The Ottawa Senators have had many great draft picks over their history. In comparison to other franchises, the Sens have actually drafted quite well. With all those great picks, there are a few busts mixed into the fold. One of those busts is defenseman Brian Lee.
Going into the 2005 NHL Draft, the 2004-05 season had been wiped out due to the lockout, so the typical draft lottery format wouldn’t work. In order to make the system “fair”, the lottery had been completely revamped, and when the dust had settled, the Senators had the ninth-overall selection. While Ottawa did host the draft, it was located at the Westin Hotel instead of their arena, only attended by the draftees, management teams, and NHL officials. While the definitive best player in the draft was without a doubt Sidney Crosby, the rest of the draft was still up for debate.
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Ottawa was in the middle of their best era in franchise history, so the roster wasn’t lacking anything specific. There were a number of players projected to be available at their draft position. Ottawa selected Lee, a Minnesota-born defenseman from the Lincoln Stars of the USHL/Moorhead High School.
Lee’s Initial Report
While he wasn’t the best available player, Lee was still ranked as the 15th-best North American player in the draft. Hockey’s Future had good praise for Lee at the time, saying that “Lee was an imposing player at the high school level, possessing good size and superb skating skills. He can play in all situations, can easily move the puck up ice, and is adept at joining the rush. Lee has excellent hockey sense and handles the puck with ease. Lee plays well in his own zone and his smooth skating ability gives him terrific gap control. He is rarely beaten on a rush.”
In the same report, they did outline some red flags, “Despite being more of an offensive defenseman, Lee lacks the creativity to be an effective [power-play] quarterback… Lee has added body strength over the years but still does not possess a mean streak. His 6-foot-3 frame should allow him to play a solid physical game, but Lee rarely finishes his checks.”
He was still seen as a great player, as he had put up great numbers at Moorehead, and was just named the 2005 recipient of the Mr. Hockey Award and Associated Press Player of the Year in Minnesota hockey. He was also committed to the University of North Dakota, where he would be joining an excellent program.
Lee’s University Career
After a successful stint in high school and a short, but productive season in the USHL, Lee began the 2005-06 season in North Dakota. He was joined in Grand Forks by future NHL players Jonathan Toews, Travis Zajac, Drew Stafford, and T.J. Oshie while being led by future NHL coach Dave Hakstol.
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The team was a success, winning 29 games and reaching the Frozen Four in the 2006 NCAA Tournament. Lee established himself as the team’s best defenseman, recording 27 points in 44 games, leading all North Dakota blueliners as an 18-year old.
The following year, Lee played fewer contests but was able to put up 26 points in 38 games, a higher point per game percentage than his prior season. The team finished six in the nation, but disappointed in the tournament, losing in the regional finals. This was his final collegiate season, as he moved on to the Senators AHL affiliate.
Lee’s Transition To The Pros
Lee signed with Ottawa in July of 2007, forgoing his remaining NCAA eligibility, and made his way to the Binghamton Senators in the AHL for the 2007-08 season. There, he adjusted to the professional game. His first year with the team was actually quite successful – in 55 games he was able to put up three goals and 25 points. He was also named an AHL All-Star in 2008.
The strongest part of his game was his defence and skating, so while the team would have liked to see more offence from him, it wasn’t a red flag at the time. He was good enough that season to earn a call to the big club for a short stint of six games at the end of the season and he recorded a point.
In the 2008-09 season, Lee spent a decent amount of time in the NHL. While he played 53 games with the big club, it wasn’t overly impressive. Putting aside his 13 points, he was a liability on the ice. He was still relatively young and was sent back to Binghampton later that season.
Lee’s Final Years in Ottawa
Going into 2009-10, Lee barely had any experience in the NHL. He did make the opening night roster in Ottawa, so it looked like he might finally reach his potential. However, after once again struggling, he was sent back down to Binghamton in November. In total he spent the year between both leagues, spending 23 games in the NHL, and 41 in the AHL. While he was recalled and demoted two more times that season, the organization still believed that he could be an NHL defenseman. They signed Lee to a two-year extension in March of 2010. It was his last contract with the team.
At the beginning of the 2010-11 season, Lee had a very good training camp. He made the team again, albeit on the third pairing. It only took a few weeks for Lee to be scratched, and he spent much of October either as a depth player or not playing at all.
In November, it was revealed that Lee had suffered a neck injury, which severely impacted his season. At the end of the month, he was sent down to Binghamton. He passed through waivers, which at that point, was an indication of how far he had fallen, as he had not played for weeks (from ‘Senators place Brian Lee on waivers,’ Ottawa Citizen, 11/30/10) The multiple injuries and below-average play was the final straw for much of management, as the 2010-11 season was his last full season in the Ottawa organization.
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The 2011-12 season was also plagued with injuries, healthy scratches, and less than adequate play. After Lee had played 23 games with the Senators that season, he was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Matt Gilroy. In total, Lee spent parts of five seasons in Ottawa, playing 167 games. In his Senators career, he recorded 28 points, with five goals.
Lee’s Post-Ottawa Career
While Lee’s career obviously didn’t work out in Ottawa, he still had a chance to rebound his career in Tampa. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work out that way. Once he became a member of the Lightning, the same issues prevailed.
He only played 42 games for the franchise, without recording a goal. By 2013, he was out of the NHL and spent the remainder of his career with Tampa’s AHL team in Syracuse, where he saw limited success. After a failed pro tryout deal with the Nashville Predators, Lee officially retired from the NHL due to a devastating knee injury and went back to North Datoka to get his degree.
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He ended his NHL career with 36 points in 209 games. Considering his draft selection, it was ultimately a very disappointing career in the NHL for him. At the time, it was just another example of Ottawa’s poor record with the draft, as more and more prospects were just not panning out as hoped (from ‘Senators draft busts and finds,’ Ottawa Citizen, 4/21/11). It didn’t help that Gilroy, who had been traded for Lee earlier, only played 14 games for the Sens, effectively making the pick a complete waste.
Hindsight Is 20/20
When you look back at the 2005 draft, Ottawa’s decision to pick Lee was made much worse when you consider who they passed on. Within the first two rounds, the following players were drafted after Lee; Anze Kopitar, Marc Staal, Tuukka Rask, Andrew Cogliano, James Neal, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Paul Stastny, and fellow North Dakota alumni Oshie.
While we have the benefit of hindsight, Lee was considered a decent prospect in 2005, and when you see how the Central Scouting Bureau ranked both North American skaters and the European Skaters in 2005, it is clear that he wasn’t an outrageous pick at the time. Other teams missed the mark as much as, or even more than Ottawa. The Columbus Blue Jackets selected Gilbert Brulé sixth, while the Buffalo Sabres, Washington Capitals, and Atlanta Thrashers all selected first-round prospects who never made it to the NHL.
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While Lee was and still remains a bust, there are few factors that are overlooked. Up until Lee signed a professional contract, he was one of the most sought-after prospects in college hockey. His career was also decimated by injuries, which put him off his game, and are extremely difficult to recover from.
Let’s be completely honest, we can argue who will be the next “sure-thing” in each draft. Scouting has obviously come a long way, and we have more and more great minds who understand the game and its nuances. However, we will never know for sure. For every Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Connor McDavid, we will get an Alexandre Daigle, Rick DiPietro, and Patrik Stefan. That is simply the nature of the randomness of the NHL draft.