Oil Kings’ Lazar embraces leadership role on young squad

By Glen Erickson
Curtis Lazar - Edmonton Oil Kings

Photo: Edmonton Oil Kings forward and Ottawa Senators prospect Curtis Lazar is scoring at a better than point-per-game pace so far in 2013-14 (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)


It’s not necessarily a description heard frequently in WHL circles, but the terminology leaves little room for debate when assessing the importance of Curtis Lazar in an Edmonton Oil Kings uniform.

According to head coach Derek Laxdal, who spoke about Lazar with Hockey’s Future in Kelowna last month, “he’s our spiritual leader.”

Later, when speaking with Lazar, his energy was obvious. He’s enthusiastic, especially when broaching the subject of his minor hockey days. He points specifically at a pair of academy programs that enabled him to feed an appetite for self-improvement, a kind of hockey-immersion that bolstered his skills on the ice.

Both the Pursuit of Excellence (POE) and Okanagan Hockey Academy (OHA) programs are based in the Okanagan Valley, near his childhood haunts in Salmon Arm and Vernon, B.C. Naturally, Lazar is a huge proponent of the academy concept, a staunch promoter of the programs, not only in his home province, but across western Canada.

“It’s definitely taken off lately,” he said of the programs. “I know for my benefits, developmentally, without those two programs I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. Just the non-stop development, the ice time we got and the training, it really helped me to become the person and the player I am today.

“I know that at Calgary Edge, they have a great program out there. I don’t know if we beat them once, and I think we played against them probably ten times. Just the entire set up there, with being on the ice every day and games on the weekends, it helps to set players up for the junior lifestyle.”

Now in his third full season with the Oil Kings, Lazar has already run the gamut from wide-eyed rookie to emerging star, then drafted junior to veteran leader. He is viewed as a power forward with offensive skills, but Laxdal suggests there is even more to the package.

“He's passionate and energetic and just the way he plays the game every night, he leads by his example,” Laxdal said. “If he's not scoring, he's playing the body, backchecking hard or really working on the penalty kill. He's always got some element to his game that helps the team.

“When he's scoring, that's just another layer he adds on. He's got such a well-rounded game. He's very coachable and he's a player that you just love to interact with because of the passion he brings."

Lazar, who will celebrate his 19th birthday on February 2nd, is seemingly drinking it all in as a go-to-guy with the Oil Kings this season. If he is feeling any pressure at all from the spotlight that shines brightly on hockey in Edmonton, he’s not letting on about it. In fact, he appears to be relishing the opportunities that come with wearing the “A” and helping to lead a team that expects to reside among the WHL’s upper echelon.

“Sure, I’m taking on a bigger role this year with us having a younger team,” Lazar said. “But that’s what I like. I mean, we go out there and we have fun and we work hard. I have been able to develop my mind for the game and want to pass that on to my teammates.”

Call it the circle of life, ‘Dub-style. Lazar has been the beneficiary of proximity to veteran juniors in the past. When asked about the impact of key players during his WHL career, Lazar pointed immediately to defenseman Mark Pysyk, a former team captain who was the first player ever selected by the expansion Oil Kings back in the 2007 WHL Bantam Draft.

“A prime example has got to be Mark Pysyk,” Lazar said. “He’s steady on the Buffalo Sabres blueline now and just to see his attention to detail at the junior level and how it got him to the NHL.

“I know it’s everyone’s goal and now for me after my one training camp in Ottawa, the details, the preparation, the execution, the things those guys go through, it’s amazing and incredible just to be around the rooms where I can learn and help myself. Then to come back here to Edmonton, these are things I want to help everyone to implement.”

His experience this past summer with the Ottawa Senators was also exciting, despite a shoulder injury that hampered his participation briefly. Lazar says that he was all eyes and ears throughout the process, admiring the collective enthusiasm during camp that nearly netted him a spot on the Senators' roster.

“I remember the first day in the dressing room when Jason Spezza and Chris Phillips pulled me aside and started talking to me,” Lazar said. “It was like, holy cow, I’ve been idolizing these guys and now I’m playing with them.

“Some of them say that as they get older, it takes a lot more maintenance to stay ready, but when you watch how hard they work, just watching the guys before the games. Sure, hockey is their occupation, it’s their pride and joy and what they love to do. They’re men, but sometimes it’s just like they’re little boys out there enjoying the game, just like all of us have since we were really young.”

The change in Lazar has not gone unnoticed in Edmonton, as the coaching staff knows they have a valuable leader in the mix.

"He's come back from Ottawa's camp and has continued to play at the level he did there,” Laxdal said. “He's maybe had a couple of dips here, but he always seems to pick up his game. He's the spiritual leader of our hockey club.”

Lazar admittedly recognizes that it is now his turn to pass along the wisdom procured through his experiences. It’s part of a role he readily accepts. And Lazar knows he will get some assistance from the other Oil Kings’ veterans.

“We had a lot of graduating pieces after last season,” Lazar said when asked about those who have moved on from the Oil Kings. “But we still have a pretty good core group here. It starts with our goaltender Tristan Jarry (PIT), who has been sensational lately.

“On defense with Griffin Reinhart (NYI), I mean it took awhile before he came back from New York, we’re lucky to have him even though he probably wishes he was still on Long Island. Mitch Moroz (EDM) is having a good year so far; he’s a big body and takes the puck hard to the net. Henrik Samuelsson (PHX), he has that goal-scoring touch and playmaking ability that we love here.

“But the big surprise for me is the bottom six guys and how they have played while they’re just getting their feet wet in the WHL. Watching their development so far has been pretty cool, just watching how the pieces are coming together.”

The core group Lazar speaks to has had the best seats in the house in recent years as the Oil Kings have advanced to the WHL Championship series in each of the last two seasons. It was during his rookie campaign that Lazar found himself with the group that represented the WHL at the Memorial Cup in Quebec. The team’s success has made for a pair of lengthy hockey seasons of late, as the Oil Kings have earned the opportunity to play plenty of meaningful games into the month of May. It’s not something Lazar has grown weary of. In fact, he has played a total of 42 WHL playoff games during his first two seasons with Edmonton.

Statistically, Lazar’s numbers have improved in each of his three WHL campaigns. As a rookie, he scored 20 goals and added 11 assists in 63 games, along with eight goals and 11 assists in 20 playoff games. In his second season, he collected 38 goals and added 28 assists while appearing in all 72 regular season games. He tallied nine times and added two assists in the Oil Kings 22 playoff games.

This season, he has 31 points in 23 games, a scoring pace of 1.34 points per game.

Since 2010, he has built a hockey resume that includes all the accomplishments one would expect from a veritable blue-chip prospect, such as:

– 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, where he was selected second overall by the Edmonton Oil Kings.

– 2011 Canada Winter Games as captain for Team BC, the tournament's gold medalists, Lazar accounted for 12 goals and five assists in six games, numbers that broke the previous event scoring records set by Sidney Crosby and Steve Stamkos.

– 2011 Memorial Cup appearance with the WHL Champion Oil Kings.

– 2012 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament gold medalist with Team Canada.

– 2012 Subway Series, member of Team WHL.

– 2013 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game appearance in Halifax.

– 2013 NHL Draft in New Jersey, where he was the first WHL forward chosen, 17th overall by the Ottawa Senators.

– 2013 Subway Series, where he was Team WHL's team captain.

All that’s missing at this juncture is a U20 World Junior Championship appearance, which is likely to be in the cards this month when Hockey Canada hosts its selection camp. And if all goes according to form, Lazar would appear to be a candidate to be wearing a “C” or an “A” on the front of his Team Canada jersey.