Center Anders Lee gives the Green Bay Gamblers something no other USHL team has.
An ace up their sleeve, if you will.
He's not the only USHL pivot drafted by an NHL team. Indiana has Nic Dowd and Omaha has Erik Haula and Anthony Hamburg.
He's also not the highest-drafted USHL prospect. Cedar Rapids' Mac Bennett and Jeff Costello, Chicago's Mark Adams, Des Moines' Eric Knodel, Fargo's Nick Oliver, Tri-City's Radoslav Illo, and fellow Gambler Nick Jensen were all selected earlier than Lee in the 2009 draft, and Omaha's Joseph Lavin - selected as the 126th overall pick in the 2007 Draft was higher than Lee's selection as the 152nd overall pick in 2009 as well.
And he's not the highest-scoring center in the USHL. Des Moines' T.J. Tynan, Omaha's Haula, Tri-City's Jaden Schwartz, Chicago's Andrei Kuchin, and Fargo's Matt Leitner were all ahead of Lee in scoring as of mid-November, although he was right up there.
What he is, though, is the only true power center in the league. No center in the USHL matches Lee's 6-foot-2, 216-pound frame (although some are taller) and absolutely none own the boards like Lee. Lee's dominance along the boards and the seeming ease with which he does it are a rarity in any league, and it bodes extremely well for the New Islander prospect's future.
McKeen's correspondent Kevin Wey had the opportunity to talk to Anders Lee earlier in November discussed his successful transition to the USHL, his selection by the New York Islanders and skating at their prospect mini-camp, his power forward style, his high school career in Minnesota, and an icy international foe from the 1990's.
McKeen's: We're over 10 games into the regular season and you're right at the top of the list for Green Bay in scoring, so it would appear that you're off to a reasonable start. So, what have been the keys to you make that adjustment to the USHL so well?
Lee: You know, we've got great coaching. [Jon] Cooper and [Jon] Rogger, the way they slow the game down for you to make the transition from high school last year to the USHL here, and it's a fast-paced game. I've got great linemates and a great team surrounding me. So, it's been a pretty easy transition so far.
McKeen's: You touched on this already a bit, but what are your initial impressions of the United States Hockey League?
Lee: It's great. I mean, it's a great stepping stone into college and into the future. A lot of kids develop here, and I think it's the best league for our age right now.
McKeen's: You were selected in the sixth round in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islanders, and that was in your second year of draft eligibility. Did the Islanders indicate what it was that sold them the second year around? Or, what in your mind helped push things to where (pauses), because you were always a highly-regarded player, to where at least one NHL team had to pick you?
Lee: Well, senior year I played football. It wasn't really (pauses for a second), it was kind of frowned upon. It's a high-risk, high-impact sport, and I was playing quarterback, so I was getting hit a lot. So, I completely understand how and why it'd be seen as too much of a risk. But, the following year, they liked what they saw, so it turned out great.
McKeen's: Was it that NHL teams weren't certain which sport you were going to concentrate on, and was there any doubt in your mind?
Lee: No, there wasn't a doubt in my mind. I can see how people could see that. But, I've loved hockey for so long, there's no way I could give it up.
McKeen's: And, for the record, you're a helluva baseball player, too, on top of football and hockey, from what I've read. Now, because you were selected by the Islanders, you were invited to and attended their prospect mini-camp. What were some of the on-ice tips that they gave you that you found the most helpful and that you've been able to incorporate into your game the most already?
Lee: The Islanders have such a great tradition and organization. They have a lot of veterans, a lot of guys coming back who played for them, and a lot of tradition there. So, there was a lot of knowledge at the camps. Just always moving your feet, always moving the puck, getting open. It's that simple, but also that hard to do. So, I just try to keep doing that.
McKeen's: Obviously, one of the players at that camp was John Tavares. So, I'd be remiss not to ask what your impressions of Tavares were, and what goes through your mind when you think about how someone just a few months younger than you…
Lee: Oh, I know. I know.
McKeen's:: … is playing in the NHL.
Lee: It was amazing, just the way he handled the puck. He always finds a way to bury it. He's doing great right now in the NHL, and I wish him the best of luck. Hopefully (pauses), well, I won't be seeing him next summer, since he'll be at the real camp now, but he's a great player and has got a great future ahead of him.
McKeen's: Aside from Tavares, who are some of your fellow Islander prospects who impressed you the most and why?
Lee: A couple of them. Aaron Ness, he's at 'The U" (University of Minnesota) right now, and Rhett Rakhshani, he's at Denver (University). I got to know them pretty well and they're great players. So, it was pretty fun to play with them and get to know them.
McKeen's: With the USHL, the Islanders have a bit of a, I won't call it a tradition, but they certainly have taken a number of players out of the USHL (Kyle Okposo, Shane Sims, Jason Gregoire, Blake Kessel, and Matt Donovan in recent drafts). What are your impressions with that and have they talked to you about it?
Lee: They haven't, but I think it's because the USHL is such a good league, and they know if they draft someone in or from that league, they're going to develop very well. They'll come in and be ready to go, either in college or ready for them.
