An unexpected thing happened when Team Canada went to Geneva to play a tune-up game prior to this year’s World Championships. They needed a defenceman while they waited for some more NHL players to show up, so they invited the KHL’s leader in points for defenders in the regular season and the playoffs. Chris Lee joined the squad and scored the first goal in a 4-1 win over Switzerland.
It was a nice gesture for a player who has excelled outside of North America, and also seemed like a good way to start looking at non-NHL players for next year’s Olympic team. Canada has rarely put KHL players on the ice outside of the Deutschland Cup, which Lee played in this year, or the Spengler Cup.
Team Canada just never cut him. They went to Paris, and brought Lee along.
Lee didn’t play right away in the preliminary round in Paris, but when Tyson Barrie was hurt, he played in his first World Championship game ever. He kept playing. He stayed on the team even when Colton Parayko showed up. He played every game from then on, including Canada’s 2-1 win over Germany in the quarterfinals where he got third-pairing minutes.
In the semifinal win over Russia on Saturday, Lee began as the seventh defender, but his ice time steadily climbed as coach Jon Cooper started relying on Lee over Josh Morrissey in high leverage situations, including the power plays when Canada was looking for a tying goal.
Lee has two assists and 14 shots on goals in six games.
In the KHL this season, he had 65 points and 14 goals in 60 games where he averaged over 24 minutes per game. He was the number one defender on the defending champions—he won the Gagarin Cup last year with excellent points’ totals. Lee was playing on the last day of the playoffs again, this year, but his team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, lost to the overloaded SKA St. Petersburg.
Lee is a small guy for a defender, but he knows what to do with the puck on his stick. He is great on the power play, good with the set-up pass, and handles the big ice like it’s his playground. He is a modern defencemen in every way. He’s a puck first guy. He is not the man who everyone calls a shutdown defender because he spends all his time in the defensive zone, he is the kind of player who scores goals and helps the forwards score even more.
Lee had okay points in a few AHL seasons where he never quite made an NHL roster for a game. He had better points in the DEL, even better in the SHL, and still better in the KHL. He improved as the difficulty of the league increased, which is not how that usually works. Not every person’s life looks like a smooth arc on an ageing graph. One reason his doesn’t is that he switched from forward to defence at 25.
If he were 25, the NHL would be beating down his door. But he’s not. Chris Lee is 36. In fact, he turns 37 this fall.
He did just play three straight years of full 60-game seasons in the KHL after one of only 47 games. Going all the way to the last day adds another 20 or so games. So at his age, as a top-pairing man playing big minutes, he’s been playing NHL-length seasons while scoring a lot.
Before the KHL, Lee played only one season in Sweden, but he made an impression. The Swedish press spoke to him in Paris about his plans now that his KHL contract has expired.
Chris Lee has many fond memories from Karlstad and Färjestad BK.
“My son was born there, that's one thing you never forget.”
Lee formed his family in Karlstad when the couple gave birth to a son, a son who was diagnosed with Down syndrome.
“They took very good care of us, especially when we had a son there. I mean, it's really a first-class organization.”
Lee’s son's illness was the reason Lee chose to continue his career in Russia for the 13/14 season. He does not deny that money was important to give his son the right conditions.
Is there any chance of returning to Sweden?
“I really do not know.”
It feels like the next chapter in Chris Lee's success story can be even better. It is rumored that the 36-year-old defender is close to an NHL contract for next season.
“It would be the ultimate dream.”
Cooper describes Chris Lee as savvy with the puck. Calms things down and is good on the PP. Lee is looking for work in North America.— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) May 11, 2017
Can he make the NHL after all these years? Is that possible? It really does sound like a dream.
But, he is the real thing, a hard-working, big-minute player who has had great success on a top team. And on a one-year deal in a place that needed to be kept calm, that needed a man who understands the Russian game, the Swedish game, the AHL game of old, he could be a real asset.
That sounds like Vegas, and it’s not a bad idea. “Oh, my, it’s you,” Vadim Shipachyov, late of SKA St. Petersburg, can say on their first day of camp. Whatever motley collection of defenders the Golden Knights draft up will need a grown up to herd them around.
I want to say the Leafs could use him. The Marlies could use him, but they already have Stephane Robidas filling that role without taking any ice time from the prospects in the AHL where they should get precedence.
I want someone to use him. I want every player to play as long as they want to and as long as they can. Early retirements don’t make the game better, no matter how much you imagine that prospect will be amazing right now, good players shouldn’t quit early. Expansion is exactly what forces teams to find those good players in all sorts of places.
At a time when every team, bar two or three, is actively looking for defence help, I hope someone gives Chris Lee a chance to make that dream come true.