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Graduating to the NHL

by Cory Wright / New York Islanders

Had Anders Lee continued attending Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business as a full-time student, he’d have earned his bachelor’s degree this spring.

Instead, the management major and first-year pro is one of the hottest players in the NHL, as well as one of the newest. Set to graduate this summer, Lee has 10 points (six goals, four assists) in nine games this season – all since the Olympic break – largely from working his 6’2, 225 lbs. frame down low.

Lee’s phenomenal start earned him a promotion to the Islanders top line when Michael Grabner left the Islanders-Canucks game with a concussion on March 10. Alongside Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo, Lee picked up two points – a goal and an assist – in the third-period comeback and has played with the same linemates ever since. In the following two games, Lee netted another three points (two goals, one assist).

“I just get them the puck and try to go to the net,” Lee said. “I try to be a big body presence and just work off their skill. It’s a big opportunity and you have to go out there and earn it.”

Lee’s presence has also translated into success for Nielsen and Okposo, who are riding three-and four-game point streaks, respectively. Nielsen, who is the smallest of the three forwards, has benefited from the increased time and space, scoring goals in three straight.

“I just wanted to make a difference and try to stay here as long as possible. When you get up here you have to do that night in night out.” Anders Lee

“Lee is big and strong and wins a lot of wall battles,” Nielsen said. “He’s really fun to play with because every time you lose the puck he gets it right back. He competes so hard.”

The Edina, MN, native was having a successful first season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers prior to his call up. He was second in team scoring with 22 goals and 19 assists, but now at the highest level, he is already producing above that pace.

“He has seven goals in his first 10 NHL games,” Okposo said referencing Lee’s goal in his first career game last season. “That’s pretty special.”

Lee has made the transition to the NHL look easy, but perhaps his game is better suited for the top level. Where the AHL can be unpredictable and more error-prone, the NHL is more structured and better executed. Lee can count on players around him getting pucks to the net, where he does his best work.

Even when Lee’s not on the scoresheet, he’s helped the offense by taking away the goalie’s eyes, as evidenced by Okposo’s power-play goal Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres.

“He’s playing to his strengths, which is what you have to do to be a good player in this league,” head coach Jack Capuano said. “He’s playing the way that we want to play.”

Lee is making a strong case to be included on next year’s roster by taking advantage of a unique opportunity now. It’s not often such a green player gets top-line minutes.

“I just wanted to make a difference and try to stay here as long as possible,” Lee said. “When you get up here you have to do that night in night out.”

A one-way ticket to Long Island would be a great graduation gift when he earns his diploma this summer.

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