Sunday, September 19, 2010
Posted by Harrison Mooney
It was easy to miss the acquisition of Lee Sweatt. The Canucks' announced the signing of the American-born defenseman at the same time they announced the signing of college standout Chris Tanev and 41st overall draft pick Yann Sauve--two defensemen with good size and better stories to tell. Tanev was a late bloomer who grew nearly a foot in the year as well as a standout for the Rochester Institute of Technology. Yann Sauve was a Canucks' prospect that appeared to be developing nicely, still a rare treat for Vancouver fans. Lee Sweatt was an undrafted, undersized d-man that had bounced around European leagues. Things got worse for Lee when he became not only the least publicized Canuck defense signing of the offseason, but the least publicized Canuck signing within his own family. Later in the summer, his brother Bill signed with the Canucks, amidst a typical Burkean maelstrom and some Twitter hullabaloo. Clearly, Lee Sweatt is a Milford man.
Often, NHL fans will overlook an undrafted player because the experts did, and we often shrug our shoulders at a European signing because of the non-success of much-discussed players like Fabian Brunnstrom. In Sweatt's particular case, he may be suffering from the soreness Vancouver fans still feel over Patrick Coulombe, a skilled but diminutive defenseman who played with Sidney Crosby in Rimouski, showed enough to get into an NHL game, then somehow got sent all the way down to the ECHL. And, after being pushed around by a larger Chicago Blackhawks team two years in a row, we're might just be tired of little guys in general. But, don't discount little Lee Sweatt: he's got the potential for big things. How big? Well, his career has an eerie similarity to Brian Rafalski's.
Who is Lee Sweatt? Born August 13, 1985, Sweatt played four years at Colorado College before getting on with the San Antonio Rampage for 11 games without landing an NHL contract. In 2007, he signed with the Finnish club TPS in the SM-liiga. Sweatt finished the season with 33 points in 56 games. In keeping with his pedigree, nobody seemed to take notice of him, despite solid point totals. From there, he bounced around, playing in the Austrian league, skating with the US men's inline hockey team, and serving a brief term in the KHL. He rejoined TPS well into the 09-10 season, and finally stood out, scoring 16 points in 21 games, setting a record for most points for a TPS defenseman during the playoffs, and winning the Pekka Rautakallio trophy for the best defenseman in the league.
This is a trophy that Brian Rafalski--the undrafted Detroit Red Wings defenseman who scored more points than anyone from the back end during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, if you recall--won twice: once in 96-97 and again in 98-99. Sweatt and Rafalski's European careers are nearly identical. They both bounced around Europe and found their best success in the SM-liiga, where they not only played in the same league and won the same award; they put up similar point totals. Interestingly, Rafalski's first-win came in a 35-point season, similar to Sweatt's totals. Rafalski's second-win came in a season where he averaged a point a game, which Sweatt nearly did in his most recent SM-liiga stint.
Like Sweatt, Rafalski could also be the mayor of Tiny Towne. Rafalski is 5'10", 191 lbs. Sweatt is 5'9", 193. Effectively, they're the same size, though word has it Sweatt's has a slightly thicker frame. Both are heady, puck-moving defensemen who play sound positionally and can quarterback a power play, but that sort of stature (as a defender) will always make teams think twice. The team that finally came calling for Rafalski was the New Jersey Devils, and they reaped the rewards. In his first season in the NHL, at 26 (one year older than Sweatt), Rafalski put up 32 points and was named to the NHL all-rookie team. He's been one of the league's best ever since. He's a two-time NHL all star and a three-time Stanley Cup winner. Rafalski is a potential Hall of Famer.
Can Sweatt come anywhere near these lofty achievements?
Probably not at first, but Sweatt could be a good NHLer someday soon, and, considering the above similarities, maybe even a very good one. In the short term, it's likely that Sweatt will do what he always does and get lost in the shuffle at training camp, as the Canucks have about nine NHL-calibre defenseman, as well as a pretty impressive roster of defensive prospects in guys like Kevin Connauton, Yann Sauve, Evan Oberg, and Chris Tanev. Hopefully, Sweatt can start by being a standout at the AHL level. On a two-way contract with a high AHL salary ($150,000), he will be called on to lead the Moose, and if he can show flashes of the guy to whom his career is eerily similar, he might be called on for more than that.
This post is drenched in Sweatt! Here is a video of every goal Lee scored last season in SM-liiga, if you're into that sort of thing. Just a warning, though: the video wants you to know it was created with some non-activated software. It can't help but remind you.