DISCLAIMER: Curtis Lazar is certainly one of the easiest players to cheer for on the Senators, just because it's physically impossible for him to not smile at any moment. He seems genuinely happy when he's out there, and I'm sure he's very well liked in the dressing room. I definitely do not have anything against him in that regard.
Having said that...by stripping his identity and strictly looking at his on-ice production in his first two NHL seasons, it has not been pretty. Coming into his rookie year he had quite a bit of hype mainly because he was a first round pick and he was just coming off of a Memorial Cup championship, but it's safe to say that he hasn't lived up to the expectations of many who thought that he could become at least a 40-50 point player.
It is true that he is only 21 years old and still has time to develop, and in no way am I going to say that the Senators should give up on him. However, it's hard to argue that he has been a solid NHL contributor when you look at his comparables.
Since 2014-15, I took a look at the hundreds of players that have played at least 750 minutes and sorted them by points per 60. Curtis Lazar ranks 351st out of 383 forwards at a rate of 0.87. That sits behind guys like Chris Neil, Alex Chiasson, Dave Bolland, Chris Thorburn, and you get the point. That number itself does not look flattering whatsoever. But if you look at how he compares historically to other players in their first two seasons?
Through his first 143 games he has 35 points, so I wanted to use Hockey Reference's Play Index to find some of his comparables. I set a few parameters which were:
-Had to include stats from a players first two seasons in the league
-Had to have 40 or fewer points
-Had to have 0.26 or fewer points per game (Lazar had 0.24)
By doing this, I was able to narrow a search amongst Lazar's peers that had similar points per game numbers over a similar sample size. Here are the top 30 (out of 38) on the list:
By design this obviously is not an impressive group, because Lazar hasn't been impressive. Lazar is better than most of these players, but that doesn't really mean much for this exercise. Essentially everybody on the list is a bottom six forward, with the "best case scenario" players being Marcel Goc, Daniel Winnik, and Samuel Pahlsson. Lazar hasn't played any better than a third or fouth line player so far, and his comparables are not very encouraging.
The two outliers though are a bit intriguing: Shane Doan and Alexandre Burrows (who is 36th on this list). Neither of them were very good in their first two seasons, but both of them were very solid players in their peak. If you're looking for a silver lining, it's that there have been players in the past that have had similar beginnings to their career as Lazar who then went on to be top-six players. It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that he can evolve his game.
However, Doan had a higher pedigree than Lazar as he posted 94 points in 71 games in his draft year, while Lazar had 63 points in 71 games. Burrows is certainly a reason to have hope for Lazar, but he's more of an exception rather than the norm. He was undrafted and it's almost an Andrew Hammond-like miracle that he ended up being a 67 point player in Vancouver. Even with two success stories, it isn't promising that only 2 out of 38 players on this list that actually ended up being top six players.
After searching under those parameters, I wanted to narrow the search even more. Lazar's age is a legitimate reason for his struggles, so instead I made sure everyone on the list also had their first two seasons between ages 19 and 20. With those limitations, the list became much smaller:
Shane Doan appears once again, but the list is underwhelming. Mike Marson had a career 48 points, Tom Wilson is nothing more than a fourth line goon, and Taylor Pyatt was a fine bottom six player whose career high in points was 37. It seems like Doan is the only instance we can point at and say: "hey look, this 19 year old struggled for two seasons then became a top-six forward."
It's almost unprecedented then that a player at his age can perform so poorly offensively and then develop into twice the player.
I wanted to look at more than just points as well, so I used Corsica.hockey's similarity calculator for this season, which pretty much showed what I already thought:
Chris Tierney is a fine role player for San Jose, and Lauri Korpikoski is a bit underrated, but these are not comparables that make me think top six forward.
I think pretty much everyone knows that Lazar has been underwhelming offensively so far. However, there are still some that believe he can magically flip a switch and turn into a 50+ point player. As I showed, it's incredibly hard to do that, and Doan is really the only example of someone ever doing that. Ever. It's not just that the numbers don't support him either, it's that nothing about his play makes me think he can be a big point producer.
He has some hands, but his game has been more of a grinder than anything. If you look at his goals, they're almost always right in front of the net, and that occasionally includes him crashing into the goalie. Some of this has to do with the fact that perhaps Dave Cameron tried to get him to play more of a "safe" bottom six kind of game, but even if that were true we would see the odd showcase of skill.
Now, just because I don't think Lazar will develop into a top six player, doesn't mean that I think he can't stay in the NHL. He was essentially a fourth line player last year, and if he can boost his production to about 30 points and play sound defense, then he's a good option for the third line.
It's not as if he brings no value, but even in order to be solid on the third line he needs to improve his game. His -7.9% CF% relative is not nearly good enough, and he needs to show that he can succeed with players who aren't amazingly skilled. Ottawa's bottom six was something that was a huge issue last year, and getting Lazar to improve would make life a lot easier for the Senators.
At the end of the day, it's not impossible for Lazar to become a 50 point player or even more. However, the odds seem very slim at this point, and history isn't too optimistic that he can do it. I think he can be a player that scores around 30 points every year with maybe one year that he reaches more than 40. And you know what? That's fine, because if we expect anything more out of him we're setting ourselves up to be disappointed.
Yes he was a first round pick, but there's a reason he was labeled as a "safe" pick, because he doesn't have a ton of offensive upside. If he was a 5th round pick, then I'm sure the narrative on him would be much different.
He may be nothing more than a Taylor Pyatt or an Adam Lowry, but I can live with that. If he continues to put up underwhelming numbers next year, then I think everyone else should live with it as well. No matter what though, I'll love watching him on the Senators. There's nothing like seeing a massive kiddish smile after he scores a goal.