Curtis Lazar has yet to win a game with the Vancouver Canucks.
Lazar was one of the team’s key free agent signings in the off-season, giving the Canucks the right-handed centre in their bottom-six that they were missing last season. But he’s missed the last ten games with a hand injury from blocking a shot against the Minnesota Wild.
That means Lazar has played just seven games for the Canucks — all seven losses in the team’s dreadful losing streak to start the season.
"It gives you a jolt of energy."
It looks like Lazar will finally be back in the lineup on Friday night against the Los Angeles Kings, though both he and head coach Bruce Boudreau were cagey about his potential return.
“Game-time decision, I was told to say,” said Lazar with a grin.
Lazar is eager to get back on the ice to help the Canucks right the ship. A native of Salmon Arm, B.C., Lazar grew up cheering for the Canucks and jumped at the chance to play in Vancouver when he was offered the opportunity. To start the season on a losing streak and then be forced to sit on the sidelines was agonizing.
“To be out here with the guys again, it gives you a jolt of energy,” said Lazar. “I hope to return the favor — get out there, play my game, drag some guys into the fight, and pick up another win.”
That’s Lazar’s game: he brings energy to the lineup with his hard work, grit, and pace. For a team that has sometimes looked lethargic this season, they could certainly use a jolt.
"Our penalty kill hasn't been very good."
While Lazar has yet to see a win with the Canucks, he’s hopeful that his time out of the lineup will help in the long run.
“It doesn't matter if you're a healthy scratch, hurt, or whatever — you get to see the game from a different perspective,” he said. “Things happen differently sitting at home on the coach watching. You can stop it and replay it and whatnot — you pick up a few things here and there. I would talk to the guys throughout the trip and have a back and forth on what I was seeing.”
One of the key areas where Lazar believes he can help the team is on the penalty kill, which is currently at the bottom of the NHL.
“Our penalty kill hasn't been very good — I was a part of that earlier in the season,” said Lazar. “So, watching the games, that was probably my main focus on watching what I can do, how I can dictate the play out there.”
For Lazar, it’s all about predictability. Penalty kills are inevitably going to give up shots. The goal of the penalty kill is to give up, as Lazar put it, “the predictable shots.”
What you want to avoid is the unpredictable — the cross-seam passes that result in the shot coming from 30 feet away from where the goaltender was originally expecting the shot or the backdoor plays where a player the goaltender can’t see is open for a tap-in goal.
"Everyone has to be connected."
The cross-seam passes are where the Canucks’ penalty kill has struggled the most, with the forwards frequently playing aggressively at the top of the zone, creating a gap in the middle of the ice that opposing power plays have exploited.
“It's that fine line because the top forward, you want to be aggressive forcing the pass, but if you get a little too stretched out, it does open up that seam,” said Lazar. “The guy in the middle has a tough job playing that far seam but also the guy in the middle. It's a job that everyone has to be connected — play together.”
That requires chemistry between all four penalty killers on the ice, both forwards and defencemen, reading off of each other and filling passing lanes as another penalty killer vacates them. It’s something that Lazar has said is already improving from what he’s seen while watching the team from afar.
“Honestly, it's looked a lot better as of late, structure-wise, finding their triggers,” said Lazar. “I think you can see the chemistry too with guys — I might throw a little wrinkle in that if I get put out there.”
Boudreau agreed that finding chemistry between penalty killers has been key.
“I know the guys the last few games — whether it was Boston, whether it was Toronto — they did a good job and they're getting better at it,” said Boudreau. “They're understanding each other more because we're keeping the pairs together as much as possible.”
"We're gonna have to do that over and over and over again."
Not that Boudreau is satisfied — the Canucks’ last game against the Buffalo Sabres was just the second time all season that they haven’t allowed a power play goal against and Boudreau pointed out how the team is 58.8% on the penalty kill on home ice.
“Anytime you make a team go 0-for-3 when you haven't done it — I think we've kept the team off the scoreboard once this year on the penalty kill — it adds to your confidence,” said Boudreau. “It doesn't mean you're out of the fire or anything…We're gonna have to do that over and over and over again.”
Lazar said that one of his favourite ways to prepare for the penalty kill is to simply asking the players on the power play what makes them the most uncomfortable.
“I talk to the guys, especially a guy like Millsy on the half wall — what does he like to see? Would he rather a guy pressure or would he rather a guy be still? Just kind of pick their brains,” said Lazar. “I had that with Marchand [in Boston] quite a bit. He talked about how you can pressure on the half wall and I'd help him work on that too.
“I'd go flying at him probably moreso than I would in a game but it helps them make that play and read it. But also then, it gets me used to, if I do go, where does my stick need to be, how do my skates need to turn? So, it helps with both sides.”
Now Lazar is hoping that all of that adds up to his very first win with the Canucks.