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Sabres' Curtis Lazar proving 'haters' wrong in bid for full-time NHL role

DALLAS -- Curtis Lazar heard the criticism. He wasn't scoring at the rate expected of a first-round draft pick and didn't develop as fast as some fans or media hoped.

Lazar chose not to care.

Now 24 years old, and five years removed from debuting with the Ottawa Senators, Lazar has a firm grasp on his identity as a player and it's not what was expected when he was selected 17th overall in 2013.

"I’m not about the toe drags or the saucer passes; I’d rather go through a guy than go around him," Lazar said Thursday morning ahead of the Buffalo Sabres' matchup with the Dallas Stars in American Airlines Center.

Detroit Red Wings defenseman Filip Hronek can attest to Lazar's heavy brand of hockey. Lazar bulldozed through Hronek moments before assisting on Evan Rodrigues' first-period goal last Sunday at Little Caesars Arena. Lazar isn't running around with reckless abandon, either. There's a method to the chaos he's brought to Buffalo.

"The injuries give people opportunity to step into bigger spaces and more than anything, he’s embraced what needs to be done here, whether it’s the penalty-killing responsibility where he’s been one of our better penalty killers for sure since he’s been here, but also the intensity we need sometimes on faceoffs to be able to close games properly," coach Ralph Krueger said of Lazar. "He just has a very responsible game that’s still also being nurtured and grown. I see him also as somebody who can still develop quite a bit in that role with us and just be an example without the puck every day, every night, every shift and he’s attempting to do that right now and he’s getting better all the time."

Lazar is establishing himself as a full-time NHL player in his third stint with the Sabres this season. Since rejoining them Dec. 19, he ranks third on the team in penalty-kill ice time, second in blocked shots among Sabres forwards and he has received the most defensive-zone starts (34) of any Buffalo player.

Entering Thursday, Lazar had three goals among six points in his previous eight games. His 1.93 points per 60 minutes of 5 on 5 ice time this season rank third on the Sabres behind Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. Lazar showed his blend of grit and skill in training camp. However, he acknowledged there were times he was playing as if there wasn't a puck on the ice, skating around looking for the next person to hit instead of making an impact offensively.

Lazar began the season in Rochester and worked his way into being among the first Amerks recalled. He had one goal in his first six games with the Sabres and returned to his natural position, center, upon rejoining Rochester in November.

Lazar is no longer trying to conjure the highlight-reel plays that made him one of the top prospects in the NHL. Lazar explained that he knows his identity and he's using his tools within the Sabres' structure.

"He brings some grit," Sabres winger Kyle Okposo said of Lazar. "He’s been really good on faceoffs for us, something we’ve struggled at this year. He just plays a simple game. Definitely has some confidence right now. He’s making some plays, he’s taking the puck to the net, being hard and you can always use more of that."

Lazar's transformation dates back to when he joined the Senators in the fall of 2014. He scored 79 regular-season goals during his final two years with the Western Hockey League's Edmonton Oil Kings and captained Canada at the IIHF World Junior Championship.

There were expectations that Lazar would become the next superstar talent in Ottawa. However, he struggled to transition into a checking-line role with the Senators and scored only 13 goals in 176 regular-season games before he was traded to the Calgary Flames in a deal that sent a second-round draft choice to Ottawa.

The Flames coveted Lazar enough to protect him from the expansion draft in 2017, yet he averaged only 9:51 of ice time over 65 games with Calgary in 2017-18. He lost confidence with the puck and willingly accepted an assignment to the Flames' American Hockey League affiliate in Stockton at the start of last season.

Lazar blossomed as a leader in a difficult situation. Though Stockton was among the worst teams in the AHL, Lazar scored 20 goals among 41 points in 57 games. He regained the confidence he lost and became an unrestricted free agent after he did not receive a qualifying offer from Calgary.

Still, Lazar had no doubt he was going to make an impact for an NHL team this season.

"I think it’s just confidence," he said. "Last year, spending that time in the American league in more of a scorer’s role, I guess, allowed me to tap into that potential again. Now when I get a chance, I’m not rushing my shots or rushing my passes. I see it, I make it. Other than that, it’s coming full circle. It comes with experience. I’m in my sixth year [as a] pro now. It’s nice to kind of see all those years and hard-earned miles and games pay off, and the game is starting to slow down."

Roles don't determine ice time under Krueger. He rewards hard work and execution by placing players in critical situations, a method used to foster internal competition. Krueger used the philosophy while coaching Switzerland's national team, when contracts and status didn't matter. His players in Buffalo know exactly what is expected of them.

Krueger will limit third-period ice time if a player is struggling and give more to those who are impressing.

"It’s huge. For myself, this is kind of the first chance that it’s actually been true," Lazar said. "Coaches always say they’re going to reward hard work and guys that are playing the right way, but I’ve never had that. ... Here, it’s completely different. You roll with the guys who are going."

Since Lazar was playing responsibly Tuesday night in KeyBank Center, he was rewarded with 18:06 of ice time – the most he's logged in an NHL game since Nov. 25, 2015. He scored an empty-net goal at the end of a 1:53 shift to close out a 4-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights.

Consistency and dedication have helped Lazar gain Krueger's trust. Lazar's 52.8% faceoff percentage has become an important tool for the Sabres in close games. When Lazar loses a draw, he'll grab an iPad on the bench and watch a replay to see what he could have done differently.

Lazar is working to make sure this is a permanent NHL stay, and his recent performance should silence those who doubted he'd ever make a significant impact.

"I truly believe I am an NHL player," Lazar said. "You know in today’s day with the media, social media and everything like that, everyone’s got an opinion. Sometimes it’s not always want you want to hear, but the way to deal with that is don’t hear it. I’ve taken that approach to prove those haters wrong. They’re allowed to think what they want of me, but again, I play in the top hockey league in the world, so I guess I get the last laugh at the end of the day. At the end of the day, there’s worse problems to have in life, and again, I’m just embracing the ride."

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