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'I OWED IT TO MYSELF'

Lazar asked to be sent to Stockton to work on his game and will now draw back into Flames lineup against Blue Jackets

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

To straight-up bid for a demotion in the spirit of self-improvement says a lot about the man.

Few possess the maturity, foresight and courage to make a decision of that magnitude.

For a natural-born leader with character as bright as that ubiquitous, mile-wide grin, it felt right.

"Not at all," a smiling Curtis Lazar said when asked if he regretted the request to be assigned to the Flames' AHL affiliate in Stockton some six months ago. "This is more of a long-term thing. I just turned 24. I'm just entering my prime. Wait 'til I get going here.

"I owed it to myself, to get a chance to go down there. I kind of skipped that development phase. Every player wants to play in the NHL as quickly as you can. I think my versatility to play up down the lineup helped me in Ottawa to stay afloat there, but I saw my potential start to (max) out.

"I'm always going to bet on myself. I got the chance to go down, work the powerplay, play the penalty kill, just re-discover my identity. That was huge for me, not only for this season, but the future as well.

"I'm ready for that next step."

Lazar, acquired by the Flames in March of 2017, played the entire season in Calgary last year, but had limited production in 65 regular-season dates.

He'd reached a crossroads.

Continue on the same path, playing fewer minutes and regular trips to the press box, or re-discover what made him one of the most highly coveted players in the 2017 Draft?

So, Lazar did what many would consider unthinkable. He took it upon himself to make the request directly to Flames management, and focus his efforts on developing the right way after years of uneven trajectory.

"Obviously, you want to play in the NHL," Lazar said. "I've been fortunate do that for four years in my career. …  I looked at this year as a chance to develop, regardless of whether it was up here or down there. I got a chance to play, take on a bit of a leadership role and mentor the younger kids down there. I thought I did a great job with that."

Lazar was recalled to the big club back in mid-February, but was re-assigned to the Heat after three weeks of press-box duty.

Injuries and illness up front have opened the door again, but this time - and for the first time in nearly a calendar year - he'll officially factor back into an NHL lineup.

At a most pivotal time of the year, too.

 

Video: "I've earned the opportunity up here"

 

"I can only control so much," Lazar said, "and that's the way I play and the way I conduct myself. That's all I could do. When I was up here before, of course you want to prove to everyone that I do belong in the NHL and I'm an everyday player, but that chance just didn't come.

"Credit to Tre (general manager Brad Treliving) and the organization. I was sitting for about three weeks up here, and we talked about that. You lose your momentum. I had a good thing going in Stockton and if I was thrown in a game here (during my last stint), sure, I would have loved that. It would have been great and I would have put my best foot forward. But there would have been some rust, and it would have been tough to see what I truly could have offered.

"I got the chance to go down, play some games, shake off that rust and here I am."

"He's excited and I'm excited to have him in the lineup," said head coach Bill Peters, encouraged by the reports from his colleagues in Stockton.

"He'll provide lots of energy for us.

"He's hanging onto pucks in the right situations, looking to make plays and (is) very smart. When there's a play to be made, he looks to make it. He wasn't doing that as much earlier. He was probably more of a chip-and-chase guy earlier and now when there's a play to be made, he executes that.

"That's what's going to help him moving forward."

 

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Lazar - who will centre Garnet Hathaway and fellow farmhand Alan Quine tonight against the Columbus Blue Jackets - was doing it all for the Heat this year, notching 37 points (17G, 20A) in 49 games to rank fifth in team scoring.

That alone betters the point total from his previous three years combined at the NHL level, giving him a renewed sense of confidence, and using that time to refine those omnipresent leadership qualities that made him two-time champion with the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings.

There, he was the captain. A 40-goal scorer. A point-per-game guy, and then some.

That's the player - or some variation of - he believes he can be at the NHL level, too.

With, he reminds, the right seasoning.

"I just feel relaxed," Lazar said. "I feel free. And I'm hoping to see that translate.

"I feel this is the next step in my development - to come out here with the big boys, hop on the ice and see what sticks."

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