McKeen's: Going back to things with this season, what are some of the things you're focusing on improving the most?
Lee: You can never be a good enough skater, and that's something that I've always been trying to do. Skating is definitely the one thing I need to work on. You can never get too good at that.
McKeen's: On the flipside, you are an NHL draft pick, so you're not half bad. So, what would you say are some of the strengths of your game?
Lee: Battles, battles in the corner, getting the puck, getting the puck to other players, finding them in open spots, and scoring when I can, too.
McKeen's: For those who have not seen you play, describe for them the style of game you'd say you play.
Lee: Power forward. Power forward for sure. Someone who's going to go into the corners and dig the puck out and then stand in front of the net.
McKeen's: Do the Islanders stay in regular contact with you or are they more laissez-faire? What's the relationship?
Lee: They have great contact. They're not on top of me, but they're not too distant as well. Trent Klatt, who is my advisor, he calls and checks in. It's great just talking about anything. He doesn't push you or anything, he just tells you what you need to know.
McKeen's: You had the opportunity to play for this team (Green Bay) last year, so tell me about the decision to return to high school with Edina.
Lee: Yeah. I grew up with all my Edina buddies and it was important to me to finish my high school career with them. Me and Zach Budish, who's now at "The U," were captains of the football team. So, I didn't want to leave them behind. It was just something that I wanted to do, finish high school with my classmates.
McKeen's: Zach's a big guy.
Lee: Yeah he is.
McKeen's: Last fall you did the football thing, and you did okay, something about Metro Football Player of the Year (said in a tone of total understatement), but you also played in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League. What was that like? Did you find playing football made things difficult in the Elite League, or the Elite League made it difficult for football, or both?
Lee: Me and Zach did that three years in a row. It was definitely a grind. We'd play a Friday football game, then three (hockey) games on the weekend. So, you're sore from Friday no matter. Definitely, football made it tougher in the Elite League, but it was something that I wanted to do and I just had to battle through it.
McKeen's: I talked with Mike Lee (Fargo Force goaltender and Phoenix Coyotes 2009 third-round pick) last year and he talked about how he played football and then he'd have to make the trip from Roseau all the way down to the Twin Cities.
Lee: Right. He was in a different position. We were in The Cities. It was a lot easier.
McKeen's: The hockey in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League, how did that compare to the hockey that you played in high school and then also that you play here?
Lee: Well, it's definitely a different game in the Elite League. There's a lot of skilled players in the Elite League, so it's a step up. But, the heart of the high school season, there's some great hockey as well. Then, in the Elite League (pauses), there's nothing like the USHL. These guys are very skilled and very big and can move the puck.
McKeen's: You've been on some impressive high school teams, winning the state championship with St. Thomas twice if I remember right.
Lee: I won one.
McKeen's: Oh that's right, transferred before they won that second one recently. How did State Tournament hockey compare to regular season and also the Elite League?
Lee: Well, in the State Tournament there's 19,000 fans. In the Elite League, there's maybe a hundred parents, and scouts. So, definitely a different atmosphere. It's something you can't really compare. The hockey, was, I'd say, when it's State Tournament time, is the same.
McKeen's: I believe the attendance record at the Xcel Energy Center was set for a State Tournament game. You may have the opportunity to return there someday, and at this point that would look to be with the Islanders. Should you be announced in the starting lineup at the Xcel Center for the opposing team, do you think you'll be cheered, booed, or what?
Lee: Well, I'd hope I'd be welcome, being a Minnesota boy. But, if that dream ever comes true, hopefully it'll be with open arms.
McKeen's: I read your profile on the Green Bay Gamblers' website, and I got a kick out of something. So I have to ask, if you were to go head-to-head with Gunnar Stahl…
McKeen's: Who would win?
Lee: I would win. I didn't know that was going online. Might have answered a little differently, a little more conservatively. But, me and Gunnar have had some battles in the past.
[Note: Gunnar Stahl is the ace for Team Iceland in Mighty Ducks 2 and whom the Gamblers' website indicates Lee said who'd portray him in a movie.]
McKeen's: I got a good laugh out of that, though. So, I also have to ask, if Chris Crane were to fight Olaf Sanderson from Team Iceland, who wins?
Lee: Crane will win. The Ducks took too much out of Olaf there, so he's too tired, I guess.
McKeen's: And Dean Portman?
Lee: Yeah, Dean's a Bash (Brother). He's always ready.
McKeen's: Back to something less comical, and lastly, who are some of your Green Bay Gambler teammates that impress you the most and why?
Lee: Well, we've got a lot of veteran leadership in Reed Seckel and Ryan Furne and David Makowski and our captain, Pat McCadden. They step up when we need them and they lead us in the locker room and on the ice in practice. So, just look up to the veterans and you learn a lot from them, and then also Nick Jensen, who's doing very well in Canada with Team USA right now.
McKeen's: Nick is definitely very good. I was able to watch him a lot last year. I was saying early, "Watch this kid. He's going to be drafted. He's going to be [darn] good." Hopefully the points pick up for him, because I think he has the potential to compete for USHL Defenseman of the Year.
Lee: I agree. I agree.