Last night the Ottawa Senators played their 10th game of the year vs the Detroit Red Wings. This was an important game, not because it's Alfie's new team; rather, it is the ninth game for young Curtis Lazar this season. The Ottawa Senators are now forced to make a choice: does he stay around a bit longer, or does he go back to the juniors?
Ultimately the answer to that question should be based on how he is performing in the NHL; if he's not at minimum treading water then there's no point in keeping him in competition he will not continue to develop in. This is not always the case as teams will keep players in the NHL despite their difficulties. Sean Monahan with the Calgary Flames last year is a prime example of this. He was being heavily sheltered while being killed in possession statistics. If it wasn't for his extremely high shooting percentage more fans would have been questioning the logic of keeping an 18-year-old in the NHL.
In terms of Curtis Lazar, we need to look deeper into how he has performed.
Players at Lazar's age have a number of contract rules and stipulations set up by the Collective Bargaining Agreement as well as other sources such as the National Hockey League/Canadian Hockey League Transfer Agreement. The key takeaways from these is that Lazar has an Entry Level Contract (ELC) which specifies how much he will make and this number is very cheap and is usually in the $600,000 to $800,000 per year range (depending on bonuses). This is a three-year, two-way deal and is great as it allows you to keep your young talent for very cheap.
If a player does not play in the NHL then the "slide rule" comes into play, which allows the league to move the start of the three-year contract to the next year. This can be done for 18-year-old and 19-year-old players and does not apply once you hit 20. What the NHL defines as having played a season is when a player has played 10 or more games in a season.
This is why this 9/10 game benchmark is important. If the Senators play Lazar in one more game this season they will use up the first year of his ELC which means the team will have to pay him more a year earlier.
Recently teams seem to be focused less on the 9/10 game benchmark but rather on the 39/40 game benchmark, TSN's Bob McKenzie wrote about this last week. The difference in these game marks is that at the 40th game your player accrues a year of service towards becoming an Unrestricted Free Agent. Typically buying those years is more costly than the first contract as agents have a large body of work to argue and players are typically just starting the years following their peak. If you burn a year of your players ELC they have less of a body to work to argue their next contract.
There are some people, such as Puck Daddy's Ryan Lambert, who argue there's almost no reason for a 18 or 19 year-old to be in the NHL. His premise is similar to keeping your good players on cheap contracts for as long as possible. Rarely are players this young good enough that you can't replace them with someone on free agency for cheap. While I don't disagree with the idea of keeping players in juniors, especially when they rarely produce at a high rate, I think he is underestimating the cost of free agency especially for higher end players like second line talent.
The 9 Game Tryout
We understand why this 9/10 game benchmark is important for Lazar so now we need to look at his body of work during these games. We do have to remember that 10 games is a very small sample size; a bad player could look good and a good player could look bad. That being said, if he is truly performing well then he has an argument to stay in the NHL. If he is not, then he should not remain in the NHL (this season). Remember, sending him to the CHL will prevent him from being recalled again this year (except in an emergency recall situation). Lazar is not eligible to go to the AHL as he is not old enough, and with easier rules by Team Canada it is possible for Lazar to go to the World Juniors even if he is not in the CHL.
In looking at Curtis Lazar through the first 8 games of the season, Lazar has 2 assists and a -1 in 8 games with 12 shots on goal (1.5 SoG/Game). By TOI/Game Lazar is sitting at 13.16 Min/Game which is 9th of all forwards on the team suggesting his usage in the bottom 6, most likely as a third line centre. At 5v5 Lazar has a 45.33% Corsi which translates to a 4.08 Corsi Rel combined with a massive 11.57 Offensive Zone-Start% Rel.
Looking at the Usage-Chart above of all Senators Forwards at 5v5 it looks very much like Lazar is being sheltered. He has good possession statistics but he is doing it thanks to the team's best Offensive Zone-Start % and one of the cushiest deployments against weak competition. Despite that he is not producing the offense one would expect. I would have to side with Lambert in this situation and the Senators could likely find a cheap third line centre in the same deployment and replace Lazar with him, or use someone from Binghamton.
"He has nothing to gain in juniors" is a fallacy I've been hearing more and more about many players. Unless he is generational talent like Crosby then this is more than likely not true. I am sure it is not going to be a popular opinion but I would have to suggest it would be better for Lazar to go back to the WHL and continue developing.
Lazar was not dominating the league last season, nor was he even in the top 3 of 18 year-olds last year, let alone the top player on his team. Lazar will be able to continue on his strong developmental path by returning to the WHL where he will have significant playing time and much tougher deployments. As an additional bonus, it will not burn a year off his ELC, much to Melnyk's delight, and help minimize Lazar's Cost-per-Point.
Ultimately my opinion makes little difference in the final decision for Lazar as teams will keep top prospects in the NHL for reasons other than hockey performance, such as from a marketing perspective, so it will be interesting to see what happens these next few days.