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LAZAR SETTLED IN CALGARY

The forward views this season as a fresh start in his career

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

He comes across as bubbly as a bottle of slightly-chilled, still-corked Moët & Chandon Dom Pérignon. Gregarious. Outgoing.

Someone, you're convinced, very much in command of himself and his situation, the one in a crowd others instinctively gravitate towards.

But tiny, insidious cracks, Curtis Lazar is quick to acknowledge, had begun appearing underneath the surface of that self-assured sheen.

"Confidence,'' he says, "is something I had to work on on the ice this last year.

"Off it - believe it or not from how much I like to talk - I'm never at the centre of a room, not all about the attention. I'm one of those guys kinda tucked away in a corner, going about my business.

"But playing this game, you need swagger.

"You have to trust your instincts. That's imperative. Otherwise, you feel a bit lost, always seem to get caught in-between.

"Last year I felt lost."

In Ottawa, as the romance faded with the team that had drafted him, he took on the role of eager hamster stuck in the exercise wheel: Legs churning furiously, wheel spinning merrily.

Going absolutely nowhere.

"I didn't only play with the mindset: 'If I turn this puck over, I'm going to be sitting the next shift' or 'I'm going to be sitting the next game.' I played like: 'If I turn this puck over I'm going to be sitting for the next week.'

"That's not healthy.

"I mean, every kid dreams of playing the NHL and very few get the chance so I still wasn't doing badly. A million kids would've changed places with me in a heartbeat, right?

"But growing up, I was always the go-to guy, put up good numbers. The mental part of my game started to slip. My passion took a hit. It got to the point I didn't want to show up at the rink.

 "The way things went, the last thing I wanted to do was walk around and show my face. Who knows what people would say?"

So when the Flames acquired him - rescued might not be overstating the situation - a half-hour prior to the March 1st NHL trade embargo, Lazar felt as if he'd been set free.

But he'd joined a unified group here, pushing hard for a post-season spot. A difficult nut to crack.

So he sat and and waited, and (as is his custom) smiled, not marking his Flames' debut until March 19th, and then only after Micheal Ferland came down with flu.

In total, four regular season turns and one playoff appearance.

Video: CGY@SJS: Tkachuk sets up Lazar's first of the season

Enough time to settle into unfamiliar surroundings, perhaps, but certainly not enough of a look-see to carve out any sort of territorial niche.

Management had seen enough, however, to sign him to a one-year contract extension, to protect him in the Las Vegas expansion draft.

"Honestly,'' Lazar says now, "I'm happy how it played out last year, not getting thrown into the fire right away. Expectations are something that've come back to haunt me in my career so far.

"Obviously things didn't work out in Ottawa.

"Coming here, finding a home, getting used to the city, my teammates and the systems, has helped me relax; allowed me to step back, rediscover my game, my strengths, my passion.

"Everything I did as a Flame last year set me up for this season."

Consider, then, his two-month indoctrination into All Things Flame as crib notes for the big exam this term.

Headmaster Brad Treliving's expecting a good grade.

"We bought low on him,'' says the GM. "That's why you have a book of business on these people.

"He went through a difficult training camp last year with the mono, that's tough to recover from, so to me he was chasing it all season.

"The message to him this year is: Fresh start. I don't care what happened last year, or last month for that matter. Get rid of all the baggage. Play to your strengths. Great speed. Competitive kid. High-character kid.

"We'll find a spot for you but you've got to find a way to grab hold of it.

"This is a real opportunity for Curtis. He understands that. He's healthy. In phenomenal condition. And he's really excited. This is sort of a rebirth for him. Where he lines up and plays? That's for the coaches to figure out.

"I think at the end of the day when you can skate like he can, when you've got character like he does, well, we'll bet on that.

"Bet on that and see where it takes us."

To, they all hope, the sort of contributing, every-game NHL role predicted when Lazar was selected 17th overall by the Sens in 2013.

"The tough part is I know the player I can be, the potential that I have,'' he says. "It's only Year Four but it's already been a whirlwind of a career. Last year is never going to define me. I won't let it.

"I've always said that five years down the road, no one will be talking about last season. And if they do, it'll be about how I received a new opportunity in a new city and I flourished. 

"I've never been more motivated. I've got some things to prove to myself, and others."

With the attention diverted to a number of other high-profile newcomers and the usual Johnnys and Monys and Matthews, Lazar aims to quietly re-make a name for himself when camp opens. He's feels an organizational kinship now. His parents and girlfriend are only a six-hour drive away in Kelowna.

And beginning this week, he's been given something few in this life do: A second chance to make a good first impression.

"I'm chomping at the bit to get going. As soon as we hop on the ice to play games I want to strut my stuff.

"My mindset is, and I've said this before: I want to be a long-term Calgary Flame.

"And now I finally feel like be a Flame. Last year, I'd look down at the logo on my chest and kinda be like: 'O-kay …' I guess I'd gotten so accustomed to that (Senators) centurion or Roman soldier or gladiator or whatever it is through two and a half seasons.

"Now he Flaming C fits better, seems more natural.

"This is my home now.

"And you know what they say about home:

"There's no place like it."

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