Curtis Lazar had a fantastic WHL career with the Edmonton Oil Kings. He went to the Memorial Cup as a rookie in 2012. In 2013, he lost in the WHL final to Portland, and in 2014 he returned to the Memorial Cup and won. He scored 99-69-168 in three seasons with the Oil Kings and added 27 goals and 52 points in 63 WHL playoff games. He was drafted 17th overall in 2013 by Ottawa, and I felt the Senators rushed him to the NHL at 19 years of age. He was a regular his first two seasons, but last year he only dressed for 33 games before being traded to Calgary on March 1.
The Senators actually sent him to the AHL last year, where he played 13 games, but then they inexplicably recalled him and had him play his 160th NHL game, so then they couldn’t send him back down without waivers. I still don’t understand why they would recall a player knowing the rule and knowing they weren’t going to play him regularly. He would have been much better off playing regularly in the American League.
Regardless, he was traded to Calgary and the 22-year-old was ecstatic to get a fresh start.
I spoke with Lazar after he signed a two-year extension with the Flames. He was extremely excited, and he was also very honest about his time in Ottawa and what he feels he is capable of moving forward with the Flames.
Jason Gregor: When you got traded were you just looking for a fresh start, because your time in Ottawa didn’t go as you well as you planned?
Curtis Lazar: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head there. I was really looking for that fresh start. I enjoyed my time just after the deadline with the Calgary Flames. We were on a roll, so it was tough for me to get into the lineup, but that was almost a blessing in disguise. It allowed me to get settled in the city and become comfortable with the organization. When I did get into a few games, I played pretty well.
So this new contract is good, I’m excited for next year and we’ll see what happens.
Gregor: You have always been a very smiley, happy person. How much did last year’s situation in Ottawa, when you were a healthy scratch for a significant amount of time for the first time in your career at any level, test your super upbeat attitude?
Lazar: It did and it got to a point where some days I didn’t want to go to the rink. You guys know who I am and what I’m all about. I love being around the guys and I love having fun. To be in that mental state, it just wasn’t healthy for myself. So when I did get to play I wasn’t that effective and it had a domino effect, and it went the negative direction.
Looking back now I think it was almost, things happen for a reason I guess you could say, and I’m very happy, ecstatic about the opportunity I have with the Flames because of the faith they have in me. They believed in me and this contract shows they are committed to me. Being able to turn things around at the end of the season and get back into that good space, that’s been positive for myself and the Flames.
Gregor: I don’t care who you are as a player, when you lose your confidence you can try as hard as you want but you probably don’t make plays you are accustomed to. You mentioned it wasn’t fun to go to the rink in Ottawa, so I assume your confidence was almost non-existent. How much did confidence, or a lack of it, contribute to your struggles?
Lazar: Oh big time. I mean confidence is probably the top of the list of things players need to be successful. You watch the superstars of this league and they’re always handling the puck and they’re trying stuff that doesn’t always work but when they do, something happens. You need confidence to try to make plays.
I was playing it so safe because I knew if I turned the puck over, I wasn’t going to be playing for the rest of the game or the next game after and so on and so forth. So just being able to reinvent myself in that regard, where you handle the puck and I use my strength and skill that I showed off as an Edmonton Oil King, and then being able to utilize those in games down the stretch with Calgary was huge for me. I saw my potential come back and I saw my game come back where I’m carrying the puck and using my speed. I’m hitting guys and everything like that, so I’m very optimistic. I know the potential I have and getting this contract, it makes me even more motivated to show the Flames that they made the right choice.
Gregor: That belief system in yourself, it’s huge for any human being but for a professional athlete it’s a must have. You only played four regular season games in Calgary, but picked up three points. Do you feel in a better mindset that previous offseason’s thinking, “Okay, I believe I can do it and I just proved it to myself, now it’s just a matter of proving it to everybody else?”
Lazar: Yeah, exactly and I didn’t play much down the stretch so as soon as I got back here in Kelowna I took a week off and then I was back in the gym because I’m champing at the bit to get going. I think today was probably the most motivated I’ve ever been in the gym. The contract is over and I can picture the direction our Flames are going in. They made some great acquisitions this offseason and we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Gregor: What do you feel you can excel at in the NHL? What do you think you’re going to bring to Calgary that maybe they didn’t have?
Lazar: I mean, even my time in Ottawa one thing that I always focussed on was energy. People saw that from whenever I started playing — going up through the ranks and even in Junior, I love getting people going and even my teammates. If it’s blocking a shot, taking a hit or giving a hit or scoring that big goal, I mean I think you said it, I have that grin on. A lot of times it’s for excitement, other times it’s a little cheeky to get my opponents off of their game. That’s one area I can excel at, but also my speed. My speed is a strength and it really opens up the ice for me. On top of that, I’m happy to be out west. It’s more my brand of hockey, more of that rugged style and what not.
Again, going to training camp, hitting that ground running and just seeing where things take me.
Gregor: Getting faster, getting stronger, every player wants to do it. Are you working on skill development, scoring from in tight, working the puck off of the boards? How do you balance your training between getting stronger to skill development?
