To all the Calgary Flames fans still puzzled and angry that Mark Jankowski is toiling in the minor leagues while the likes of Troy Brouwer, Matt Stajan, Tanner Glass and Freddie Hamilton continue to enjoy their NHL perks: consider the case of Curtis Lazar as a cautionary tale.
You know Lazar as the cheerfully inconsistent Flames fourth liner who occasionally flashes the potential to move up the lineup but has yet to carve out a meaningful role at the National Hockey League level.
That’s the Calgary perspective.
Back in Ottawa, the 22-year-old is known as a first round bust.
He’s a perfect example of a project player who was mishandled early in his professional career. His early struggles could be mirrored by Mark Jankowski if the Flames sacrifice his physical and mental development from a major role with the Stockton Heat in favour of a minor role in the top league.
It might seem counter-intuitive to both the team and player. It appears to many that the Flames would be better off with Jankowski anchoring the fourth line alongside some combination of Lazar, Stajan, Hamilton, Glass and Brouwer.
The same logic might suggest that Jankowski is better off honing his skills against NHL competition on a nightly basis regardless of the top minutes.
But let’s take a look at how that worked out for Lazar when the mediocre Senators skipped sending their new top prospect on a tour of duty in the American Hockey League after he put up 41 goals and 76 points in 58 games for the Edmonton Oil Kings in the WHL as an 18-year-old.
Spoiler: it didn’t.
Tonight, Lazar gets a huge opportunity on the top line against his old team, but it’s just another step in a total player rebuild the Flames have undertaken.
Lazar jumped right into the lineup with the Sens in 2014-15. He started between young stars in the making Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone and was impressive enough in a third-line role initially to get the talk from GM Bryan Murray that he wouldn’t be returning to junior.
What then-head coach Paul MacLean said about Lazar at the time sounds similar to glowing pre-season reviews about Jankowski from Flames bench boss Glen Gulutzun this year.
“The way that he’s played, the consistency he has shown and the ability he has shown to adapt to the game and to raise the level, we feel very comfortable and confident that him staying here is going to make us a better team,” MacLean said of Lazar to the Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch back in 2014. “He’s got hockey sense. He’s in the right place a lot. He just knows where to go. That’s probably his best skill is the fact he knows where to go.”
The promise faded against the tougher competition in the NHL’s regular season. He finished with six goals and 15 points as a rookie, and followed it up with six more goals and 20 points in his second season. He showed his incredible talent at the junior level while playing with Connor McDavid and captaining Team Canada to a world junior gold medal in 2015-16, but the narrative changed when he returned to the Sens. He was moved to the wing. Expectations were high. He wasn’t meeting them. His confidence dipped.
The final blow came when he got mono in training camp last season and started his year in the AHL. If not for all the other jabs he’d taken to his development, that setback likely would have been a blip on his chart. But he got his first taste of the minors in arguably the worst shape of his life, and the numbers reflected that with three goals and four points in 13 games before he returned from Binghamton.
The rest is pre-Flames history. He didn’t pot a goal and had just one assist in 33 games with the Sens before the deadline deal that brought him to the Flames in March.
A fresh start is doing him some good, but the Flames are rebuilding a broken player.
They have a chance to ensure Jankowski remains intact until both the team and player are ready for him to take a meaningful full-time role with the Flames.
There’s a reason Jankowski isn’t here now, even though he undoubtedly earned a spot with a stellar pre-season. The problem is that spot is likely on the fourth line until someone in the top nine gets hurt or slumps significantly. (The Lazar move to the top line is temporary. It’s a motivation start: he’ll be as pumped as anyone to play his old team, and Micheal Ferland gets a reminder that he has to earn his place with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan on a daily basis.)
The Flames, unlike the Sens at the time, have the luxury of patience. Sens GM Pierre Dorion admitted last year the team was essentially forced to rush Lazar into the NHL, even if it meant a role that didn’t really fit his skill set.
“We didn’t draft Curtis just to be a third or fourth line guy, we drafted Curtis to be an impact player for us,” Dorion told Garrioch a year ago. “It’s about handling the puck well, making more plays and being an impact player.”
Jankowski may one day be an impact player for the Flames. For now, he’s thriving in the AHL. He’s playing top minutes in all situations and making major impact statistically. His three goals and four points in his first two games with the Heat has him sitting among the league’s leaders through opening week.
There’s nothing better for his confidence and development right now, and he knows that he’ll be called up sooner or later as long as he keeps performing well.
Everyone knows it. It even cryptically made No. 16 on Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman’s recent 31 Thoughts.
But let’s be patient. The longer the wait is, the more likely it is his transition to the NHL is a smooth one. A productive one. One that more resembles the Lazar trajectory today than the one from just a year ago.