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THE BUDDY SYSTEM

Lazar doesn't have to look far for a role model in Backlund

by AARON VICKERS @AAVickers / calgaryflames.com

Thirteen-year-old Curtis Lazar used to keenly watch 19-year-old Mikael Backlund take twirls on the ice at Prospera Place as a member, albeit briefly, of the Kelowna Rockets.

Some eight years later, Lazar is fixed on Backlund again.

Because the now 27-year-old can be the model for the now 22-year-old.

"One hundred per cent," said Lazar, the Flames' newest forward. "That was the subject of conversation at dinner a little bit…just his struggles growing up and when he first jumped to the NHL. It's not an easy league.

"It's something I can pick his brain about. The whole patience side of things…it takes him a while but you look at the player he is and the person I get to see away from the rink and the impact he has on the whole city…it's pretty cool. I look up to him.

"He's a role model for myself. I'll be shadowing him as much as I can."

Lazar was plucked from the Ottawa Senators alongside defenceman Mike Kostka in exchange for Jyrki Jokipakka and Calgary's second-round pick in 2017 minutes before the trade deadline exactly one week ago.

The first-round pick (No. 17) from the 2013 NHL Draft was deemed expendable by the Senators after some early-season struggles that saw Lazar net just one assist in 33 games, and 12 goals and 36 points through the first 176 skates of his NHL career.

Backlund, selected 24th overall in 2007, understands those struggles. Through the first three seasons of his start with the Flames, Backlund had 15 goals and 46 points in 137 games.

The native of Vasteras, Sweden knows what it's like to struggle under high expectations as a youngster, but eventually develop into a key cog in Calgary.

It's a mould Lazar can follow.

"For sure," said assistant GM Craig Conroy, who had a front-row seat to Backlund's journey in Calgary

"You'd like everyone to be Sean Monahan or Matthew Tkachuk, where he just comes in and everything is 'poof,' great. You also look at where Backs was at the beginning. He was a rollercoaster of 'really good,' 'tough,' 'really good.' It wasn't always easy for him.

"I felt bad for him when I was playing with him.

"He was a young guy trying to find his way. He did, eventually, and now he gets to this stage of his career. It wasn't when he was a 20-year-old. It took him time to find his game and figure out where he fits in this league.

"Lazar is in the same boat.

"Hey, it didn't happen right away. You're a first-round pick…it doesn't happen for everybody. It's how you handle it from that point on. That's where we thought it was a great opportunity.

"Is he going to be a top-line…? I don't know. That'll be up to him. But it's okay to start at the bottom and work your way up. You see how Backs went through different stages. Maybe the points weren't where he wanted them to be early in his career.

"Now he's consistent night-in, night-out and you win with guys like that."

So if Lazar wants some advice, he just has to look a short distance away - just nine stalls down.

"Curtis, he's an easy-going guy," Backlund said. "If he asks me something I'll share my story. Everyone's different. But if I feel the need to say something to him I will. If he comes up to ask me I'll be there for him.

"I have no problem with that."

The first gesture was enough for Lazar.

"To go out with Backs and lend that friendly hand…it's huge" Lazar started. "I know for myself…I don't have a family or anyone that has to move with me…a wife or girlfriend. It's just me. It can be a little intimidating. Having those guys with the open mind and welcoming me here and wanting to hang out with me, I definitely appreciate that."

Backlund appreciated the trip down memory lane to his days with the Rockets.  

Even if it made him feel a little old.

"A little bit, yeah, " shrugged Backlund, who turns 28 in nine days.

"He told me that pretty much right away. I didn't know that.

"He was like 13. I would've been 19. It's a few years apart from us.

"He seems to be a good guy and it's a pretty good story."

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