Balancing Act: Curtis Lazar and the Ottawa Senators
Curtis Lazar had a fantastic junior career and a rocky start to his time in the NHL, but he still has a lot to bring to the table.
(Editor's note: Projecting Curtis Lazar's ceiling has been one of the biggest topics of the summer. To help with this, an Edmonton Oil Kings fan offered to write us a look at Lazar from the point of view of someone who saw him play regularly in junior. Here's an informed look at his strengths.)
There is a fine balance between developing a player correctly and wasting talent, and there are numerous questions attendant to that. Is it better to let a player develop in major junior or will that stymie their growth? Every team in the NHL struggles with bringing players out of junior and straight to the NHL. For some - usually number-one draft picks - the choice is easier to navigate. For others, there is a great deal more uncertainty around how a player will develop best.
The Ottawa Senators faced this problem with prospect Curtis Lazar at the beginning of the 2014-2015 season. Would it better to return Lazar to the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL to play his 19-year-old season or should they make him part of the 23-man opening night roster? This choice can only be made once because once a player is returned to the CHL, he cannot be called back up to the NHL, barring an emergency. If a team chooses to keep a player past the nine-game trail period, a year of the player's ELC is used. The Senators chose to keep Lazar.
This is a difficult choice for any team, and one which often comes with the burden of heavy expectations for the player in question. These are the type of expectations which Curtis Lazar shouldered at the start of the Senators last campaign. Many were expecting Lazar to be an exceptional player who would immediately duplicate his success in junior.
This didn't happen. Lazar managed a less than spectacular 15 points in his rookie season, not even close to his junior point production. Fans were baffled. What happened to their highly touted prospect? Where was his scoring touch? Where were the qualities which saw him drafted first round - 17th overall—in 2013?
Despite a rocky first year in the NHL, there is an enormous upside to Curtis Lazar. He's got the tools to create offense (as displayed in his junior career), his leadership qualities are highly developed and internationally recognized, his positive attitude makes him a player willing to learn, and he's still developing into the role the Senators have asked him to fill.
As a junior player, Curtis Lazar spent three years as part of a team in constant championship contention. During his time with the Edmonton Oil Kings, Lazar collected two Ed Chenowyth Cups (WHL Championship) and one Memorial Cup. In the only year Lazar failed to win a trophy, he still made it to compete for the Ed Chenowyth Cup. To add to Lazar's junior glories, he was twice selected to play for Team WHL in the Subway Super Series and played on a variety of Canadian junior teams, including participating in the U-20 World Juniors tournament.
Lazar grew from his more limited 2011-2012 rookie role to quickly cement his place as part of the Oil Kings' offensive core. Lazar nearly doubled his point total between his first and second years in the WHL. A modest 31 points his first full season with the Oil Kings quickly ballooned to a more impressive 61 points in 2012-2103. His last season in the WHL saw Lazar manage career-high point totals in both the regular and post-seasons.
Finally, he was selected to join the Ottawa Senators for the 2014-2015 season despite being eligible for one more year of junior before being able to report to the AHL. He managed to stay with the Senators for the full season and earned ice time in a Senators first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.
Lazar was an offensive force as a junior player. This is not only born out in increasing point totals but also by the way Lazar controlled the rush and was an imposing presence in the offensive zone. When Lazar was in the offensive zone, he was a player to watch. His positioning was good, and he understood not only how to use his position but that of his teammates. Brett Pollock, a line mate of Lazar's, had an excellent season, being drafted by the Dallas Stars in the second round. While Pollock's numbers are better in his third year in the WHL, the ease with which he played alongside Lazar is distinctly lacking.
Lazar is strong on the puck and unafraid to play in all areas of the offensive zone - even those areas which might put him in conflict with bigger players. Lazar also has a good sense of where the puck is going and reads the play well. This allows him to be in the right place to create points in the more contested areas of the ice, like in front of the net.
One of Lazar's most notable skills is his speed and acceleration. Lazar is capable of reaching his top speed quickly; he's also capable of releasing a hard, accurate shot while in motion. He's capable of working well as a centre and on the wing, making him more versatile.
A large part of Lazar's junior offense is the big game point production. Lazar had four points in five games at the Memorial Cup, including the one that ended the longest game in Memorial Cup history and sent the Oil Kings to the final. As a junior player, Lazar was always one to watch in the post-season as he seemed to find another gear. In 2013-2014, he collected 22 points on a run to the Ed Chenowyth Cup, providing much needed offense against highly skilled teams like the Portland Winterhawks.
