Islanders keep Anders Lee, sign Varlamov to replace Lehner
Ultimately, he proved to be right.
Tavares, the face of the franchise since he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2009, bolted for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs on the first day of free agency last July 1 after saying throughout his final season with the Islanders that he wanted to stay and hoped things worked out.
In the same position, Lee — who succeeded Tavares as captain — expressed the same sentiment. However, though the outcome took a little longer than Islanders fans would have liked, at the end of the first day of free agency on Monday, Lee stuck to his words and signed a seven-year, $49-million deal to stay in New York.
"Today is a wonderful day," Lee said on a conference call with reporters. "My wife and I, we couldn't be happier. This is the place we always wanted to be and saw ourselves. We couldn't be more thrilled than we are right now."
The Edina, Minnesota, native said he never had any doubts he would be staying, even while the team pursued free-agent forward Artemi Panarin, who reportedly took less money than the Islanders offered to sign with the crosstown-rival Rangers.
It turns out, that was part of the plan Lee and agent Neil Sheehy had all along with Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello.
"Obviously it took a little bit of time, but that's just how these things work," Lee said. "There were some up and downs, but at the day I knew we'd figure this all out together. ... We just kept that communication going the whole time. In principal, Lou had and Neil had agreed on some things that allowed Lou to go after some other things out there and then things kind of fell into place."
Lee also said he didn't meet with any other teams.
"Neil fielded calls but his job for me was to continue just to work with Lou," Lee said. "That's where we kind of really were."
Lee, selected by the Islanders in the sixth round in 2009, has totaled 152 goals and 106 assists in 425 games over seven seasons in New York. He had 28 goals and 23 assists last season while helping the resurgent Islanders finish second in the Metropolitan Division in the first season in the post-Tavares era, helping Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz win the Jack Adams Award as the coach of the year in his first season in New York.
"We feel good about this team," Lamoriello said. "We're solidified at defense. We have everyone back, plus a couple of outstanding younger players who will be pushing for positions."
However, there was one big change in the net, veteran Semyon Varlamov was signed to a four-year deal Monday to replace Vezina Trophy finalist and fan-favorite Robin Lehner, who ended up signing with the Chicago Blackhawks.
"We did everything we could earlier, like we did with all the other players," Lamoriello said. "Unfortunately, it did not work out."
Lehner had a sensational comeback season after signing with the Islanders last summer. He publicly disclosed he was dealing with several issues, including panic attacks treatment for alcohol and drug addiction, and was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD and PTSD. He talked openly about his personal life and credited the organization and his teammates with giving him support.
"It's very tough to see Robin go," Lee said. "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."
Lamoriello said he tried to trade for Varlamov last summer after the Colorado Avalanche had acquired Philipp Grubauer from the Washington Capitals, but was unsuccessful and ultimately signed Lehner. Now, Varlamov will be the third goalie in three years to pair with Thomas Greiss.
On Monday, the Islanders also re-signed forward Tom Kuhnhackl, but lost veteran Valtteri Filppula, who decided to return to his original team, the Detroit Red Wings, to finish his career.