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Former world junior captain excited for fresh start and playoff pushoff Calgary

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

Curtis Lazar enjoys smiling. It comes naturally to him. Ask anyone who's spent any time whatever around the young man.

Well, you could almost see the enamel glistening through the long-distance phone line from Ottawa on Wednesday afternoon.

The high beams, he was only too happy to report, were on full blast again.

"I think,'' said the newest Calgary Flame, "that Flames' fans are going to fall in love with my smile right away.

"They'll be able to tell.

"When I'm loose, I'm playing around, having fun, I'm smiling.

"That's when I'm playing my best and I'm looking forward to doing that in a Flames' jersey."

Fresh start. New outlook.

Different perspective.

Re-set. Re-calibrate.

No wonder the 22-year-old was flashing a game-show-host grin Wednesday afternoon.

Video: Curtis Lazar is happy to be coming to Calgary

"I just need to play,'' continued Lazar, acquired on trade deadline day along with D-man Mike Kostka in exchange for Jyrki Jokipakka and a 2017 second-round draft pick. 

"There's a reason I was a first-round draft pick in 2013. I kinda got away from that. A lot of the game is mental and that's where most of my mistakes were coming from.

"To eliminate that and just get back to having fun."

That's what the big team in this town is banking on.

"He's still a very young player,'' said GM Brad Treliving in formally announcing the deal. "His ability to play multiple positions, centre/right wing, a right shot, and he really fits in well what we're doing here.

"It's been a difficult year for Curtis. But this is a transaction we've done a lot of homework on. We're not making this bet based upon what he's doing today. There's significant upside. We think with the environment and the group we have here, he fits right in.

"Don't look at the stat line right now. You've got to use some projection. We weren't real interested in the rental market. We gave up an asset, a second-round pick. We gave a player, an NHL defenceman.

"This is a long-term play.

"This is a kid that moves well, thick body, excellent character, competitive kid.

"We look at hockey sense and compete level as attributes we value. And he's got them in spades."

The transition from Memorial Cup champ, 13th-overall draft pick and world junior gold medal-winning captain has proven a tricky one for the former Edmonton Oil King, though.

Lazar isn't too self-absorbed to admit that it might've all happened a bit too soon.

"I'm a first-round pick but I was in that grey area where junior could have been beneficial to me and the NHL might have been a little too much.

"They allowed me to stay at the NHL level but I wasn't able to play at my full potential.

"I did my part. But people see the numbers aren't there and then people think you're really struggling. This league is always statistic-based and I'm coming in with one assist.

"That's not going to wow anyone.

"I want to show the Flames I offer a lot more than that."

Current Calgary assistant coach Dave Cameron was there in the nation's capital during Lazar's first two seasons pro - as an assistant and then the boss man - and watched the stuttering development process first-hand.

"He's a young kid trying to find his way in the National Hockey League, the best league in the world,'' said Cameron, "He has outstanding character, a high hockey IQ. Super competitive.

"And now he has to find a way to bring it all together and be the player everyone projected.

"When you're a first-round pick, there are high expectations. But not everybody develops at the same time. A lot of factors go into development. There's no definitive, foolproof blueprint.

"When it doesn't pan out right away for kids like that sometimes people get impatient and try and fast-forward it. You can't fast-forward it.

"It happens at the speed it's supposed to."

Video: R. Leslie on a wrap-up of today's trade deadline move

Cameron did get an up-close glimpse of Lazar's potential two years ago, when the Sens rallied from being 14 points adrift of a playoff spot at the close of February to reaching the post-season on the final day, Game 82.

"He was,'' lauds Cameron, "exceptional.

"My third line at that time was Lazar, (Jean-Gabriel) Pageau and Erik Condra. Obviously you get contributions from everyone during a stretch like that but they were probably the most consistent line we had going.

"They made it easy to coach: I wasn't worried about who they were matched up against, I could play them in all situations. They were fearless, physical, blocked shots and probably had more chances than any other line.

"He's a great kid, hard worker.

"And he always comes to the rink with a smile on his face."

Lazar's current Calgary ties extend beyond Cameron. Assistant GM Brad Pascall knows him well from Hockey Canada collaborations, as does trainer Kent Kobelka.

"I'm also familiar with Alex Chiasson from our time out here in Ottawa,'' chipped in Lazar. "I did a lot of things leading up to the draft with Sean Monahan (who went sixth in the same year). Michael Stone I've had the pleasure of meeting. And Kris Versteeg. He was probably the first one to text me, along with Mark Giordano."

This could just be the change required to kick-start a career.

"Not everybody,'' reminds assistant GM Craig Conroy, "can get 60 points or 20 goals in their first year. But because of the Laines, the Matthews, people expect it.

"It doesn't work, you're in and out of the lineup. You're stuck in this kind of a limbo. It's hard to get your game right, get your head right. You can't see any room for you and it's tough to find that light at the end of the tunnel.

"That's why a change can be so beneficial to a player."

So far, Season Three, Lazar admits, has proven to be a trial: one helper, as he mentioned, in 33 starts.

"I just couldn't,'' he sighed, "find my rhythm on the hockey club.

"That started when I was diagnosed with mononucleosis at the beginning of the season, before training camp. I was out for a little bit of time and had to condition myself in the minors before I got back to Ottawa.

"That really put me behind the 8-ball.

"But I can't thank the Ottawa Senators enough for allowing me to get this fresh start. Especially in a place like Calgary.

"They were near the top of the list of the places I wanted to be, with the young core of players that they have.

"It's exciting."

So the high beams were in back full blast again Wednesday.

When informed at a pretty special player in this franchise's history, a guy that had just moved from Colorado to L.A. - a certain Jarome Iginla - was also famous for his smile and pretty hard to top, Lazar laughed.

"There we go," he said.

"I'll be No. 2 on the list."


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