The Los Angeles Kings are now up to five PTOs with the recent announcement of a professional tryout agreement for Shane Harper. Harper, like three of the previously announced PTOs, is a forward. Last year, Devin Setoguchi cracked the Kings’ lineup as a forward on a PTO. The path for this year’s crop of forwards is clear; hold out for additional injuries (beyond Marian Gaborik, of course), chip in some goals during camp, and impress the management with your charms and leadership.
For a defenseman, the path is uncharted. Chris Lee is going to try to clear it. It’s a hard enough ask without considering what the 36-year-old’s HockeyDB page looks like.
I won’t go through his whole career arc, because that’d take another 5,000 words or so. But let’s just point out that he’s never played an NHL game before we attempt to evaluate how he’ll do in an NHL game. He’d be the second-oldest King, and the fourth-oldest player, to make his NHL debut.
Chris Lee has won Canadian gold like Laich, and he’s played in Germany’s top league like Prust, and he’s tasted KHL glory like Loktionov, and he’s played for five AHL teams like Harper. The differences are that (a) Lee has no NHL sample for us to go off of, and (b) Lee would have way more impact on the Kings’ performance than any of those four guys if they make the team, just by virtue of where he plays. And if he does play, he probably plays 10-15 minutes a night, whether that’s as an offensive/power play specialist or as a heavily cushioned third pairing defender. That offers more than enough time for Lee to make an impact.
At 37, Chris Lee's projected production and shot rate is basically identical to Jake Gardiner's stat line from this season. pic.twitter.com/WMxAI7VWpm— Zac Urback (@Zac_Urback) May 11, 2017
And there’s absolutely a chance that said impact would be positive.
Consider that the 36-year-old (he’ll be 37 on Opening Night) just broke the KHL record for points by a defenseman in a season and led the entire league (at ANY position) in assists. Consider that using Rob Vollman’s NHLe conversion, his 65 points in a 60-game season translate to 65 points in an 82-game NHL season, which seems unrealistic but really gets your mind racing, right? Consider that Paul LaDue enters the season as the de facto fourth defenseman on the power play, and while the team played well with him there, they didn’t generate shots or chances like they did with Doughty, Muzzin, or Martinez. Consider that what you assume a 36-year-old’s biggest weakness is — speed — is one of Lee’s biggest strengths.
The problem for Lee is that the defensive side of his game doesn’t match up to his explosiveness. For every video of a dazzling goal or a gorgeous pass, there’s a moment of weakness in his own end. And though the KHL is the second-best league in the world, there’s simply no way to account for the difficulties Lee might face in his first taste of the NHL. And Lee’s scoring rate this year was well beyond any he’d achieved before, especially since his AHL performance was middling before he went overseas. Who knows if that can hold up? Playing with North American teammates at the world championships this season, Lee had two points in seven games as Team Canada’s sixth defenseman. He drew nice reviews playing alongside NHL mainstays like Calvin de Haan, but it’s a long leap from “Canada’s KHL weapon” to “Kings top-six defenseman.”
The good news? This isn’t a multi-year contract... it’s a PTO. Why not find out for sure what he’s capable of? We know that four spots are locked in. While Paul LaDue and Kevin Gravel were pretty strong in limited action, they’re both waiver-exempt, meaning LA could send them to the AHL without losing them. Christian Folin is not waiver-exempt, but he starts on square one with the Kings (just like Lee) and is coming off shoulder surgery (unlike Lee). While it’s harder for a defenseman to be a surprise roster inclusion, the loss of Brayden McNabb is giving this year’s crop of blueliners a chance to blow everyone away at camp. And the chance that Lee is the one who blows everyone away is... well, it’s greater than zero.
Lee could steal a regular lineup spot from Gravel or Folin, or he could be a rich man’s version of Jamie McBain, or he could be a poor man’s version of Jamie McBain, or he could fail to impress and be on his way. Either way, I love that LA is giving him a chance. The Kings need offense, and if Lee can bring it without severely hurting the Kings’ defense, he’s worth a gamble.