Lazar learning how to be complete, two-way talent
EDMONTON -- Last season, Curtis Lazar went through a scoring drought unlike any he had ever experienced.
Yet despite going a calendar month without a goal, the Edmonton Oil Kings center was still one of his team's most valuable players during that stretch.
Knowing the key to success at the next level is in his own end, instead of growing frustrated with his lack of offensive production, Lazar put a greater emphasis on his defensive game.
Once the puck started going in for him, the 18-year-old Vernon, B.C., product emerged as one of the best two-way centers available in the 2013 NHL Draft.
"Keeping the puck out of your net, that's first and foremost," Lazar said. "Anytime you can have coaches trust you to take a defensive-zone faceoff late in the game and know you're going to get that puck out, and buy into their defensive system, that really goes a long way.
"You have to be able to play in your own end to make it to the next level. I think my defensive game came a long way last season."
Eventually, Lazar regained his scoring touch and finished the Western Hockey League regular season with a team-high 38 goals, despite his scoring drought in October.
Lazar went on to be selected with the 17th pick of the first round by the Ottawa Senators.
"The biggest thing about Curtis, he's such a well-rounded player," Oil Kings coach Derek Laxdal said. "If you look at his offensive numbers, they're not goals that are highlight-reel goals. But he's not afraid to take the puck to the net and score a goal that way. He's not going to score dangle goals, it's going to be a straight line beating a guy through the middle, taking a guy wide, taking it to the net, goals that you just admire his strength and courage to take the puck to the net like he does.
"He's a prototypical player that can play both sides of the puck. When you take prolific scorers in junior hockey and you get them to the National Hockey League, the biggest thing is to teach them to play both sides of the puck."
On an Oil Kings team loaded with offensive talent, Lazar had the luxury of working on his defensive game last season without having to carry the scoring load.
Possessing all the physical attributes necessary to make the NHL leap, the length of Lazar's tenure with the Senators next season will be determined in his own end. It's a part of the game he intends to continue working on, having been returned to juniors this season.
"Curtis will adapt to that, he'll have that already imparted in his game," Laxdal said. "He's the type of player that can step right in and be a physical presence in the National Hockey League and the goals will come. That's why the Ottawa Senators like him so much.
"What's going to allow him to get his feet wet in the NHL will be his defensive play. They're not going to look to him to score. It's going to be him doing the little things. Last year, he was a big part of our offense, and even when he wasn't scoring, he was doing so many good things. He did end up scoring 38 goals for us."
Having an opportunity to attend Senators training camp this fall, Lazar got a taste of the next level. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury early limited his time on the ice.
He was able to get into a pair of preseason games and took part in a rookie tournament.
"It was a lot of fun, it's a great organization and I'm glad that I'm a part of it," Lazar said. "Just being there and seeing how those other guys conduct themselves on and off the ice really helped me out.
"You see how much fun those guys have, they're a little older but they're boys at heart. I've come back motivated to have a good season. After this year I want to have a solid summer of training and my goal is to make the team next season."
With a number of high-end players having moved on after last season, the Oil Kings will be relying heavily on Lazar at both end of the ice.
He's taking on a bigger leadership role with the team this year as well, serving as captain before defenseman Griffin Reinhart was returned from the New York Islanders.
"I always take pride in my leadership, whether I have a letter or not, which was the case even last year when I was still a younger guy," Lazar said. "Just being a voice to talk to helps a lot of our younger guys this year, and I just want to do anything I can do to make their life easier and help with the team."
Lazar understands being drafted is just one step in a long road to the NHL. The key for him this season will be keeping up his good work habits and continuing to develop as a player.
"[Senators general manager] Bryan Murray told me to come back and be a player," Lazar said. "[Senators coach] Paul MacLean told me to come back and dominate at both ends of the ice and in the faceoff circle in this league. There is such an emphasis on puck possession at every level, so I'm trying to get that down."
Curtis Lazar, center, Edmonton Oil Kings
6-foot, 196 pounds
Selected in first round (No. 17) by the Ottawa Senators in 2013 NHL Draft
Hometown: Vernon, B.C.
2012-2013 WHL stats: 72 games, 38 goals, 23 assists, 61 points
According to NHL scouts:
Strengths: His skating ability and his physical attributes. Not afraid to go into the dirty areas and is strong in his own end of the ice. He is also good in the faceoff circle.
Needs to work on: Small-area play. Needs to improve on his stick-handling abilities in tight spaces. He needs to move the puck quicker and be stronger on the puck along the boards.
Author: Derek Van Diest | NHL.com Correspondent