In their short history, the OHL’s Erie Otters have developed several fine NHL prospects for the pro game. Former Otters stars such as Tim Connolly, Nikita Alexeev and Michael Rupp have had their names called in the 1st round of the NHL Draft, while current standouts Brad Boyes and Carlo Colaiacovo both have more recently had that honor bestowed upon them by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While Erie may not continue their string of 1st round magic in this year’s draft, there will be at least 2 or 3 names called from the Otters’ roster at the 2002 NHL Draft in June. One of those players, U.S.-born defenseman Brian Lee (6’2″, 187 lbs.), could have his name called in the 2nd or 3rd round. The Michigan native was ranked 50th amongst North American skaters on the Central Scouting Bureau’s Mid-Season Rankings.
After a season in which Brian saw limited ice time, he has come on during the 2001-02 campaign to provide solid defensive play for the Otters. The left-shooting rearguard won’t necessarily break any scoring records, but Lee’s steady style of play should catch the eye of a NHL GM looking for a defensive defenseman with a little skill and size.
I spoke with Brian prior to a recent Otters game, with the transcript of that conversation appearing below. “HF” represents the questions asked by the interviewer, while “BL” denotes Brian’s answers.
HF: You didn’t get to play a lot last year, but this year, you’ve really made great strides. To what do you attribute the improvement- is it simply that you are getting more ice time, or did you workout in the off-season?
BL: I think it’s a combination of a bunch of things. I worked real hard in the off-season. I’m definitely getting more playing time, and my confidence is a lot higher, so I’m able to do different things. Last year, when I didn’t play, I tried to watch the older players, and learn from them. I listened to the coaches, and worked as hard as I could in practice to get myself to where I could be a big part of the hockey team this year.
HF: What is your role with Erie- are you more of a defensive defenseman, or can you generate some offense?
BL: For me, I think I’m mostly a defensive defenseman. I think I can generate some offense when I have the opportunity, but mostly I like to play defense and make sure our end is defensively sound.
HF: Do you get much time on the power play or penalty killing units?
BL: Yeah, here and there. Carlo (Colaiacovo) and (Chris) Eade play mostly at the start, then me and (Chris) Campoli usually come in and play the second half of it, so I get a decent amount of time out there.
HF: You grew up in Michigan, right?
BL: Yep, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
HF: Is that near Detroit?
BL: Actually, it’s about 3 hours from Detroit. It’s an hour from Chicago, down in the Southwest corner.
HF: How would you compare the amateur program there to the level of play that you’re at now?
BL: I guess it’s a good stepping stone. The speed increase from when I was playing there to now is just amazing. And the level of players here, it’s amazing what some of the players here can do with the puck. It’s a big step, but it’s a good stepping stone.
HF: Did you ever consider going the NCAA route, or was it pretty much the Major Juniors route that you wanted to pursue?
BL: I always looked at the NCAA, being an American kid. Most American kids grow up thinking that. When I played a year up in Detroit, I was near the (Plymouth) Whalers (of the OHL), so I watched a lot of their games. I got turned on to it, because it’s the highest level at my age, and it really seemed interesting to me.
HF: You’re rated the 50th prospect in North America by the CSB. Obviously, you must be pretty excited about your chances in the NHL Draft coming up in June.
BL: Oh, yeah, I’m definitely excited. It’s my dream to play in the NHL someday. Right now, I just have to make sure I keep working hard, and try to elevate my play every game.
HF: If you could have your choice, is there one NHL team that you would like to call your name on draft day?
BL: It really doesn’t matter to me. I just want to play, so any team is fine with me.
HF: You guys are in a dogfight for the top spot in your division with Guelph and Kitchener. What has to happen down the stretch- well, winning games, obviously – but what does Erie have to do better to make sure that you finish on top?
BL: I think every game we’ve got to be prepared to come and play, and to win the game. We have to come out with a high level of intensity and energy. Every night we play, we have to make sure we’re playing as a team so that we can come out with a victory.
HF: Do you like to play a more physical kind of game, or do you rely more on your ability to get you through a game?
BL: It’s both, really. I love to play a physical game, I love to crash and bang out there. It’s one part I’ve always liked, and I like to use my abilities, as well. So, it’s a mixture of both out there.
HF: Which hockey player did you idolize growing up?
BL: There’s a couple I always liked watching. Scott Stevens, Brian Leetch is another good one, and Nik Lidstrom from the Red Wings. All these guys are exciting to watch.
HF: You pretty much focused on defensemen more than forwards, then…
BL: Yeah, pretty much.
HF: What do you think you need to do to get yourself to the next level? What kind of things do you need to improve upon?
BL: I have to work on all the little things to get better- make sure my gap is always up, playing the man better in 2-on-1 and 3-on2 situations, making sure I’m in the play all the time. I have to get my shot off quicker, because sometimes I wait too long. Just make sure I always make the safe play out there, hopefully not try to do too much, and just play my game.
HF: Thanks a lot, Brian. I appreciate it.
BL: Thank you.