Prior to his senior year, senior forward Derek Lee felt like an alternate. There was always someone ahead of him, always someone else quarterbacking the play, always someone else holding court in the face-off.
He wasn’t the star or the go-to guy everyone recognized, but now, in his senior year, he’s finally making a name for himself.
“I think there’s been a lot more opportunity for me,” Lee said. “I think the previous years I’ve kind of been maybe an understudy to some other guys. I’ve gotten more opportunity, more power play — a consistent role there — I think that with that opportunity, it brings a little more confidence and you feel better with the puck and you’re able to make plays.”
Make plays, he has. Twenty-two games into his senior campaign, the North Vancouver, British Columbia, native leads the team with 14 assists and is the second-leading scorer with 17 points on the season — just one point behind junior winger Michael Mersch. Lee’s plus-11 on the season is also tops on Wisconsin’s roster.
His 17 points match a career high at Wisconsin — he scored three goals and 14 assists during the 2010-11 season during 40 games. But now, through only 20 games — he sat out the Minnesota Duluth series Oct. 26-27 due to a motor-scooter accident — he’s tied those statistics exactly.
With the bulk of his points coming off assists, Lee noted setting goals up has always been his game.
“I’ve always been like that since I was growing up back in Vancouver,” Lee said. “It’s the way I play … I see the game, I think pretty well and having a guy like Mersch play with me — having a guy that can finish just makes it a little easier.”
While head coach Mike Eaves wishes Lee’s current level of play had made an appearance sooner, he feels his centerman has finally grown into his role in a consistent manner.
“It’s one that I think would have blossomed earlier — I’m glad he’s having it, I wish it would have happened earlier,” Eaves said. “It’s been an interesting path for him because he’s been nicked, banged up here and there and never had that real opportunity to stay consistent and blossom. This year he has and it’s been really fun to watch.”
Over the course of Wisconsin’s recently broken 11-game win streak, Lee, center Mersch and sophomore Joseph LaBate finally began playing the consistent hockey Eaves was looking for. Lee’s line led the Badgers’ offense, accounting for 11 of the 30 goals during that stretch. He also scored each of his three goals during that time as well.
Lee attributed their success to the chemistry and balance his line found.
“That’s a tough thing to describe,” Lee said Jan. 18 after a 1-0 win over then-No. 8 Miami. “For me, I can say that Mersch and Joseph, especially Joseph, have been playing great the last six weekends or so. That makes it easier for us. I think we’re all on the same page, moving the puck and moving our feet. When Joseph moves his feet he’s tough to guard and Mersch has the big body and protects it so well. I think we all help each other out in different ways and I think that’s the mix that makes it successful.”
In an effort to spread the wealth and spark his slumping top line, Eaves is flip-flopping his top two centers — putting Lee with forwards Nic Kerdiles and Tyler Barnes, while Zengerle centers LaBate and Mersch — as Wisconsin heads into an eight-game stretch of WCHA matchups, starting with Alaska-Anchorage this weekend.
“We’re taking a little bit from the rich and giving it to the poor so everybody has a little and hopefully in the end we’ll have more,” Eaves said.
No. 20 Wisconsin (9-8-5, 6-5-5 WCHA) recently travelled to Anchorage (3-14-5, 1-13-4) Jan. 4-5. Six different Badgers scored on the weekend — senior defenseman John Ramage, LaBate, Mersch, Barnes, Zengerle and Lee — sparking a 5-4 decision Friday and a 1-0 decision Saturday for the sweep.
“The first game was kind of a comedy of errors if you will,” Eaves said. “On Saturday we played a very solid game, but their goaltender played well and we only got one by them. It wasn’t like we went in there and blew them out. I think we have to take it into context and be very honest with ourselves.”
Coming off a strong weekend split with Miami (OH), Wisconsin is hoping to keep up its level of play — striving not to lag off in light of playing an unranked opponent.
“I think one thing coach is preaching on this week is he’s not letting up,” Lee said. “His demeanor out there is showing this week and I think it’s going to translate into the guys. We’ve had a good couple days of practice so far.”
But with the depth they showed last time they faced the Seawolves — and have continued to show since — paired with the tempo of play they displayed against the Redhawks, the Badgers feel it is important to start off their string of WCHA games on the right note — especially since they sit just five points out of first.
“It’s going to be huge because the WCHA is so close right now,” LaBate said. “It’s basically anyone’s game right now, it’s who wants to take the lead. It’s going to be really important for us to step up this weekend.”