Lazar: I’m at the point now where a lot of it is skill development because the skillset that I had in Junior, it kind of got washed away with limited roles and limited minutes I had in Ottawa. Working on those skills and drills the muscle memory comes back really fast and I’ve already noticed that this summer. I started skating the past couple of weeks. I’m starting to get my, I guess puck touches back and whatnot, but in saying that I also needed the strength that I had last summer leading up to getting sent. It was tough to come back. You’re trying to build strength and mass throughout the season and that’s one tough thing to do. I’ve noticed this summer that I’m stronger than ever. I’m lifting more weight than I ever have. It’s kind of that fine line, you’ve got to be strong, but you’ve got to be fast because the league is so quick nowadays.
Gregor: Even though you had some adversity, you have had stretches of success so you feel you can produce and succeed. Now that you’ve had three years in the NHL, what has been the one thing that was harder than you thought that it would be?
Lazar: I think the competitive level on a nightly basis. I mean it’s something you can say it as much as you want, but until you’re out on the ice competing then you understand how difficult it is. It’s a tough league. Look at how good the goalies are, the defensemen. As a forward it’s tough to score goals and the big picture, the Stanley Cup, is one of the toughest trophies to win, and you look at what Pittsburgh was able to do, winning back-to-back Cups and what the guys are playing through — the broken bones, the separated shoulders and stuff like that. It’s a man’s game and as a kid going out there it can be a little intimidating, but you get used to it pretty quick and then you just try to cement yourself into the league and build your reputation so you don’t get pushed around too much.
Gregor: In your exit meetings with Glen Gulutzan, did he tell you where he sees you fitting in with the team?
Lazar: Not necessarily. Again I played both centre and wing. I’ve played with many different players. So that’s going to be the fine tuning points in training camps where I’m sure I’ll get looks with many players and in different positions.
I see myself as a natural centre,. That’s where I’ve played the majority of my hockey career. Just being around the puck more, taking the faceoffs and being the guy that can be all over the ice. I really do preach a 200-foot game. I’m very versatile in that regard so anything that they throw at me, I’ll be able to handle it.
Gregor: Every player just wants a spot in the lineup. Beggars can’t be choosers, but most player have a certain sense of where they are most comfortable. When you spoke to Gulutzan did you discuss where you felt you could contribute the most?
Lazar: As the new guy I was just trying to get into the lineup. Getting back into a more traditional system like in Calgary compared to the track system that Ottawa has, there were still a few adjustments. I had to get back to that pace of style, and it is right up my alley, so it didn’t take long, but that’s where you’ve got to ask questions. The biggest thing for young players at any level is that you are always scared to go and talk to the coach or think what if he gets mad hearing that. We’re all on the same team at the end of the day and you’re trying to get better. I had those talks and I told Coach Glen that I see myself as a more effective centreman. Will it happen? We don’t know, it’s definitely up to him if he ever wants to try it out.
Gregor: What is it about centre which makes you feel you’re more effective there than at wing?
Lazar: I think my motion, it’s just my speed, that quick transition game where I’m around the puck and I can really catch the defenders off guard. That’s something that will lead to more offense, but I’ve always been a guy that doesn’t cheat for offense. I love being down low in the defensive zone, taking charge, and playing that way. As a winger you’re kind of standing around, watching your defensemen and stuff and I’m fine with doing that, but I like being more involved. Many of the top forwards in the game, most of them played centre before reaching the NHL. There are only four centre spots and there are eight winger spots so you have to pick and choose who you want where. But my versatility is big and I’ve also spent some time on defense way back when, so who knows what could happen (laughs).
Gregor: Well yeah, that would be a big stretch (laughs). Speaking of comfort, who felt more comfortable on a horse at Stampede, you or [Johnny] Gaudreau?
Lazar: Hands down myself. Actually that made my day was seeing Johnny roll up with his DC shoes and his jogger pants. That’s another cool thing about being traded, was with the Stampede being in Calgary, being involved with the community. I mean a few people were quite scared when Johnny fell off of his horse, but like the cowboy he is, he got back up and rode it like a champ (laughs).
Gregor: He fell off of his horse?
Lazar: Yeah, we got to the grounds and we were waiting for the parade to start. We had about forty minutes to kill. His horse didn’t like him or he did something to annoy the horse, and I think the horse was just keeping him honest. But Johnny went flying and he barrel rolled out of it. No harm done thankfully, but it made for a good laugh.
Gregor: Were those plaid shirts you were wearing your choice or were they given to you? They were terrible (laughs).
Lazar: I’m colour-blind so it wouldn’t make a difference, but that was just nice to be involved. Everyone was matching and I got to feel like a cowboy for a day.
Gregor: Congratulations on the new contract and welcome back to the Battle of Alberta, this time on a different side.
Lazar: Thank you. I loved my time with the Oil Kings and I can’t wait to play spoiler for the bad guys this time around (laughs).
Lazar is one of the nicest players I’ve encountered over the years. He is always smiling and upbeat. I appreciated his honesty on how difficult his last season in Ottawa was. Having no confidence and not enjoying coming to the rink would be brutal, and if you are playing scared your chances of playing well are low. Lazar was never an elite point producer in junior, so I don’t see him being a top-line forward, but he has the potential to be a very good third line player, who could fill in your top six when injuries occur. I don’t think his first few seasons in the NHL are an accurate presentation of his potential. He would have benefited from some time in the AHL. He even admitted his puck skills eroded, and I’m curious to see if he can get them back. I hope he does.
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