Even if you ignore the price paid, acquiring Curtis Lazar was the most perplexing move the Flames made last season. He didn’t fill any immediate need, seeing as he didn’t play until the season was wrapped up. His numbers, both advanced and basic, didn’t suggest that he was an upgrade on any other Flames player. He was kind of just acquired for the sake of being acquired.
That’s simplifying things too much, though. Lazar fell out of favour with Guy Boucher in Ottawa, and was either the 13th forward or stuck with Chris Neil and Chris Kelly. Given that he appeared to be on the up-and-up (plus a case of mono), Lazar was an easy candidate for a reclamation project. Given the Flames’ deficiencies on the right side, it was a shot that management felt was worth taking.
But the reality is that Lazar has only changed his address since leaving Ottawa. He had an exciting four games where he scored three points at the tail end of the 2016-17 season, but he’s returned to normal Lazar since. His possession stats are sixth worst on the team: only Matt Bartkowski, Tanner Glass, Troy Brouwer, Kris Versteeg, and Freddie Hamilton are behind him. With regards to corsi rel, he’s the third worst player on the team.
By the eye test, he’s unnoticeable on almost every night, never really much of a factor in a positive way. I guess he’s increased his scoring output, but when you’re jumping from 0.11 points per game to 0.16 it’s not much to get excited about (to nitpick, half of his points this year are secondary assists in the late stages of blowout games. He has four primary points in his last 62 games played).
There’s no metric you can point to that shows Lazar is moving anywhere but sideways. It’s a situation that could use some attention.
Not a good spot
Last year, Lazar wanted a fresh start. And he got one when he was traded to Calgary.
Well, not so fast, because the situation hasn’t changed much either. Matt Stajan, Brouwer, and Versteeg (until recently) aren’t the same as Kelly and Neil, but they still aren’t the optimal line. It seems counterproductive to free Lazar from the dregs of the Senators only to put him with the dregs of the Flames.
He’s also still not seeing much of the ice. It’s best to describe Lazar’s usage as “sparing,” as he’s only been involved in 10 of the past 21 games (mostly due to injuries on the right side; imagine if Jaromir Jagr and Kris Versteeg were healthy). In those 10 games, he’s seen 10 minutes of ice time or more only twice, and he’s been held to seven minutes or less three times. It’s not the optimal usage of a young player.
But it’s also hard to say that he’s earned anything else. With the top six solidified, the third line finding some sort of rhythm, and Lazar not producing, where else do you put him? Which player, either at centre or right wing, is he a noticeable upgrade on? He’s been given shots on the third (and for one game, the first) line and not done much with them. Even on the fourth line, he’s somehow the worst centre option.
One of the ominous signs is Garnet Hathaway. The sparkplug surprised many when he stepped into that third line RW role that had seemingly been handed to Lazar over the summer. It’s not great when you’re an offensively-minded 22-year-old and you’re being replaced by a 26-year-old who, to this point in his career, has been an AHLer with a checking forward ceiling.
The final straw could be Andrew Mangiapane. I don’t like getting excited over one game, but it’s hard to say that Mangiapane isn’t already an upgrade on Lazar. Even though he doesn’t play centre or right wing, Mangiapane made the fourth line actually watchable for maybe the first time in a long time this season. Many would agree that it’s not even that ridiculous to say that Mangiapane has earned a better look after one game than Lazar has all season.
The small-ish winger just offers more than Lazar can. His AHL performances have been dominant this year and last, which is why people have been clamoring for him. With Mangiapane, you are getting someone who at least looks like a promising offensive weapon, which is hard to say about Lazar over 200 games into his NHL career.
(If you really need any more proof, let’s see what happens around 10:00 when the fate of F. Hamilton comes in. If the Flames recall someone else, that would make three Stockton players who have been brought in to do Lazar’s job.)
