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:
- The results from the lottery wouldn't be known until 2021.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recent Flames Reading:
- 2017 NHL Draft: One Pick in First Three Rounds Would be a Flames' Franchise First - In this look at the draft from a Calgary perspective, I examine how realistic it is that GM Brad Treliving can acquire some additional picks given he has only five selections. (May 23, 2017)
- Expansion Draft: Six Strategies Available to Vegas and Potential Impact on the Flames - Golden Knights GM George McPhee gets to pick 30 players in the expansion draft but there could be a method to the madness of who he picks and why. (May 19, 2017)
- Perfect Pairings: A Sommelier's Guide to Six Tasty Goaltending Combinations - There have been much talk about what individual goalies could work for Calgary in 2017-18 but they need a tandem. I look at six combinations that each carry some allure. (May 13, 2017)