The Ottawa Senators had an incredibly good second half last season. With surprise starter Andrew Hammond on fire and replacement coach Dave Cameron giving the team's young core a huge boost in confidence, the Sens went 23-4-4 to end out the season, landing themselves a shocking playoff spot and providing game competition for Montreal in the first round.
But that's all in the past now. A clean sheet of ice awaits Ottawa in 2015-16 and the Sens have learned from last year's less-than-ideal process.
“We don’t want to be playing playoff hockey for three months there, just fighting to get in," said center Curtis Lazar. "But the young core we have is promising. You saw in Montreal, we had resiliency and you have to lose before you learn how to win.”
Cameron went 32-14-9 behind the bench, taking over for the fired Paul MacLean after 27 middling games. Putting his faith in youngsters such as Lazar, Mika Zibanejad, Cody Ceci, Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman really helped, as did the shocking performance of Hammond, aka 'The Hamburglar.'
The 27-year-old rookie was electric down the stretch and was rewarded with a new three-year deal worth an average of $1.3 million per season for his troubles.
“The Hammond story was outstanding," Lazar said. "It’s funny, he played for the Vernon Vipers in the BCHL and being an Okanagan kid, I’d go watch him play when I was growing up. He got a shot, he took it and ran with it and we’re really happy he signed his extension here.”
Of course, the player who really drives the bus in Ottawa is captain and rover extraordinaire Erik Karlsson. A perennial Norris candidate (and two-time winner) thanks to his offensive prowess from the blueline, Karlsson is also much more than a points machine, as his young teammate testifies.
“Karl’s been outstanding," Lazar said. "He’s a small guy but he lays the body – he goes outside his comfort zone. He’s quite a vocal guy in the room and he takes the time to take care of everyone; make sure we’re in line and ready to go when it’s time to step onto the ice.”
As for Lazar himself, it will be interesting to see what sort of progression the 20-year-old can make in his sophomore NHL season. A two-way threat with a great edge to his game, Lazar doesn't have to put up a ton of points to be effective, though he was prodigious in junior with the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings. He's a Memorial Cup winner and a gold medallist at the world juniors, so it's been a nice ride so far.
And the B.C. kid doesn't let up in the summers, training in Kelowna with NHLers such as Carey Price, James Reimer, Shea Weber and Josh Gorges. The latter two have even taken Lazar under their wings during those off-season skates.
“I’m a kid living the dream," he said. "What is so cool about this is I’m hanging out with players I grew up looking up to and now I’m competing against them.”
But if any of them stand in Lazar's way on the ice, they can expect a great fight from the youngster. Because he and the Senators don't plan on being a one-season wonder.