The positives of being punted
Playing in the NHL is not working for Lazar. There’s few signs of life and little improvement. You can try him up and down the roster, but the reality is that it really won’t work wherever you put him. If you believe that Lazar can still reclaim his first round potential, you must also agree with that. If you believe that Ottawa ruined his development by determining he was immediately a third liner, it’s hard to see how Calgary can remedy that by doing the exact same thing.
And that’s what the AHL is for.
The Flames can stash Lazar away while making use of some options that are better currently. People have been pining for Marek Hrivik in the lineup, and this is the perfect chance to get him some NHL ice time. The guy has been tearing up the AHL since coming off the IR at the beginning of the season. It really can’t hurt to make a swap: Hrivik could provide some bottom six stability while Lazar gets premium ice time in an easier league.
Age also plays into this heavily. Hrivik is 26, which means that he’s likely around the peak of his hockey career. You can play him, get a good year out of him, and wave goodbye. He’s a free asset. The team didn’t invest heavily into his development; there’s no real need to see results.
On the other hand, Lazar is 22. He does have room to improve. If you believe he can redeem himself, it makes sense to give him situations where he can be successful. Lazar needs minutes – which he isn’t getting in Calgary – and teammates who can help him – ditto – to help him get his game to the next level.
And where can he find plenty of that? In Stockton. There’s ripe opportunities down the middle (besides Hrivik, Tanner Glass, Brett Findlay, and Rod Pelley are taking reps at centre) and down the right side (the two right-handed shots remaining are Austin Carroll and Spencer Foo). There’s spots for him to fill in and get good minutes with teammates that aren’t on the last legs of their careers. An entire season with that is certainly much better than what the situation is now.
(For those who argue that Lazar should take a conditioning stint, something that he has to agree to in the first place, it’s probably not going to be helpful at all. The maximum length of a conditioning stint is 14 days, which, on average, is four or five AHL games. If he’s AHL bound, he should be there for a while.)
He and the team both stand to benefit from him playing in the AHL. The risk of losing him on waivers is significantly less than the possibility of developing a Lazar worth a damn.
About that. If you could believe it, there’s a chance that Lazar could get pulled off waivers.
Guys like Adam Cracknell, Gabriel Dumont, Chris DiDomenico, Ryan Carpenter, and Nathan Walker (twice) have been waiver wire pickups. None of these guys are particularly great at anything and NHL teams determining that they are worthy of NHL spots would make the Flames’ choice difficult.
Lazar is probably the highest profile guy in that list. The Flames more or less paid the price for him because of that name, and there’s a possibility some other team would take a chance for the same reason. If a first rounder from within the past five years falls into your lap, why wouldn’t you even try to see if it works? I mean, if Cracknell can get claimed on waivers, why couldn’t Lazar?
I opened this article with “ignore the price paid,” but the Flames aren’t going to. They did not pay a second rounder for an AHLer, and they certainly did not pay to lose him for free. Given that they’re already taking heat for spending high picks and making few gains thus far, management probably does not want that on their hands.
This is almost certainly what is holding Lazar back from the AHL. Perhaps the pain of Paul Byron still stings, but the team probably won’t waive someone they think could be a day-to-day contributor (even if they are wrong in this case).
Lazar is clearly not working in the NHL. The AHL is a solution for that.
And at this point, what else can the Flames do? He’s not that different from what he was last year on ice, other players from the farm are starting to usurp him, and the Flames can’t realistically find a way to get him favourable minutes. He’s stuck in neutral. Some of it his fault, some of it not.
The things Lazar needs to become a better player exist in Stockton, not Calgary. If he wants to become a regular here, he should start with being a regular there. He’s not really that much different than guys who had to be cut at the beginning of the season. What has he done to distinguish himself besides being the newest guy? If the Flames are really serious about developing him for the long term, he should probably be down on the farm.
Sure, there’s the risk of losing him for free on waivers. But is it really that much worse if he continues down the path of non-improvement and is essentially invisible for the next two seasons?