CALGARY – Making history earlier this year when he became the first known NHLer to ask for a demotion to the minors, Curtis Lazar now has another request.
He wants to come back.
More to the point, he feels ready to do so.
“I definitely think I’m ready for that challenge,” said the 23-year-old Flames product during a recent chat from the Stockton Arena.
“Going through that whole thing wasn’t ideal, but I think I handled it with the right mindset. I came down and have been playing better than I thought I would.”
So good, in fact, he was just named the Stockton Heat’s lone representative for the AHL’s all-star game later this month.
Lazar is second on the Stockton Heat’s scoring list with 27 points in 33 games, including 12 goals and 15 assists. He leads the team in power-play points with 12, multi-point games with eight and is tied for second on the team in goals and assists.
The native of Salmon Arm, B.C., has regained the confidence that made him captain of Canada’s world junior team, a star for the Memorial Cup-winning Edmonton Oil Kings and subsequent first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators.
That self-belief had waned over four tough seasons in which the speedy forward was relegated from fourth-line checker to regular press-box resident.
Mature beyond his years, it was Lazar who came to camp with the Calgary Flames this fall insisting he needed playing time more than anything else, and knew it wasn’t going to come at the big-league level on a team as deep at Calgary.
So, the kid with the constant grin and infectious attitude approached Flames GM Brad Treliving with that very suggestion.
They agreed the best tack was for Lazar to play in Stockton where he’d be a leader on and off the ice with an eye on returning at some point with the swagger he had as a junior stud.
He’s confident that time could be now, but he also understands the list of possible call-ups is long, as Alan Quine, Kerby Rychel, Andrew Mangiapane, Buddy Robinson, Ryan Lomberg, Dillon Dube, Oliver Kylington and Rasmus Andersson have already shown.
His time will come and he’s been patient about it, insisting he’s happy to see youngsters getting the chance he got long ago.
“There’s a plan in place and I understand that,” said Lazar who stays in touch with several Flames, including Travis Hamonic and Mikael Backlund.
“If I do come up I want to keep this going and not be put in the same situation as before. I’m not looking to steal Johnny’s job by any means, but I’ve been able to grow and expand my game.
“I’m playing 20 minutes a night and putting up points, which I always knew I could. I’m confident with the puck, making plays, being out in the final few minutes, playing power play, killing penalties. It’s helped me return to the form that helped me get drafted.
“I’m patient but really feel I’m knocking on the door.”
Working against Lazar is the fact he sports a $1.05-million cap hit, which is significantly higher than most other call-ups.
In a business all about asset management there’s also the fear the Flames could lose him should a recall end with another waiver-required demotion. Thus, his promotion might have to wait until near the end of the regular season.
Teams around the league are keeping an eye on Lazar’s progress and would consider snapping him up given the opportunity. As a pending free agent this summer he knows he’s also potentially showcasing himself for other teams as well.
“Whether it’s here or somewhere else I’m just going to keep working hard down here and proving myself,” said Lazar, who has been playing centre on the farm but knows how deep the Flames are up the middle.
“It’s become obvious to me that I’m an NHL player. I have so much hockey ahead of me. I feel like I’m ready to take off.
“I can also have some fun again. I can have an impact every game and am finding my leadership qualities again.”
Part of that leadership includes going down with an attitude coaches, players and management have marvelled at.
Quine and Lomberg both raved about the way Lazar conducted himself in Stockton when they were there.
“Awesome attitude, and he’s been good,” said Treliving, of the lad who needed a change of scenery after scoring just 15 times in 245 NHL games.
“Now we want to keep building him back up – that was the whole idea. He’s getting there and is now waiting for the opportunity to get back up.
“He’s not sitting by the phone every day. He’s been digging in, is close to a point a game there, is playing in all situations and has embraced it with the attitude you’d expect. And now he’s got his career back on track.”