Anders Lee – Football’s Loss Is the Islanders Gain

And to think that, right now, Anders Lee, the Islanders leading goal-scorer, might have been starring in the NFL playoffs.

I kid you not.

The Minnesota native once was a hot-shot gridder in his home state with all signs suggesting that a pro career loomed in his football future.

“Football came naturally to me,” the Islanders ace told me the other day. “When it came to hockey, I had to work hard at it. Very hard.”

The travail has paid off handsomely. Anders’ 25 goals place him third in the NHL red light race only two behind Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov.

[Watch Islanders-Rangers Saturday on MSG+ & MSG GO]

In a sense, it’s too bad that we’ll never know how well he might have done at the same age as a professional quarterback.

As a teenager, Lee starred for the Edina High School Hornets, passing for 2,049 yards and 14 touchdowns. In 2008, he was voted the Gatorade (High School) Football Player Of The Year and Star-Tribune All-Metro Player Of The Year.

“By the time I was ready for college,” Lee remembered, “I loved hockey so much that I decided to forget about football. I knew the route I’d take — and do it at Notre Dame.”

If tossing the pigskin was a piece of cake for Anders, hockey proved a contrasting blend of hard work and fun with the Fighting Irish. He made the CCHA All-Rookie team in 2011 and two years later was a First All-Star.

A former member of the Fighting Irish's men's hockey team, Islanders forward Anders Lee has fond memories of his time at Notre Dame.

“Since the Islanders had drafted me in 2009 (152nd overall) my goal was to make the NHL,” he asserted. “But it took a bit of time.”

Lee’s NHL debut in 2012-13 was impressive: short and sweet. He played two games, garnered a goal and an assist but spent the next two seasons on a treadmill between Bridgeport and Uniondale.

The left wing’s ascent from a borderline fourth-line player to team-leading red light man has been as arresting as the following stats attest:

2013-14: 14 Points (9 G, 5 A) in 22 Games
2014-15: 41 Points (25 G, 16 A) in 76 Games
2015-16: 36 Points (15 G, 21 A) in 80 Games
2016-17: 52 Points (34 G, 18 A) in 81 Games
*2017-18: 40 Points (25 G, 15 A) in 43 Games

“Anders is at his best camping right outside the goal crease,” said MSG Networks Islanders analyst Butch Goring.

More than any magic is Lee’s ability to annex a few square feet near the net and hold the mortgage there until he backhands, forehands or deflects the rubber into its roost.

This is no easy task because there are folks such as enemy goaltenders chopping at his ankles and rival defenders trying to bulldoze him into the balcony.

“Anders is fearless,” lauded coach Doug Weight. “He’s big and loves to plant himself looking for a rebound or a deflection. Once he’s there, it’s tough to get him away from the crease.”

Granted that Lee was productive at turf-claiming and scoring last season but this term has seen him lift his assets to a higher plane. That includes the ability to convert a slapshot into a deflection and, of course, a goal.

“The trick here,” Weight explained, “is having that special hand-eye coordination that enables him to tip pucks coming at high speeds. He gets his stick on everything.”

That was apparent in the first period last Sunday afternoon as the Islanders hosted the New Jersey Devils in what was a pivotal game for both teams.

As MSG Networks Islanders play-by-play man Brendan Burke put it, “There’s nobody better at scoring from 5-feet in front of the net than Anders.”

Weight’s slumping Brooklynites had been having trouble scoring a morale-boosting first goal but this time, Lee delivered, just as Burke had noted pre-game.

Ryan Pulock‘s point shot was blocked in front of the Devils’ net and Lee — like a ferret on the spoor of a hot meal — backhanded the biscuit off Brian Boyle‘s skate and through goalie Cory Schneider‘s five-hole.

Goal No. 25 not only refreshed his teammates with a rare Islanders first goal, it set the press box posse wondering whether Anders’ best has yet to come.

“I wouldn’t say that Lee has reached his peak,” added Goring, “because he’s such a hard worker and continues to try to improve his game. He figures to still improve.”

No question, but Lee’s stick-to-itiveness has immensely been aided by his co-pilots, recently-injured Josh Bailey and John Tavares, each of whom have ka-chinged themselves up high on the NHL points register.

When the big line is in sync — and really on its game — their tic-tac-toe passing, moves the puck around as if it’s connected to an invisible string.

Make no mistake, getting to this magical plane did not come easy for the 6-foot-3, 231-pound broth of a boy.

Following high school and Junior hockey stints with Green Bay in the United States Hockey League, Lee spent three years (2010-11 to 2012-13) with the Fighting Irish after the Islanders drafted him in 2009.

His rookie year on the Island was considerably less than eye-catching but, then again, not all freshmen are Mathew Barzal.

Once he had a good taste of The Show, Anders delivered a deathless personal quote: “I know I can play at the NHL level.” Since then, he converted those words into action — and dollars.

General Manager Garth Snow thought so too and during the summer of 2015, the Bossman signed Lee to a four-year pact because, as Snow so aptly put it, “We know he can be an effective goal-scorer.”

Granted there were some Doubting Thomases among the media; especially when former coach Jack Capuano deleted the big fella from the lineup for the final game of the 2015 playoffs against Washington.

It seemed unfair at the time but is symptomatic of hockey’s potholes. Hey, nobody is immune from benching nor slumps, a fact that Anders will testify to under oath, if necessary.

Lee: “Sometimes when things aren’t going my way, I try to do too much and get away from what made me successful. That’s when I simplify my game, get to the net and in the corners; getting back to my roots.”

The roots began sprouting in 2013-14 — his first full rookie campaign — as the Isles second-string power forward behind Kyle Okposo. Lee’s 25 red lights that season were a mere portent of bigger and better things to come.

Personally, I thought Anders would hit the heights near the end of the 2015-16 season as the Isles prepped for the playoffs. But Lady (Bad) Luck intruded in the form of a slapshot that broke his foot on the third from last game of the season.

The Maven figured that Anders would take on the 2016-17 campaign like Gangbusters, but he seemed invisible in the first weeks and that left me — and then-coach Capuano — wondering what gives?

“For the first 10 or so games,” said Cappy, “Anders was thinking too much. Then, he finally found that ‘attack mode.’ Getting to the net, playing the game and clearing his mind.”

Clear-headed by late November, Lee scored a pair in Los Angeles, found his confidence and became the balance-wheel alongside Tavares and Bailey. Anders’ team-leading 34 goals ensured that he’d be back with his buddies this term.

Sure enough, the Lee-Bailey-Tavares posse terrorized enemy goaltenders for the season’s first half, halted only by Bailey’s injury against the Penguins last Friday.

As an added fillip, Anders has expanded on his play-making prowess and his rising assist numbers attest to his versatility and knack for finding his teammates at the right time and place.

At age 27, Lee appears to have reached his playing peak but he insisted to me that the best is yet to come.

“I’m still working on my game,” he concluded. “There’s still work to be done. I’ve yet to reach my potential.”

When I asked if he had any regrets about forsaking football for hockey, Anders answer was faster than his slapshot.

“Not one!”

[Watch Islanders-Rangers Saturday on MSG+ & MSG GO]