Of all the things John Tavares has to consider when deciding if he is going to return to the Islanders or sign somewhere else as an unrestricted free agent this summer, one big reason to stay might be the prospect of continuing to play alongside one of the best power forwards in the league.
Because that is what Anders Lee has proven himself to be, the hulking 27-year-old Notre Dame product reaching the 40-goal plateau with a tally in the regular-season finale Saturday night in Detroit. It resulted in a 4-3 overtime win that, of course, was won by Tavares in the extra frame, but it also began an offseason that has far more questions than answers.
“Last night was a good way to finish things off,” Lee said Sunday, the first of the team’s two breakup days. “But we wake up this morning and we’re packing our bags and closing things out. It’s obviously disappointing the way the season has gone and to be wrapping it up this way is not something you look forward to.”
At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Lee is a force around the net. In a league where so many goals are scored on second chances and from those tight confines just outside the blue paint, he has become an elite player in that exact situation.
Since Lee became a full-time player in 2014-15, there have only been 18 40-goal seasons. Playing alongside Tavares for almost the whole year certainly helped, as the captain also produced 37 goals and 84 points, just a whisker short of his career highs of 2014-15, when he was a finalist for the Hart Trophy.
“Offensively our team, we’ve had a wonderful season,” said Lee, whose Islanders finished seventh in the league in scoring and dead last (by a wide margin) in goals against. “We just weren’t that complete group we needed to be, that we knew we had, but we just didn’t put together. So yeah, there’s a little bit of hollowness, for sure.”
But real hollowness will come if Tavares decides to bolt and go play somewhere else. Set to address the situation Monday, along with head coach Doug Weight and general manager Garth Snow, the waiting period for Tavares’ decision is now getting into crunch time.
Yet there is no question the way the Islanders feel about their leader.
“I guess the storyline changes from hockey games to the summer agenda, the draft and other stuff that goes on. So obviously Johnny’s situation is going to be at the forefront,” Lee said. “It’s pretty much status quo in continuing the same lines from us in our support for John and what we hope for him to do. You hope for the best for him and his family.
“Selfishly, we all want our captain back. I don’t think that’s any surprise or anything. That’s just the way it is.”
Tavares has repeatedly said he is considering all the things in and around the organization when making his decision. That heavily weighs the on-ice product, which has now missed the playoffs for the second straight year and in the league since the Islanders made him the No. 1-overall pick in 2009, and is a franchise that has won just one playoff series since 1993.
But his line with Lee and Josh Bailey put up some world-class numbers this season, with Bailey setting career highs with 18 goals and 71 points. He was rewarded with a new six-year, $30 million deal with an annual salary-cap hit of $5 million. But the future roster is somewhat murky, with Lee and Jordan Eberle both set to be unrestricted free agents after next season — meaning come this July 1, they can be offered extensions.
“I guess it would be my turn to start answering those questions, but I haven’t thought about that at all,” Lee said. “Just trying to close out the year right now and move on. But that window does open up then, and that would be exciting. It’d be great. But we’ll see how it goes. There’s a lot of stuff that needs to happen.”
And as it is with all things with this team right now, it starts with Tavares making a decision.