OTTAWA – Expectations are nothing new for Curtis Lazar and he has every intention of living up to them.
The Senators’ first overall pick—17th overall—in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft is expected to make a strong case for himself to remain in the NHL this season, and the challenge starts Saturday with the Senators rookie tournament in London, Ont.
“There’s been a lot of speculation this summer, but I’m just happy to come here and play,” said Lazar, as Ottawa’s rookies took part in some testing. “Wherever I go, I try and have as much success as possible, but at the same time if things don’t go my way it’s a learning curve. You don’t want to get down on yourself.”
The Senators are of a similar mindset. While it’s clear they have high hopes for the 19-year-old, they want to ensure that in the end they make the best decision for not only the player, but also the organization.
Lazar has already earned an invitation to the Senators’ main camp and assistant general manager Randy Lee says Lazar will be given every opportunity to prove he belongs in the NHL.
“We just want Curtis to be Curtis,” said Lee. “He’s a very competitive guy. He always plays right; he’s always in the right spot. He’s good defensively, he’s good without the puck and can contribute offensively.”
Lazar will need to be at his best to earn a full-time position with the Senators as they have few options for the young star. It’s either make the Senators or be returned to the Western Hockey League’s Edmonton Oil Kings.
“We want to see what’s best for him down the road,” said Lee. “We don’t want to look back in three years or five years and say we did a disservice to him.
“You want to put him in a position to succeed to make sure at the end of the year he’s a better player.”
Lazar says he will accept whatever decision the Senators make, but there’s no denying he has little left to prove on the junior stage.
Last season Lazar led the Oil Kings in goals, with 41, was second in team scoring with 76 points, and was instrumental in leading Edmonton to a Memorial Cup. In addition, he was a member of Canada’s world junior team.
If the Senators have any question regarding Lazar it’s how he will find the ability to shine after an exhausting year and a half of commitments. Since being drafted Lazar has gone through two conditioning camps, a rookie camp and one main camp with the Senators. He’s also been through two world junior summer evaluation camps and played a significant role at the world junior tournament. That’s in addition to a full season with the Oil Kings as well as four rounds of playoffs and a trip to the Memorial Cup.
“That’s a lot of games for a young player, for any player,” said Lee. “He needs to make sure to take some days off. He needs to manage his recovery so he can be at his best.”
Knowing he would be facing the pressures of the NHL Lazar made a conscious effort to add some muscle to his six-foot frame.
“I’m about 10 to 15 pounds heavier and it just makes me comfortable in my body and getting to play in Edmonton the last couple of weeks has helped me get used to myself and I’ll see how I can do against the pros in the next few weeks,” he said.
Lazar lives in Vernon, B.C., but spent most of the time training in Kelowna, B.C., at the same facility as Josh Gorges. The Buffalo Sabres defenceman took the young centre under his wing and offered some sound advice.
“A big part of it is just to try and enjoy it,” said Lazar. “There’s so much going on and people say there’s pressure, but I don’t like to see it that way. It’s a great opportunity and I’m looking forward to thriving in this situation and just being myself. Whatever I’ve been doing it’s gotten me in this situation so why change it. I’m going to go out there and keep on smiling.”
While he plans on enjoying the experience, Lazar did admit to feeling a little nervous knowing what’s at stake.
“I’ve felt quite a few emotions over this summer,” admitted Lazar. “I’m nervous, I’m excited, but ultimately I’m quite happy and proud of myself for putting myself in this situation. There’s not much left to do but just go out on the ice and not give them an excuse to send me back down.”
Lazar has played the majority of his career at centre, but should he make the Senators it would likely be as a right-winger.
“We think it would be best suited for us if he was a winger,” admitted Lee. “He’s really good along the walls, but the fact that he can play both is great. The fact that he can take face-offs is great, but he is very good along the walls and he’s always in the right position. He’s a very dependable player so he’ll have no problem playing on the wing.
“If a centre position opened up we would have no problem putting him there.”
NOTES: After three seasons working in scouting and as a development consultant Jason Smith will now be part of the Senators coaching staff working primarily with the team’s defencemen. Former Senator Shean Donovan was hired as a player development consultant and will work with the Senators, the AHL’s Binghamton Senators and the ECHL Evansville IceMen coaching staff.