Curtis Lazar just turned 17. For about two years now, he has been labelled as something out of the ordinary in the hockey world.
The Vernon teen comes from a loving family. He has three siblings and more than 2,000 friends on Facebook. As a rookie, Lazar is making all the right moves on and off the ice with the Western Hockey League Edmonton Oil Kings.
After a first-round playoff sweep over the Kootenay Ice, the 6-foot, 190-pound magical centre leads Edmonton in scoring with three goals and seven points. He was a plus-four.
Ross Mahoney, the director of amateur scouting for the Washington Capitals – who took in the Rockets-Portland Winterhawks game Thursday night in Kelowna – has seen Lazar play four times this season.
“Actually I saw him play last night (Wednesday in Cranbrook) in a playoff game and he played very well, especially for a young player,” said Mahoney, a former Regina schoolteacher. “He scored a goal around the net, actually shot it quick release, put it up under the crossbar. I also noticed they gave him a lot of powerplay time too, which is pretty impressive on a pretty good team.
Mahoney says Lazar – a serious 2013 NHL draft prospect – is ultra talented and brings a consistent package to the rink
“I think he’s a very honest player for his age. Sometimes the younger players come in and they’re very talented but they have to learn to play a little bit better away from the puck and backcheck, but he’s an honest player. He finishes every check, he goes hard to the net, he works in all three zones of the ice.
“If he keeps on improving like he has this year, and works hard in the off season, and gets himself prepared for next year, we’ll see how he does.”
Mahoney says Lazar’s commitment to excellence fits the criteria for making the show.
“You have to have a certain amount of skill to play in the NHL, and you have to skate to a certain level, but you have to come to every shift, every period, every game and try and play your best all the time.”
Vernon’s George Fargher, who scouts for the Ottawa Senators, has made game-night notes on Lazar at least half a dozen times. Fargher was also in Cranbrook for Game 3 when Lazar supplied 1+2 and was named third star.
“He’s a very skilled player, good hands, sees the ice well,” said Fargher, a retired City of Vernon works department foreman. “He moves the puck. He was actually playing on Edmonton’s first powerplay last night and played really well; had some good skills.”
Lazar, whose major junior baptism included 10 games with the Oil Kings last year (four in the playoffs) racked up 20 goals and 31 points this year.
“Obviously, being an underage (16) player this year, he started a little slower in the league and he was actually playing on the fourth line for probably the first half of the year,” said Fargher. “The last three or four times I’ve seen him, they’ve moved him up and he’s playing on the second line and third line and getting some powerplay time. So, obviously, he’s starting to come into his own and feeling comfortable with the league.”
Lazar played under former NHL d-man Robert Dirk at the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton last season. He captained Team B.C. to a gold medal in the 2011 Canada Winter Games in Halifax, where he broke scoring records set by Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos. In mid-March, he was named Sport B.C. Junior Athlete of the Year.
Fargher doesn’t see Lazar’s head swelling as he keeps finding glory at each level of hockey.
“I think any time a young player like that has success at a high profile Games like that, it’s good for his confidence. He seems to be a pretty level-headed kid and he seems to be handling it quite well so I’m sure it will be good for him in the future.”
Marty Stein, a Vernon high school phys-ed teacher who scouts for the Detroit Red Wings, has witnessed Lazar’s act four times this year.
“He’s a very, very skilled young man,” said Stein, during the first intermission at Prospera Place. “He’s still gotta grow into his body. He’s still gotta get a lot stronger, but the way he plays, he’s such a competitor. He’s got high-end skill. He’s not afraid to go into the dirty places.
“He’s playing on a high-octane team as well, and he’s the type of player that can keep up with those top-end guys. Next year, he’s a definite draft. And if he keeps playing like this, he’ll be top-three rounds, if not a top-round pick.”
Stein says NHL bird-dogs will hold off on making a can’t-miss tag until they see a player progress step by step.
“You can’t judge a kid by what he’s done before…There’s a lot of kids that plateau as Bantams. You’re thinking, ‘Holy cow, look at what these kids have done breaking all these records and that,’ and they get to the next level, Junior A, and what happened? They’re in awe. And there’s some kids who are late bloomers. You don’t even notice them and then all of a sudden they’re free agents, and you’re going, ‘Let’s get hold of this kid.’”
Stein also says Lazar’s future rests on how he handles life in his draft year.
“His development as a player depends on not only his skill level, but where he comes from, his head doesn’t get too big, he knows what he has to do. He’s a focused kid and it shows out on the ice.”
Lazar buried a rebound for a first-period powerplay goal and helped set up d-man Keegan Lowe’s goal in the third as Edmonton counted five answered snipes for a 6-3 win.
“Stuff is just happening out there,” Lazar told the Edmonton media after the Oil Kings rallied to beat the Ice in Game 3. “Coach (Derek Laxdal) put me back at centre with Stephane Legault and Henrik Samuelson,” he said. “Those were guys I’d played with earlier this year.”
Laxdal said it was Lazar who was actually the key to the line juggling.
“He’s outstanding. I wanted to put Curtis in a situation where he could get more exposure. He was more on a checking line.”