When the Ottawa Senators traded Jason Spezza to Dallas over the summer, it was a definite signal that the franchise was moving in a new, younger direction. Their captain and second-leading scorer was gone, with top scorer and offensive defenseman extraordinaire Erik Karlsson eventually earning the 'C' for his own jersey.
But so far, the Senators aren't wilting without Spezza. In fact, at 4-1-0, Ottawa is off to a grand start and the Sens are doing it as one big unit: No player has more than four points, but 14 skaters have already counted on the scoresheet. One such player is rookie Curtis Lazar.
The highly-touted first-rounder from 2013 is coming off a banner junior year with the Western League's Edmonton Oil Kings, one which culminated in a Memorial Cup title over the Ontario League's powerhouse Guelph Storm.
“We weren’t the most skilled team, but we found a way to win," Lazar said. "The life lessons we learned and the adversity we faced…it really does make you a better player and person.”
When Lazar first told me this, I initially chalked it up to that hockey player's psychology of always wanting to be the underdog, until I remembered my own feelings before that Memorial Cup championship: I thought the Oil Kings were gonna get stomped. Sure, Lazar had fellow NHL prospects such as Griffin Reinhart, Henrik Samuelsson and Tristan Jarry on his side, but nearly every Guelph forward had been drafted or signed by an NHL team – the Storm was unceasing and battering.
But Lazar and his buddies would not be unbowed and the glory went West in a 6-3 victory. Before his club team went all the way, Lazar also put in a great showing for Canada at the world juniors in Sweden. He (along with future Buffalo pick Sam Reinhart) was one of the few forwards who stepped up for the squad, which finished a disappointing fourth overall. He's a player that can score, kill penalties and take the body and it's no wonder the Senators found a roster spot for him to fill this fall.
“It's whatever they want; I’m comfortable playing all three forward positions," Lazar said. "If they want to put some offense on the board, I’ll try to supply that. But it’s even the little things: Getting the fans excited, establishing a forecheck, taking the body, having fun with it…spreading some energy into the lineup. I know there is going to be some growing pains – I’m 19.”
So far, Lazar has brought his toolbox and is using every instrument inside. He's winning nearly 58 percent of his faceoffs (he's taken 19 draws in four games, fifth on the team), he's fourth on the team in hits and tied for first in blocked shots among forwards.
Looking down the line, I wouldn't be surprised if Lazar becomes the first- or second-line center on the Sens, though there's no hurry in getting him there. The fact he can thrive in a bottom-six role is a testament to his diversity and Ottawa is not starved for talent up front, even if they don't have anyone who could be deemed elite right now.
In the summer of 2013, Lazar said Spezza took him under his wing when the youngster was in Ottawa for camp. Now Spezza's gone and the Sens are looking ahead. And with Lazar in the fold already, they can do so with a positive outlook for the future.