The 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship can be unanimously viewed as a tremendous success for Team Canada who posted a perfect 7-0 record on their way to capturing their first Gold Medal since winning the tournament in Ottawa back in 2009. While Canada’s victory is being celebrated nationwide, it was the contributions from several Sens prospects that provided very unique and different story-lines. We recently caught up with Ottawa Senators Assistant General Manager Randy Lee to discuss the implications the World Juniors could have on the Senators franchise moving forward.
Curtis Lazar would eventually go on to wear the “C” on his chest for Canada, but the decision for him to attend wasn't made until just over a week before the team's Boxing Day debut. “We talked about why we thought it was in his best interest to go and what it meant for him down the road” Lee said. “It wasn't a reflection at all on his play here, we just thought that the experience was so good and the fact that it was in North America was a pig part of it. We didn't want to have the additional rigors of the time zone difference and all the flights factor in. The only thing that complicated it was the injuries to Chris Neil and Zack Smith but I still think we made the right decision.”
“Bryan Murray is very good at seeing the big picture and thinking long-term. It was the right thing to do.”
Lazar, known more as a goal-scorer during his WHL career, has been relied on by the Senators in more of a bottom-6 role so far this season and the team saw his participation in the tournament as an opportunity to boost his confidence and rejuvenate his scoring prowess. “We knew there would be a bit of an adjustment coming from the NHL and playing 8-12 minutes a night but we expected that. We wanted him to gain some confidence with the puck and from playing in bigger situations.” Lee continued. “He's a good goal scorer and he proved that last year but it's tough to translate that right away in the NHL when you see less ice-time. We also really pushed for him to be a leader and take ownership of that. Benoit Groulx was good was us about that and told us that Curtis would be a huge piece of the puzzle for Team Canada.” And that was absolutely the case.
Entering his first NHL season, Lazar has depended on some of Ottawa’s veterans for guidance and during the World Juniors he was more than happy to take on that leadership himself. “We heard a lot about his calming influence in the dressing room. He kept the guys focused. He's a very upbeat guy but delivers a very strong message.” Lee said. “He told us last year after Canada was eliminated that there were things that he saw that he wished he had done something to try and address.”
“Some people when they see things go wrong become passengers.” Lee spoke of Lazar. “Curtis is the type of person who wants to effect change. If he sees something going off the rails he wants to correct it right away.”
Lazar has since rejoined his NHL club during their current 4-game road trip and Randy Lee sees another opportunity in Lazar’s immediate future: an increased role with the Senators. “Dave Cameron has been giving opportunities to some of the younger players since he took over.” Lee said. “We've seen that trend with their minutes and that could be a really good situation for Curtis if he can earn that ice-time.”
Another prospect that Lee believes earned his ice-time lately is Nick Paul. “I think during the World Juniors he really established the ‘Nick Paul brand’.” said Lee of the 6’3” centre. “He's a hard-nosed player. He's a big body. He skates well. He likes to go into the dirty areas in the corners and around the net. I think it was a really strong move by Benoit Groulx to reward him with the extra ice-time in the Gold Medal game. He really earned that increased role in a really meaningful game.”
“He earned his ice by showing that he's the type of player you can trust in critical situations.”
Paul was also recently rewarded with an Entry-Level contract from the Senators just prior to the tournament and while he hasn’t always been the most highly profiled prospect, Randy Lee believes he’s just hitting his stride.
“He's sort of a late bloomer, under the radar type of guy but he's now starting to realize how good he can be. You can see when he's playing for North Bay that teams go after him. He's targeted and we've told him that we want him to protect himself. He's always been a tough guy who will stick up for his teammates but we've told him not to let players take liberties on him because he's such a skilled player himself.”
While the Canadian Senators prospects arguably stole the show, Lee was equally impressed with the Ottawa’s lone Swedish participant. Drafted back in June of 2014, Andreas Englund has been plying his trade for Djurgården in the SHL this season prior to representing his country at the World Juniors. “He's a shutdown defenseman who's playing at the highest level now in Sweden.” Lee said after traveling to Sweden earlier this year as part of a scouting trip. “We were really hoping that he would earn a spot on the Swedish team because it's a great experience for him. I think he handled himself extremely well.”
Englund may not have made any big contributions on the scoresheet for Sweden during the World Juniors but that’s not what Ottawa's Assistant GM expected anyways: “He's not a real point producing defenseman. He's a good, shutdown defender and a great character guy as well.”
With three Senators prospects participating in the tournament, Randy Lee also had hopes for Ottawa’s 2013 4th round selections, Tobias Lindberg and Ben Harpur. In an effort to get acclimated to the North American style of play, Lindberg agreed to play for the Oshawa Generals this season and the 6’3”, 215 lbs Swede has transitioned very nicely so far registering 17 goals, 29 assists for 46 points in 36 games. Harpur is in his 4th season with the Guelph Storm and earned his Entry-Level contract from the Senators back in November. Harper did attend Team Canada's summer evaluation camp in Montreal but did not receive an invitation to the selection camp.