Anders Lee hasn't changed a lot about himself in his first season as the New York Islanders captain.
That's a good thing according to his teammates, who see the Minnesota native as the team's North Star, both on and off the ice.
"If you don't know what you're doing, just look at Leesey and he's doing the right thing all the time," Thomas Hickey said. "I'm just proud of the way he's handled it. Some people overthink it, some people try to do too much and Anders just remained true to himself."
Lee was tapped as team captain on October 4, after Barry Trotz's internal poll produced a nearly unanimous result. The Islanders wanted a steady, respected leader to steer the ship after an offseason of change and Lee's fit the bill. In his first season as captain, the Islanders have bought into a team-first, collective approach, earning 101 points and will return to the postseason after a two-year absence, even challenging for home-ice advantage for the first time since 1988.
"It's a huge honor every time you see your jersey has a C on there," Lee said. "It's been fun to take some opening draws, stuff like that and kind of be a little bit of the voice of the team at times when things are going well and when things are going tough. I think it's just like anything, you be yourself and enjoy it."
Lee's been an animated captain for the Islanders. It's easy to tell when he's happy, slamming his stick against the boards like Thor, or tackling Jordan Eberle into the net after the Isles 5-4 comeback vs Winnipeg. He's just trying to enjoy it and why not, the "C" does come with some perks, like a ceremonial puck drop with Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman - a thrill for the former high school quarterback.
Of course, the trade-off is the responsibilities, like being the conduit between players and coaches and having to stand up in front of the media after a 5-0 loss. Being the go-to interview after a loss isn't an easy spot for players to be in, but Lee handles it with grace, even when he's clearly frustrated in the heat of moment. His teammates are appreciative of him taking the pressure off them.
"Leesy is a little more outspoken," Mathew Barzal said. "He's just a super solid guy. You see what he does in the community. He comes to work every day and works hard and is just a pro all the time. This whole year he's done a heck of a job. You can see at times he's really taken ownership of that role and scored some big goals for us."
LEADERSHIP 101: LEE'S CAPTAINCY AT NOTRE DAME
Leadership comes naturally to Lee and those qualities were recognized by Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson long before Lee got to the NHL.
Lee captained the Notre Dame hockey team as a junior in 2012-13, leading the Fighting Irish to a CCHA conference championship and an NCAA Tournament appearance.
"Just the maturity and plus he was a team-first guy, he certainly worked as hard as anyone that we had," Jackson said. "Leadership isn't just totally by example, it's also a relationship aspect that's really important and crucial for teammates. And [he's] respected enough that if he spoke he'd be listened to or if he called somebody out, they'd listen to him. It was a slam dunk for me personally."
Jackson even discussed the possibility of giving Lee the captaincy as a sophomore, a rarity in the collegiate circuit, but Lee shot the idea down in favor of seniors Sean Lorenz and Billy Maday.
"He didn't want me to give it to him," Jackson said. "Out of respect for upper classmen."
The next season Lee was a no-brainer for the captaincy according to the Jackson. When the coach gauged his players for their input and the sentiment was the same.
"He kind of had that presence," Pittsburgh Penguins forward and Notre Dame teammate Bryan Rust said. "He's obviously a big guy, but just kind of the way he acts and the way he handles himself I think shows his maturity level [is] beyond his years. I think that's something the coaches at Notre Dame saw early. He was assistant captain our sophomore year and then he was a captain our junior year. That doesn't happen very often."
ISLES COME TOGETHER FOR LEE IN DETROIT:
Lee's led the Islanders in goals in each of the past three years and this year is no different, as paces the team with 28. He's still scoring them the hard way, taking - and dishing out - punishment in front of the net while sidestepping the odd missile from Ryan Pulock and Johnny Boychuk. He's the "King of tipping pucks" according to Barzal.
The 6'3, 231 lbs. forward has had his fair share of physical battles in front, notably tangling with Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse this season. It's not often he loses one of those, or gets caught the way he did in Detroit back on December 8. Lee had his head down entering the Red Wings zone, when Nicklas Kronwall railroaded him with a high hit, drawing blood.
"He's not a very vulnerable guy often. That hurt us all in the gut a little bit and it makes you respond a certain way," Hickey said.
Josh Bailey, he of two previous NHL fights, dumped Kronwall on his next shift and dropped the gloves with Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin. The sequence galvanized the Islanders to a 3-2 comeback win and served as a team-building moment.
"Bails went after him and said we're not going to take that. That's unacceptable," Hickey said. "Right from there, it just goes to show that we care about each other and that was a good example of that."
CREATING A CLOSE-KNIT GROUP:
Lee's teammates looked out for him in Detroit and in turn, he's looked out for them this season, proactively planning a series of team dinners and outings. He's fostering a close-knit team atmosphere, even inviting the team's trainers and support staff to the road dinners.
"We've got a tight team and it's not cliquey at all, but there's been a few times this year where Anders has organized a team dinner, all the players, all the training staff, everyone gets together at one place and sits down and enjoys each other," Hickey said. "He's really good at including the training staff. They don't get enough recognition, but they probably feel a lot more included, as they should, with the way Leesy has handled things making sure everyone is getting together."
Trotz, whose previous captains included Tom Fitzgerald, Shea Weber and Alex Ovechkin described Lee as a total pro, citing how he treats everyone from his teammates, to support staff and media with respect.
"He lives his life really well and cares about others and that's what leadership is," Trotz said. "Anders has all those qualities of a great leader because he thinks of himself last, not first. As a leader that's a great quality and Anders has that."
Hickey noted that there's a good chance Lee, who recently announced five scholarships in honor of Fenov Perrie-Louis and held his third annual Kancer Jam this season, would have conducted himself in the same manner all year, with or without the C. That's part of why he thinks he was so deserving of it.
"He's just Anders Lee, he's the same guy I met seven years ago," Hickey said. "It's not Anders Lee the captain, it's just the person he is, that's why he was selected captain. In retrospect, couldn't have been a better choice."