Friday, June 02, 2017

Lazar Quest: Flames Hope Giving up Lottery Ticket Still Results in Hitting the Jackpot

Three months ago, Brad Treliving walked into a convenience store in Ottawa. As he ambled up to the counter, he was faced with a choice.

In his hand the Flames GM clenched a lottery ticket with a 12.5 percent chance of winning the $1 million top prize. While understandably difficult to part with, there were two downsides to hanging onto it:
  1. The results from the lottery wouldn't be known until 2021.
  2. There was a 60 percent chance of not winning a dime.

Meanwhile, standing across from him was Pierre Dorion. In his hand was $200,000 that the Senators GM had just taken out of the till.

After a short pause came a nod of approval from both men, a firm handshake, the exchange of goods, and out the exit strolled Treliving.

The scenario I'm referencing was Calgary's acquisition of centre/right winger Curtis Lazar from the Senators at last season's NHL trade deadline, in exchange for a second round pick.

Worthwhile Roll of the Dice

With news this week that pending RFA Jyrki Jokipakka -- the other piece that went to Ottawa -- would not be qualified so will become a free agent, and with journeyman AHLer Mike Kostka -- the other piece that went to Calgary -- about to become a UFA, that trade now boils down to a simple one-for-one: Lazar in exchange for the 47th pick in this year's draft.

Was it worth it? Absolutely.

There is always an element of risk when you part with a lottery ticket. P.K. Subban (2007, 43rd), Patrice Bergeron (2003, 45th), Tyler Toffoli (2010, 47th), Shea Weber (2003, 49th) and Milan Lucic (2006, 50th) are five examples of impact players taken in the vicinity of where the Flames would have been selecting later this month.

But as I examined in last week's piece previewing Calgary's situation heading into the 2017 draft, for every one stud drafted in the mid-to-late second round, there are eight players that don't have nearly the same impact, most of whom never become NHL regulars.

Given the uncertainty that persists with 2013 first rounders Morgan Klimchuk, Hunter Shinkaruk and Emile Poirier, Flames fans are all too familiar with how difficult it is to find can't-miss players when drafting somewhere in the 20s, never mind in the 40s.

By opting to leverage a second round pick in what's been described as one of the weaker drafts in recent years for a skilled 22-year-old with three NHL seasons already on his resume, who not that long ago was very highly touted, Treliving made a sensible investment.

Not only is Lazar money in the bank as a guy who should be an everyday player in Calgary's line-up in 2017-18, this is a Western Canadian kid -- born in Salmon Arm, played major junior in Edmonton -- whose overall worth could grow significantly.

Like Sven Again

Speaking of pick No. 47, the net cost of this deal in which Calgary acquired Lazar, the 17th pick in the 2013 draft, is strikingly similar to the deal Treliving made at the trade deadline two years earlier involving the guy that used to wear jersey No. 47.

Unhappy with his situation and how he was being used in Calgary, Sven Baertschi, the Flames first round pick in 2011 (13th overall) was dealt to Vancouver in exchange for the Canucks second round pick (53rd overall).

At the time he was moved,  Baertschi had played 15 NHL games that season and had no goals. Lazar had no goals in 33 games with Ottawa when he was traded. In his big league career at that point, Baertschi had eight goals while Lazar had 12.

Further, both were traded in their fourth year with the organization that drafted them and both were also in their third year after turning pro.

Two years after being dealt, Baertschi is coming off a season with the Canucks in which the 24-year-old Swiss winger set career highs in goals (18) and points (35). Thriving in his fresh start, it's turned out to be a good trade for both the player and Vancouver.

Time will tell how coming to a new team will turn out for Lazar but with a goal and two assists in his four regular season games with the Flames, it was a promising first impression.

Rushed to the Show

The American Hockey League exists for a reason. It's a level of hockey that is higher than junior, faster than junior, and with older and stronger players. Yet it's not as quick as the NHL. It provides players with an ideal training grounds to learn to be a pro and transition their game from junior and the bad habits that frequently accompany them.

Lazar never got that chance.

He was dropped right into the deep end in his first year after turning pro. While most will eventually learn to swim, all that flailing of the arms initially is far from an ideal situation.

In the same organization where even a superstar like Erik Karlsson spent a month playing in the AHL at the start of his career, Lazar's unusual journey saw him skip that phase and spend all of his first two seasons in the NHL, before finally going down to the minors briefly in year three.

