SPECIAL REPORT: Former Moorhead, UND star Lee signs a two-year contract with Tampa Bay

Former Moorhead and University of North Dakota star defenseman Brian Lee has signed a two-year contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Lee, according to the Lightning’s Twitter account, was a restricted free agent. The former Mr. Hockey winner and first-round pick was sent to Tampa Bay during the NHL’s Trade Deadline in February by the Ottawa Senators, the team which drafted him back in 2005 with the ninth overall pick.

After the trade, Lee played in 20 games with the Lightning scoring eight points. In all, he played in 55 games between his time with Ottawa and Tampa Bay – two more than his previous career high of games in a season. His 16 points were also the most in his career.

Lee will return to a Tampa Bay franchise looking to rebound from a rocky season finishing 38-36-8 where it missed out on the playoffs, a year after reaching the Eastern Conference Finals and losing to eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the Boston Bruins.

Prior to his NHL career, Lee was a star at Moorhead scoring 48 points as a junior and 38 as a senior en route to winning Mr. Hockey. He had a 12-game stint with the Lincoln Stars before playing two years at the University of North Dakota where he scored 53 points in 82 games before leaving school to pursue his pro career.

 

Winner…

What was expected was confirmed Sunday when Moorhead goaltender Michael Bitzer won the Frank Brimsek Award for Minnesota’s best senior goaltender.

Bitzer, 18, was the wire-to-wire front runner for the award after helping the Spuds reach the Minnesota state hockey tournament for the third time in the four years he was at the school.

Bitzer also becomes the first Moorhead goaltender to win the award and second player in program history to win the state’s two major individual awards being the Brimsek and Mr. Hockey. Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman and Moorhead alum Brian Lee won Mr. Hockey in 2005.

He beat out Maple Grove goaltender Kyle Koop for the award.

Bitzer had one of the more impressive individual seasons in Moorhead’s illustrious history going 22-8 with a 1.80 goals against average, .933 save percentage, seven shutouts and 750 saves.

Though voters selected Bitzer prior to the state tournament, he certainly cemented his stake to the award on Minnesota’s largest stage. Bitzer backstopped Moorhead to a first-round upset over No. 3 seed Eagan, which featured four Division I commits and two Mr. Hockey candidates in forwards Will Merchant (Maine) and Michael Zajac (Princeton).

Bitzer helped Moorhead advance to the second round where it was defeated by state runner-up, Hill-Murray, in overtime. Moorhead lost Saturday’s third-place game to Lakeville South, 2-1.

Bitzer’s state tournament saw him go 1-2 with a 1.00 GAA and a shutout and it earned him a first-team selection on the all-tournament team. He was also awarded the Herb Brooks Award for Class 2A, which goes to the player who best exemplified Brooks and his beliefs.

He’s becomes the fourth winner from Section 8 since the award was first handed out in 1995.

Bitzer also becomes the third straight goaltender from Section 8 to win the award.

Fargo Force goaltender Zane Gothberg (North Dakota/Boston Bruins) won the award in 2010 when he played at Thief River Falls. Omaha Lancers goaltender Alex Lyon (Yale) won the award last season playing at Lake of the Woods. Lyon has helped Omaha to first place in the USHL’s Western Conference this season while Gothberg and the Force are third.

Bitzer’s post-Moorhead plans could very well change following what he did at the state tournament.

Bitzer and his Spuds teammate, Terry Leabo, signed tenders to play with Alexandria in the North American Hockey League. Yet it appears Bitzer could be drafted by a team in the USHL, which is the No. 1 pipeline for Division I programs.

Winning the Brimsek Award ends what has been one of the more impressive and storied individual campaigns in Moorhead’s history.

Bitzer made the varsity as a freshman, something which had never been done under head coach Dave Morinville. He split time as a freshman and sophomore before taking over as the clear cut top option as a junior.

He navigated Moorhead through a drama-filled season to the state tournament where it was eliminated without winning any games for the first time in Morinville’s tenure at the school.

Bitzer and Moorhead bounced back this season by consistently being ranked in The Associated Press’ Top 20 poll along with dominating Class 2A, Section 8 by going undefeated.

Moorhead rolled through the section tournament with Bitzer only giving up one goal in a 3-1 win over Brainerd in the section final before heading to the state tournament.

Carry On Wayward Son…

Former Moorhead star Brian Lee was traded this afternoon from the Ottawa Senators to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for former Hobey Baker winner Matt Gilroy.

Lee, 24, was selected by the Senators with the tenth overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Lee played 12 games of junior hockey with the Lincoln Stars in the United States Hockey League before playing college hockey at North Dakota. Lee left North Dakota after two seasons going pro joining the Senators on a full-time basis in the 2008-09 season.

The former Minnesota Mr. Hockey award winner played 53 games with the Senators scoring a career-high 13 points in his first season. Since then, Lee fell on hard times with the club. Roster shuffles and coaching changes among other things saw Lee fall further down the pecking order.

Lee played in 50 games last season but wasn’t getting a lot of playing time and often found himself a healthy scratch.

This year, Lee has scored eight points in 35 games with the Senators, who are second in the Northeast Division and currently sits seventh in the Eastern Conference standings in the hopes of making the playoffs.

Despite his contributions, Lee was in a tough position when it came to fighting for minutes this season. Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson is having one of the seasons in the NHL leading all league defensemen in scoring with 65 points in 63 games. Karlsson’s season coupled with experienced veterans and the emergence of Jared Cowan, the team’s first-round pick in 2009, meant Lee was the odd man out.

Lee will head to Tampa Bay, which six points out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Tampa Bay, however, is also going through a bit of an injury crisis with hits defense. Three of the team’s defenseman are injured including former first-round pick Victor Hedman.

Injuries have opened up spots on the Lighting’s young blueline meaning Lee could get a chance at getting more minutes and cementing himself in a team’s lineup. Joining Tampa Bay means Lee will be playing alongside NHL stars Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis.

He’ll also be joined by another former North Dakota hockey star in defenseman Mike Commodore. Commodore was also traded to Tampa Bay today by the Detroit Red Wings in the hopes of adding another body and experience to the team.

The earliest Lee could debut with his new team could come tomorrow when Tampa Bay hosts Montreal.