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Islanders happy with Lee, Varlamov even after Panarin chooses Rangers

Keep forward, add goalie to replace Lehner; reported target goes to division rival

by Brian Compton @BComptonNHL / NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

The New York Islanders may have fallen short in their reported pursuit of the biggest prize in free agency, but they're looking forward after they kept their captain and made a change in goal Monday.

Left wing Anders Lee, who briefly became an unrestricted free agent, agreed to a seven-year, $49 million contract with an average annual value of $7 million. Goalie Semyon Varlamov, who general manager Lou Lamoriello said he tried to acquire last offseason, agreed to a four-year, $20 million contract with an AAV of $5 million.

Lee's contract was announced after left wing Artemi Panarin agreed to a seven-year, $81.5 million contract with the Metropolitan Division rival New York Rangers (AAV of $11.6 million).

The Islanders entered the offseason with four key unrestricted free agents: Lee, goalie Robin Lehner, center Brock Nelson and right wing Jordan Eberle. Lehner, who finished third in voting for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the best goalie in the NHL, is the only one of the four moving on; he agreed to a one-year contract with the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday.

Nelson signed a six-year contract May 23; Eberle agreed to a five-year contract June 14.

"We're very pleased with the end result of this window because it was our intention to sign all our players who potentially were free agents," Lamoriello said. "We were able to get a couple of them earlier than later, so we feel good because we feel very good about our team. We feel very good about our core players and having them all back for the most part is very important."

Lee replaced center John Tavares as Islanders captain last season after Tavares signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 1, 2018. He had 51 points (28 goals and 23 assists) in 82 games for New York (48-27-7), which finished second in the Metropolitan and reached the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"Long Island has become my home. I've grown up here," said Lee, who will turn 29 on Wednesday and has played all seven of his NHL seasons with the Islanders. "I've spent a lot of time not only living and playing there, but I've been able to meet a lot of wonderful people in our community and Islanders fans and a lot of great things that's come from those relationships. That's all part of all of this. It's what makes the Island our home, it's what makes being an Islander so special.

"That also leads into guys in our room and what we have going. We're all trying to do something special here, so that wasn't something I didn't want to be a part of."

Video: Lee signs seven-year extension with Islanders

Lee repeatedly expressed his desire to stay with the Islanders and told NHL.com on June 23 he was surprised to be without a contract. He said his agent, Neil Sheehy, had some dialogue with other teams, but it never went any further.

"It's extremely important," Lamoriello said. "He was our captain and still is our captain. We didn't bring him back. He never left."

As for Panarin, the Islanders, Florida Panthers and Colorado Avalanche were among the finalists to sign him, according to reports.

"We're talking about another team's player, and I prefer not to get into any discussion about that and just focus in on where we are and who we are," Lamoriello said.

The 31-year-old Varlamov went 20-19-9 with a 2.87 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage in 49 games last season with the Avalanche. A first-round pick (No. 23) by the Washington Capitals in the 2006 NHL Draft, Varlamov is 213-169-50 with a 2.68 GAA and a .916 save percentage in 448 NHL games with the Avalanche and Capitals and was a finalist for the Vezina in 2014.

He's confident he can have that kind of success again working with Islanders director of goaltending Mitch Korn and goaltending coach Piero Greco, who helped Lehner and Thomas Greiss win the Jennings Trophy last season after they allowed the fewest goals in the NHL (191).

"When I had to make a decision, it was actually pretty easy for me because I wanted to work with them," Varlamov said. "When I had a chance to sign a deal with the Islanders, that was an easy decision for me."

Varlamov's arrival may also play a huge role in New York's bid to convince goalie prospect Ilya Sorokin to leave his native Russia. Sorokin, a third-round pick by the Islanders (No. 78) in the 2014 NHL Draft, was named most valuable player of the Kontinental Hockey League playoffs in April after going 16-4 with a 1.19 GAA, a .947 save percentage and five shutouts to help CSKA Moscow win the Gagarin Cup. He will turn 24 on Aug. 5.

"You have a young man with one year left [on his KHL contract] and potentially coming over [to North America] the next year with a language barrier," Lamoriello said. "Having someone in the same position to possibly look up to … they've played on a couple of world teams together, so in my opinion absolutely [it's a factor]."

 

[RELATED: Lee signs seven-year contract with Islanders | Varlamov agrees to four-year contract with Islanders]

 

In the meantime, Varlamov is the immediate replacement for Lehner, who developed a strong relationship with teammates and Islanders fans after he revealed in September his struggles with mental health that led to suicidal thoughts, drug and alcohol addictions and eventually rehab. He was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy and won the Masterton Trophy for perseverance after going 25-13-5 with a 2.13 GAA, a .930 save percentage and six shutouts in 46 games.

"We developed, certainly without question, a special relationship from Day One," Lamoriello said. "We have spoken and will continue to communicate. You never leave relationships or friendships. Unfortunately, things didn't work out for different reasons. We have to never look back, we have to go forward. But the personal relationship and how he's touched a lot of people and will continue to do that, he's a quality human being, certainly an outstanding goaltender and we wish him the best."

Lee said, "It's really tough to see Robin go. Everything that Robin brought to the table, outside of his great play, into our room, character guy that's gone through a lot and has really put himself in a great position … I think all of us as his teammates are disappointed it didn't work out, but he's got a full group of guys that have his back no matter what and wish him nothing but the best in Chicago. He's going to do great there and I'll be looking forward to watching him play."

As for remaining free agents or potential trades, Lamoriello didn't mention specific names but said the Islanders will try to find another center to complement Nelson, Mathew Barzal and Casey Cizikas. He's extremely confident in his coaching staff, led by Jack Adams Award winner Barry Trotz, and a youth-heavy group of defensemen that emerged last season with Ryan Pulock (24 years old), Devon Toews (25), Adam Pelech (24) and Scott Mayfield (26) making significant strides.

"We know we're not going to sneak up on anybody," Lamoriello said. "We know other teams will take us a lot maybe more seriously than they did last year. But that's where we have to grow and that's where our character that I have tremendous confidence in comes through, plus the coaching staff that we have."

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