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Lazar sees opportunity to 'blossom' with Sabres

Notes from Saturday's practice sessions

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Curtis Lazar took phone calls from multiple teams during his first foray into unrestricted free agency this summer, but it only took one conversation with Ralph Krueger for the forward to decide the Buffalo was the place for him.  

Lazar looked at the Sabres' roster and saw a strong young core, including a former teammate in Sam Reinhart. He saw a new head coach with a philosophy he believed in. 

Most importantly, he saw an opportunity.

"I've been waiting for this training camp for a full calendar year," Lazar said. "… I see my place here. I really do. I think I can fit in and I can really blossom into the player I know I can be."

Expectations were high when Lazar broke into the NHL with Ottawa as a 19-year-old in 2014, just a year after the Senators selected him with the 17th pick in the draft. He knows now that his ascension to hockey's highest stage came too soon.

Lazar played parts of three seasons with the Senators and was averaging just 8:49 when they traded him to Calgary in March 2017. He played 65 games with the Flames the following season but averaged just 9:51 and tallied 12 points. 

After clearing waivers in October of last season, Lazar - still just 23 - admitted that seeing regular ice time in the minors might be the best course to get his career on track. He spent the year playing in all situations for AHL Stockton, wearing an 'A' while tallying 41 points in 57 contests. 

It was the sort of role - and production - that had been lacking since his junior career. 

"It was huge, and honestly it was probably much needed for myself," Lazar said. "I got rushed into the NHL as a 19-year-old and, yeah, I was able to stay afloat on the fourth line and stuff but I kind of lost that offensive edge.

"… To come out here and feel good about myself and my game, it feels good. I'm looking for it to translate and get some results."

His attitude couldn't have hurt. To interact once with Lazar is to see the cheerful, positive manner that Reinhart has seen since the two played together in U-16s. Andrew Hammond, Lazar's former teammate in Ottawa, said he's never seen the forward in a bad mood. 

Hammond and Lazar became forever connected in March 2015, when Senators fans celebrated a dominant run by the goaltender - dubbed "The Hamburglar" - by throwing hamburgers onto the ice. One time after a victory, Lazar picked one of the burgers up off the bench and ate it. 

To clarify: Yes, the hamburger was fully wrapped.

"It was disgusting, but I'm all about having fun," Lazar said. "I think you guys will get to know that. I always have a smile on my face. I'm just a kid playing the game I love."

His goal now is to play that game in Buffalo. Reinhart stayed with Lazar for a few weeks in July while he trained in Kootenay, B.C., and was stricken by his motivation. 

"He knows he's going to have to make it," Reinhart said. "That's kind of the mindset he's brought on. I love to see that. It's only going to help our team. I've been fortunate enough to see him since under-16s and kind of learn from each other growing up, so I know what he's capable of."

The Sabres must see it, too. Lazar said that conversations with Krueger confirmed that he'll have a real chance to earn his spot on the NHL roster. Through two days of camp, he's been practicing on a line alongside two regular NHL forwards in Jeff Skinner and Evan Rodrigues. 

He admitted he's "chomping at the bit" for the chance to prove himself in preseason games, and he's willing to play whatever role necessary to make an impression.

"I've always been a team-first guy," he said. "I fully embrace killing penalties, blocking shots, and playing that gritty game. I think that versatility really does help me out. I know a lot of guys can take it other ways. 

"A lot of times the guys who put up numbers expect the big minutes and the chances and stuff like that. I'm just here to work. I'm here to plug in and be one of the guys that the Sabres can turn towards to help win games. Whatever role that means, I'm going to embrace it and play my best."

 

Stopping Olofsson

Fans of the Sabres know by now that Victor Olofsson possesses an elite shot. Hammond isn't quite as familiar with the young winger, though he got to know him better during practice on Saturday. 

"I do remember today one of the first [shots] - I definitely took a look to see what the name bar was," he said. "… I mean, he had one in the three-on-three game that was definitely a top-level shot." 

 

Thompson's growth

Tage Thompson is up 15 pounds from last season, added strength he hopes will translate on the ice. Thompson was the subject of today's Sabres in :50, which you can watch below.

Video: Sabres in 50: Thompson's Growth

 

Saturday's practice

The lines for both practice groups remained unchanged from Friday's practice, offering a glimpse of what we might see for the team's first two preseason games on Monday and Tuesday.

"We've definitely spread everybody out here," Krueger explained. "Let's spend these three days also letting our veterans teach and develop and motivate the people around them. It will be the same the first two games.

"... I see these first five days as an opportunity to teach, as an opportunity to get clarity as to what Sabres hockey is going to look like, and nothing better than these guys being able to play with other people and see other looks." 

The makeup of the lines supports that philosophy, with veterans positioned alongside young players. Reinhart is anchoring a line with C.J. Smith and Casey Mittelstadt. Marcus Johansson is skating alongside younger countrymen Olofsson and Rasmus Asplund. 

Here's how the team lined up in full:

Blue Group

13 Jimmy Vesey - 9 Jack Eichel - 43 Conor Sheary
53 Jeff Skinner - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 27 Curtis Lazar
81 Remi Elie - 42 Dylan Cozens - 72 Tage Thompson
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 22 Johan Larsson - 52 Andrew Oglevie 
47 Sean Malone - 46 Eric Cornel

26 Rasmus Dahlin - 10 Henri Jokiharju 
58 John Gilmour - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
6 Marco Scandella - 33 Colin Miller / 78 Jacob Bryson

40 Carter Hutton
34 Jonas Johansson
50 Michael Houser

 

Gold Group

49 C.J. Smith - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 23 Sam Reinhart
73 Matej Pekar - 17 Vladimir Sobotka - 21 Kyle Okposo
90 Marcus Johansson - 74 Rasmus Asplund - 68 Victor Olofsson
20 Scott Wilson - 25 Arttu Ruotsalainen - 15 Jean-Sebastien Dea
12 Kevin Porter - 82 Kyle Olson

8 Casey Nelson - 62 Brandon Montour
19 Jake McCabe - 3 William Borgen
44 Brandon Hickey - 45 Casey Fitzgerald 
61 Devante Stephens - 38 Zach Redmond

35 Linus Ullmark
36 Andrew Hammond

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