It was something the Senators' front office has admitted was a regret.

Last October after Lazar was assigned to Binghamton to start the year, Dorion told reporters he would have preferred for him to spend time in the minors the previous season too, except Ottawa suffered too many injuries and decided against it. Missing time up front in 2015-16 due to various ailments included Kyle Turris for 25 games. Milan Michalek for 15 games, Zack Smith was forced to sit out 42 games, Clark MacArthur was absent for 19 games and Chris Neill was sidelined for 44 games.

Last year, it took a draining bout with mono that resulted in Lazar missing all of training camp, which led to a five-week stay in the AHL before being recalled in mid-November.

"It's for him to work on his skills," Dorion said at the time. "We didn’t draft Curtis just to be a third- or fourth-line guy, we drafted Curtis to be an impact player for us. Going down there, and even if he makes a mistake down there it’s not the end of the world... It’s about handling the puck well, making more plays."

Put an Asterisk on his Entire Pro Career

Drawing profound conclusions from Lazar's four-game stint with the Flames last year would be a ridiculous thing to do. Obviously it's not nearly a big enough sample size and further, most of that action came in meaningless games at the end of the season, after Calgary had clinched a playoff spot.

While his sample size with the Senators was substantially longer at 176 games, passing any final judgment on that period would be similarly reckless.

After being "exceptional" at times as a rookie, according to Dave Cameron, current Flames assistant coach and former Ottawa head coach, when Lazar spent much of his rookie season on an effective third line with Erik Condra (9 g in 68 gm) and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (10 g in 50 gm), his development stalled.

After averaging 12:15 at even-strength as a 19-year-old, his 5-on-5 ice time went down in each of his next two seasons. Also decreasing was the calibre of his two most frequent linemates:
  • Year 2, Age 20 (11:35 EV TOI) - Chris Neil (5 g in 80 gm) and Nick Paul (2 g in 24 gm)
  • Year 3, Age 21 (8:25 EV TOI) - Chris Neil (1 g in 53 gm) and Chris Kelly (5 g in 82 gm) 

Learning at the NHL level is difficult. Instead of first line duty and logging 20 minutes per night in the AHL, you end up playing half of that on a fourth line alongside less skilled players and in utilized in a completely different role to what you've been accustomed to. Flanked by Neil, age 37, and Kelly, age 35, what kind of production or Corsi rating was anyone realistically expecting?

It's far from the best player development model and now waiver-eligible, continuing to learn at the NHL level is the only option for Lazar, so expect more growing pains to come.

In a way, his usage reminds me of when Martin St. Louis was in Calgary. An offensive star at every level, the Flames shuttled St. Louis between the third and fourth lines where he was deployed with the likes of Clarke Wilm, Andrei Nazarov, Jason Wiemer and Bill Lindsay. When he didn't produce, Flames gave up on him and new GM Craig Button released him. He went on to score over 430 NHL goals with 42 coming in the post-season.

It remains a classic case study in how not to evaluate a young, offensive player. Set them up for success by trying them with like-minded and like-skilled linemates, or risk the consequences.

Final Word

While it's still too early to say with any certainty if Lazar will ever evolve into a top-six player in the NHL, it's also way too early to conclude that he won't.

He doesn't turn 23 until next February. He's still just a kid and for what it's worth, with that trademarked smile, he's someone that oozes character too.

Cameron knows him from his time with the Senators. Assistant GM Brad Pascall knows him from his time when he played two years for Canada at the World Juniors, captaining the team in 2015. The Flames have pro scouts based out East that have seen him play plenty of times and like him a lot. Everybody feels Lazar has plenty of untapped potential.

Not only does it seem like a worthwhile gamble, the bigger gamble would have been opting to keep the draft pick instead.

Heck, throw him on a line with Sam Bennett this season and even without that second round lottery ticket in this year's draft, the Flames might still end up winning the jackpot -- with the payout coming a lot sooner than 2021.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


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      1. I agree Darren. Curtis is a great young kid that not only has the skill to be better but is a character guy as well. He was managed horribly in Ottawa and hopefully he does get to play with Bennett or at least gets a look on the right side with johnny and mony.

        1. Give him a full training camp with the new organization and coaching staff. Let him be healthy for that training camp. New city, new linemates, driven now that he's been bucked off the horse for the first time. Put it all together with his existing skills and positive attitude and there's a lot to like. Will it all come together? No guarantee, but I'd give him a couple years, that's for sure.

