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Published April 28 2010

NHL: Former Moorhead great Brian Lee stifled this season by 2-way Ottawa contract, keeping him on the bubble

Nothing went as planned for Ottawa Senators defenseman Brian Lee this season.

He was supposed to build on a solid second year in the NHL.

Instead, he was sent back-and-forth between Ottawa and the Senators’ minor-league affiliate like a pinball. In all, Lee was called up and sent down six times.

And he spent the entire playoffs as a healthy scratch, watching from the stands as the Senators were ousted in the first round by defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh.

“It was a real tough year,” said Lee, a 23-year-old former Moorhead High and University of North Dakota standout. “I expected to be (in Ottawa) full time. I think I deserved to be there full time. It’s a business and, in the end, I think that is what it comes down to.”

The ninth overall pick in the 2005 NHL draft, Lee spent 53 games with Ottawa last season. He finished with two goals and 11 assists.

However, salary cap constraints, a glut of veteran defensemen and Lee’s two-way contract made Lee the odd man out this year. Lee’s contract status meant he could be sent down to the minors without having to clear waivers.

With no risk of losing Lee to another team, the Senators bounced him back and forth.

In the limited role, Lee managed two goals and an assist in 23 games at Ottawa.

“I’m sure anybody who has been up-and-down a few times will tell you it’s tough to play with any kind of confidence when you are nervous about what happens if you turn the puck over here? Or what happens if I miss this check here?” Lee said. “At the end of the day, you can’t worry about that. You just have to have fun.”

Lee said he was helped by mentor and fellow Spud alum Matt Cullen, who was traded to the Senators from Carolina late in the regular season.

Cullen and Lee talked several times about Lee’s future in the league.

“It’s early in his career,” said Cullen, a 13-year NHL veteran. “I can understand he’s had some frustration with all the ups-and-downs. His day will definitely come. Sometimes it just takes time. Playing defense in the NHL is one of the hardest jobs. … I would fully expect him to be a full-time NHL player next year.”

The Senators must have similar feelings.

Ottawa signed Lee to a two-year, one-way contract worth $1.75 million just after the Olympic break. The one-way contract means he’ll get paid his full NHL salary regardless of where he’s playing.

It’s the kind of financial security that does wonders for a young defenseman battling for a fulltime spot in the NHL.

And Lee is hoping he’ll still get his shot in Ottawa.

“I really like the guys (in Ottawa),” Lee said. “You form a special bond with the guys when you play with them for so long. And I like the city. It’s where I got my start. That’s where I want to be for sure.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heath Hotzler at (701) 241-5562