January 22, 2013
Curtis Lazar admits he got carried away with comparisons.
In a deep draft year and with so much readily available information on every prospect, it's only inevitable that a potential first-rounder such as the Edmonton Oil Kings centre is going to be checking up on his fellow puck prodigies. Lazar came into this season hyped as a potential top 10 choice and hasn't disabused anyone from thinking he will be a solid pick at any draft slot this summer. A key difference, though, is that the Vernon, B.C., native fills a third-line role for the loaded Oil Kings, who have a 100-point man in Michael St. Croix and an older NHL first-rounder in Phoenix Coyotes pick Henrik Samuelsson as their top two centres. That meant it took Lazar some time not to obsess over his numbers, even when contemporaries such as Halifax's Nathan MacKinnon, London's Max Domi and Portland's Nic Petan are top-10 scorers in their respective leagues.
"To be honest, it has been something that has weighed on me," says the 6-foot, 198-pound Lazar, who is NHL Central Scouting's 26th-ranked North American skater. "I got off to a slow start. I let all the little things get to me instead of just enjoying the game, having that passion for the game that I used to have. Now I play on the third line and I take pride in that. We're a checking line [he and his linemates of late, Mitch Moroz and Travis Ewanyk], but we can put up numbers too.
"I'll do whatever it takes to help our team to win. There's guys in front of me and I understand that, but I'm happy for them. My game has a lot more to it than just putting up numbers, that's what I take pride in."
Embracing that two-way role has helped more than one junior break into the first round of the draft. Lazar's talent is evident, given that he was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 WHL bantam draft and promptly had a 20-goal campaign as a 16-year-old, but he would rather plug any leaks in his game, be they real or perceived.
"My goal every game is to influence the outcome in every game," says Lazar, whose quickness and soft hands were particularly in evidence when he helped Canada's summer under-18 team win the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka tournament at the start of this season. "If I can put up a couple points, fine, but it can be blocking a shot, winning a faceoff."
Lazar has a coming-out party of sorts during Edmonton's run to the Ed Chynoweth Cup last season, sharing the team playoff scoring lead with St. Croix, a New York Rangers draftee who is two years his senior. The toll of a seven-game final against the high-octane Portland Winterhawks seemed to drain their energy reserves by the time they arrived in Shawinigan, Que., for the MasterCard Memorial Cup. Edmonton returned much of the nucleus of a team which might have been the best in major junior, but it took time this season before the Oil Kings appreciated there is no free pass given to the defending champion.
No franchise has won back-to-back WHL titles since the 1994 and '95 Kamloops Blazers. Portland seems even more formidable this season, but Lazar and the Oil Kings have set the bar at repeating.
"We have huge expectations for our hockey club as this is the year we're supposed to make a run for it. But after last year every team is gunning for us. It's a work in progress but everything is really coming along lately.
"There are no easy games in the Western Hockey League," he adds. "The 21 other teams are good hockey clubs. There are no easy nights. We were disappointed with the result in the Memorial Cup [losing the tiebreaker game to eventual champion Shawinigan] and it all comes back to, day in and day out, trying to get back to that point."
1. There is no skill you can ignore at your age, but what is something you want to display improvement at this season?
"My overall experience. It's quite rare for a 16-year-old to go to the Western Hockey League and go to the finals and go to the Memorial Cup. That helps me become a leader and help out in the dressing room, because I've had a 100-plus games in the Western Hockey League."
2. Whom in the NHL do you watch closely because he (or they) play the kind of game you will have to in order to make it and stay there?
"I think I'm similar towards a Mike Richards, Dustin Brown-type player. Richards may be a little more of an agitator than I am but Dustin Brown has those leadership qualities. It's just how they each play that complete game all-around. There's not too many points you can pick out that they're bad at."
3. What teammate has had the greatest influence on you in the Dub?
"You have to look back at last year and see Mark Pysyk [the former Oil Kings captain who is now in the Buffalo Sabres farm system]. He was the heart-and-soul guy in our dressing room. When you said the words 'Edmonton Oil Kings' he was the first guy who came to mind. Everyone's really helped me out this season. We're a family and that helps us be the team we are today."
4. What really gave you the kick to pursue hockey, as something more than just a game?
"At an early age, even when I was taking CanSkate as a figure skater, I would always go on the ice in my Canucks jersey. It was just the thrill of it, being on the ice. I always knew organized hockey was a goal of mine, from the time I was five."
5. Is it hard being a Canucks fan playing in the Oilers' building, lookin' up at all the banners?
"I don't know. Whenever the Canucks are in town I'm still that guy wearing my Canucks t-shirt around Rexall Place. I get a lot of flak for it, but I'm not going to be one of those bandwagon jumpers. Edmonton is a great hockey club, I do cheer them on after getting to know some of the [Oilers] guys over the past couple years."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.