      2. Would love to see Lazar, Bennett and Jankowski on the third line. Save for top line RW, all top 6 positions seem spoken for, with Ferland getting the best shot at top line RW. They are too talented for the fourth line. All three can play centre, are young, skilled and have something still to prove.

        1. Three first round picks, all maligned in some way, all with something to prove. In that configuration, it would be Jankowski in the middle of Bennett and Lazar. That does make for an interesting trio, no doubt about that. Jankowski's situation is interesting. Many assuming he'll be in the NHL next season. I'm not one of them. Great rookie season but starting next year in the AHL would not surprise me at all given the club's determination to keep Bennett at centre and with Stajan having another season to go on his deal. But if/when they all harness their abilities, you could be on to something.

        2. I think Janko might get an opportunity on the LW with Backlund and Frolik. Everything we read about him suggests his game would fit on that line. It would also allow the Flames to build a more productive 3 line.

        3. Wouldn't rule out Jankowski on the 11-67 line but doubt that's a short-term plan. They've been fully focused on developing Jankowski at centre and that's what they see him as. He has not played any wing in the minors so while they may try him there eventually, doubt it's in the short-term.

        4. It seems if you want a young player to learn and become a pro, you let him play on Backlund's left. Could Lazar play there? Could Tkachuk not try the right side on the top line? I think he's ready fore more opportunities to start in the offensive zone with the most skilled pair on the team.

        5. Tkachuk dabbled a tiny bit at right wing in junior. It's a possibility. While tempting to keep the 3M line together for obvious reasons, sharing the wealth isn't a bad idea either and if they go down that path, I'd keep Backlund-Frolik together, but I could see Tkachuk being tried either in that spot you suggested or alongside Bennett.

      3. Lazar has potential but I wonder how more valuable the 2nd rounder might be as chip prior to the expansion draft?

        1. That's a fair comment and I think we're all wondering that.

          There's two schools of thought. One is that surely a draft pick could be used to get a non-protected player away from a team so they don't lose them to Vegas for nothing.

          On the other hand, if you're a team with such excess riches, maybe you're OK losing that particular player to Vegas for nothing as it means you won't lose anybody else that you're reluctantly exposing.

          Say you're the New York Rangers. If you trade Antti Raanta for a second round pick, now you got something for him, but the downside is now you're going to lose a Jesper Fast (or Kevin Hayes) or Kevin Klein. Same with Minnesota, trade Jonas Brodin for a draft pick before expansion draft and now Vegas will select somebody else so you end up also losing Jason Zucker too. So rather than lose two players in exchange for one draft pick, I wonder if teams end up just accepting that they'd rather lose one guy in exchange for nothing.

          Of course, an additional scenario is maybe a draft pick can be used to get a player from Vegas afterwards but with Vegas, they'll also be looking for prospects a bit further along to build out their organizational depth so a prospect might be more (or equally) appetizing. Calgary also has its full complement of draft picks in 2018 too.

          It's definitely a curious time but the expansion draft has not snuck up on anyone. To get Lazar, Treliving knew he was giving up some currency for some maneuvering right now in regards to Vegas. How I view it is it speaks to how much the front office likes Lazar. Now we sit back and wait to see if they can get him back on track.

        2. It must be difficult at times for the scouting staff to work all year viewing players and then: "Hey gang, we've traded that 2nd Rounder."

          Do you think Treliving and company would talk to the scouts and ask something like, "Is there someone in the second round in our spot you think will be available that has Curtis Lazar's potential?"

        3. For sure it's hard on the amateur scouts when the team unloads draft picks. That said, it's good for the pro scouts, who had been tracking Lazar. So winners and losers. But I think the scenario you suggested plays out all the time. Treliving would check in with Tod Button and see what the calibre of draft class is, etc.

          Last year was a great year for the draft with nine picks made. But it was five before that and nine was certainly the anomaly. So it goes in that profession.

        4. Are you kidding these guys get paid to watch hockey. In the summer when we are all left high, and dry they are in behind the scenes talking hockey, planning for the betterment of an NHL club. If there is a better job on the planet what is it?

      4. Lazar will turn out fine, a solid training camp and some good linemates and he will be key player. Honestly I think this was one a Brad Treliving's best moves as GM. Sure a second is valuable but if Lazar works out good the trade is a steal for Calgary. I want to see Lazar at center with Bennett on the wing, that could work out very well. Good work, Darren