If there's one thing that sets Lazar apart from other prospects, it's his leadership abilities. For two years, he wore an A for the Edmonton Oil Kings, and during those years, the Oil Kings had some formidable leaders in their system - Lowe, Moroz, Reinhart, Corbett, and others. If one thing stands out, it's that during Lazar's time as an Oil King, there was no deficit in leadership.
Lazar proved to be one of the better leaders in the Oil Kings' system. His leadership and sportsmanship won him the George Parsons Trophy at the 2014 Memorial Cup. His ability to motivate and elevate his line mates became especially apparent when those same players seemed to struggle without him this year.
Beyond the actual game, Lazar's leadership is shown in his media savvy, his ability to interact with fans (he's a delight), team-based charity events, and his willingness to support his team mates, present and former. Lazar returned with the Senators to Edmonton this winter, and his former teammates came to support him. The dedication he's inspired in those who have played with him seems to speak quite clearly to the positive force he had in the locker room.
This leadership ability was acknowledged by Hockey Canada when Lazar was named the captain of the 2015 World Juniors Team. His team brought home a gold medal, satisfying fans worried about Canada's "gold medal drought." There can be no higher accolade than this. Of the very best U-20 players in the country, Lazar was chosen as the most capable leader. There is no better illustration of Lazar's character than his choice of number in international play.
Lazar doesn't stop smiling, but beyond the smiles is a positive attitude. Lazar approaches each challenge as something to be overcome. Whether the challenge is making the team or winning a game, Lazar believes hard work will get him to the other side. He never gives up - see his triple overtime Memorial Cup goal for proof.
With this type of attitude, it is expected Lazar will learn from his first season with the Senators and work to adjust his game for the role he's given to play. He has displayed this type of attitude at the junior level; if he struggled offensively and couldn't score, he made sure to work to be better defensively. Lazar seems to turn every struggle into an opportunity to learn how to be a better, more complete player.
This attitude is also a boon because if Lazar gets sent down to the AHL, it is expected to be with the same positive attitude he displayed when sent back to the Oil Kings in 2013. He returned to the team and made an immediate impact. Disappointments are turned into motivation for Lazar to improve and see better results.
This last year with the Senators saw Lazar in a different role than he'd played with the Edmonton Oil Kings. The Oil Kings relied on Lazar's offensive abilities more than the Senators. He was normally found centering one of the top two lines. In Ottawa, Lazar did not fill this particular role. There were a different set of expectations placed on him.
Lazar seemed to struggle to find his fit into this new role, tallying only 15 points. However, as nice as it would have been for all involved if Lazar could have seamlessly transitioned from the WHL to the NHL, those expectations are a bit lofty. It's rare for a junior player to immediately make the same kind of impact in the NHL they did in junior.
Lazar saw a reduced role with the Senators, which is to be expected as he was a rookie. He had to make adjustments to play a different type of game. The NHL is much faster than the WHL, and most NHL players have developed those attributes at which they excel more thoroughly than in the WHL. (It's one of the bonuses of having had time to develop.) It will take time for Lazar to adjust to these changes and develop his own abilities as well.
While his first season might not have been what Senators fans were hoping for, Lazar still has the potential to excel in the role he's been given. This coming year will be a test for Lazar as to if he's truly ready to play in the NHL.
Curtis Lazar is a likable and talented player. He has offensive skills - despite an underwhelming first NHL season - leadership abilities, an attitude which allows him to learn and grow, and a growing understanding of the role the Senators need him to fill and how he should go about doing that. Every player goes through a learning process, Lazar's has just been highlighted as it's been on the NHL stage.
Whether or not Lazar spends time in the AHL this season will most likely depend on his performance at camp and what players the Senators have in front of him on their depth charts. If Lazar has a good camp, it's possible for him to make the Senators' opening day roster. However, if the coaching staff feel Lazar could benefit from more developmental time, it wouldn't be unexpected to see him sent to the AHL.
What happens will probably depend on Lazar's showing in training camp and then early in the season. Another "sub-par" season will likely see him hone his skills at a lower level. However, a hot start will see him stay with the Senators. At this point, the person with the most input in where he plays is Lazar himself.