on the year) and was even placed on waivers only to have no other team take interest. It was kind of like leaving a TV on the lawn with a "free" sign on it, only to find out that nobody wanted it and you were going to have to take it to the dump yourself. At that point in Lee's season, Mark's review of his style of play was not exactly overflowing with praise:
Lee does not seem to have a good sense of what kind of game he's going to play in the NHL: he has the size to be physical, but rarely is, and has yet to show the same offensive instincts that got him drafted so highly by the team. His generic skill set doesn't distinguish him from any other unremarkable defenseman in any other NHL team's own farm system.
Since his long stint in the press box and placement on waivers, though, Lee has returned to the ice a changed player. He has reinvented himself into the physical, defensive defenseman that he always had the size for but seemed afraid to be. And you know what? It seems to be working. He had more hits per game than any other Senators defenseman last season, and was a steady presence in front of Craig Anderson's net. During Saturday's surprisingly physical scrimmage, one would expect the most physical defenseman to be Chris Phillips, Jared Cowen, Eric Gryba, or Mark Borowiecki. Instead, it was Lee. He was playing as physical as Matt Carkner, but Lee's natural skating and passing abilities give him an edge over Carkner to play in the team's top six. If he continues to play like that this season, he could be a valuable addition in the Senators lineup and stick for at least the year, if not longer. If he reverts back to the unremarkable player with a generic skill set, however, then he'll be in tough to play even the 50 games he got last season.
Brian Lee has had the unfortunate experience of spending most of his time with the Ottawa Senators being more famous for who he's not than who he is. He's not Marc Staal or Anze Kopitar (both infamously drafted after Lee), and he's not the point producing defenseman that fans were expecting when he was picked ninth overall. Brian should look at the bright side, though -- maybe expectations have gotten so low that he'll have exceeded them if he simply lasts the full season with the Senators.