Curtis Lazar: A Western Canadian Patrice Bergeron?
That Curtis Lazar has endeared himself to Ottawa fans over the course of the 2014-15 season is incontestable. From eating a hamburger thrown on the ice after a Sens’ win, to moving in with the Phillips family and helping with babysitting, to making his mentor (and landlord) Chris Phillips a get well card, the 20-year-old center has a place in Ottawa fans’ hearts.
— Curtis Lazar (@CurtisLazar95) April 21, 2015
But what can Senator’s fan expect from Lazar in the future? Ottawa’s first round pick from 2013, Lazar was drafted 17th overall and, after being sent back to the Edmonton Oil Kings for the 2013-14 season and winning the Memorial Cup with them in 2015, he made the big club this past season. Other than a stint with the Canada’s gold medal winning World Junior team, he played the entire year for the Senators (67 games in total) and settled in nicely on the left-wing of the third line, along with J.G Pageau and Eric Condra. While not looking out-of-place, Lazar also went through prolonged goal scoring droughts and only recorded six goals and fifteen points in total. He wasn’t relied on to provide offense this year but some observers have voiced concerns over his lack of production.
Projecting Lazar’s Offensive Upside
One of the major mitigating factors regarding #27’s lack of production – beyond being a teenager for most the year – is when playing against players his own age, he is quite productive. In his final year with the Edmonton Oil Kings he scored well over a point per game in both the regular season and playoffs and also put up nine points in seven games at the World Junior Championships. It is also important to note that while Lazar’s junior scoring totals aren’t exceptional compared to other players, he didn’t have the luxury of a playing a final year of junior hockey as a nineteen/twenty year old, where an additional year of development makes a huge difference. So unlike fellow 2013 draftees Nic Petan and Maxi Domi, he never got a chance to have a Major Junior victory lap and put up massive numbers.
Part of the current limits on Lazar’s game is his style of play doesn’t fully align with his physical development. As The Hockey News scouting report points out, he plays an abrasive, two-way style which relies on tremendous speed and physical play. However, while his speed isn’t in question, Lazar is currently listed at only six feet tall and 190 pounds, which makes playing a physical style a little difficult. He simply can’t consistently overpower players the way he did in the Western Hockey League.
Lazar’s first NHL goal (video below) is a good example of the current strengths and weaknesses of his game. He is able to use his speed to create a three on one rush and ultimately, scores because he drove hard to the net and picked up the loose puck. But he is fortunate also fortunate on the play because there is only one defender he has to beat. If this was a two on two rush with a stronger d-man back, Lazar probably gets muscled off the puck.
The most important factor to keep in mind though is that Lazar only just turned twenty years old! He has plenty of time to add muscle mass to his frame and with his exceptional work and maturity level on the ice (hamburger eating not withstanding) there is every indication that he will develop a frame that allows him to play the type of power forward game he wants to.
Comparisons and Future Development
In his first season, Lazar has already demonstrated that he can keep up with the speed of the NHL game, has the work rate and tenacity to play bottom line minutes, and that he can maintain positive possession numbers (50.8 SAT%) while also improving those who play with him (1.1 SAT Rel%). As we saw with Alex Barkov’s improved second half, after putting up good possession numbers but low point totals in the first fifty games, positive possession numbers are a good indicator of future offensive success. Simply put, Lazar is creating shots on net and that is how you score. Shoot enough and those shots start going in.
In the best case scenario for Ottawa, Lazar is able to develop into a two-way pivot with an offensive upside. Essentially, a Western Canadian version of Patrice Bergeron. While Bergeron has never produced total better than 0.9 ppg in the NHL (and only slightly over in the QJMHL), he is an excellent driver of possession, an elite defensive centre and provides important offense from the second line for Boston. The less ideal player comparisons for Lazar are former Senators Mike Fisher and Antoine Vermette. Again, defensively responsible centers who can play in all situations, but ones whose point totals essential cap out between 40 and 50, unless of course you play a season with Rick Nash on your wing.
For next season, Lazar seems penciled in as the left winger on Ottawa’s third line. With Turris, Zibanejad and Pageau all playing well as the top three centers, and Lazar adapting well to his role as a winger, Dave Cameron probably isn’t going to tinker with the lines. However, if Eric Condra leaves for more money, and if Ottawa gets its elusive top six forward, then expect either Hoffman or Michalek to play on the right-wing. Both represent an offensive upgrade to Condra and that, combined with another summer of growth, should allow Lazar’s offensive game to develop more.
Overall, Ottawa fans should be optimistic. Curtis Lazar has already proven that he is a valuable player for Ottawa and in the coming years should become one of the leaders on the team. While he isn’t going to reproduce the offensive heroics of Jason Spezza, he should push Mika or Turris for a top six forward spot in the coming years, and as anyone will tell you, depth at center is a nice luxury to have.
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