Following a strong showing in training camp this summer, fans of the Buffalo Sabres were generally surprised that free-agent newcomer, Curtis Lazar was sent down to the AHL. As one of the more noticeable players in preseason action (on top of the supposed “open competition” that was taking place), his presence seemed to fit right into what Ralph Krueger was trying to establish in the team’s bottom-six.
With 14 points in his first 18 games with the Rochester Amerks this season, Lazar quickly got his chance with the big club when Marcus Johansson went down with an upper-body injury. In the 12 games since, he’s remained in Buffalo, providing high-energy, aggressive play (not to mention three goals and an assist).
While Lazar certainly passes the eyeball test as a hard-nosed role player at the NHL level, let’s take a dive into his advanced metrics to get a deeper understanding of his on-ice impacts in what is right now a relatively small sample.
First, we’ll examine who he is skating with the most, and how he’s being deployed. To this point, Lazar’s primary linemates have been Zemgus Girgensons and Jimmy Vesey. He’s also spent some time with Kyle Okposo and Johan Larsson (albeit significantly less). Recently, Ralph Krueger has moved him away from Girgensons, which is probably the right move. Through 53:19 of ice time, they’ve posted a relative Corsi of -15.97, and a relative xG of -16.77 together. Both of them have fared significantly better in those categories away from one another.
To be clear, while his underlying metrics improve significantly away from Girgensons, Lazar’s metrics are still mostly in the negatives (relative Corsi of -2.80 and relative xG of -6.76). Part of the reason for that could be attributed to his quality of teammate versus quality of competition.
Lazar has primarily skated with low-end offensive threats, so the expected goals deficiencies aren’t really a surprise. His shooting data might be the most interesting piece of the offensive puzzle however. As is often the case with smaller sample sizes, the numbers are extreme, but there are positive potential trends taking shape.
While he’s currently converting goals at a rate of 37.5-percent, he’s only hitting the net with 53.33-percent of his shot attempts. That low on-target percentage is a little odd, considering how a vast majority of his shots (and all three of his goals) have come in high-danger areas.
These numbers will level out as he plays more games in Buffalo, but positionally, Lazar’s effectiveness at establishing himself in the slot is certainly a positive and has partially contributed to his currently high shooting-percentage. Still, the opportunities-for while he’s on the ice have been limited. As previously mentioned, that’s probably due in large part to a mix of QoT and small sample size.
When Lazar is on the ice, the Sabres face 19 fewer shots per-hour than the league average (and 16 fewer than the team’s current average). While fans are certainly noticing how well he crashes the net and drives the forecheck on offense, his true value is how well he’s performing in his own zone.
Similar to his metrically negative offensive impacts to this point, his defensive impacts have been conversely positive. While the Sabres are taking more shots-against than shots-for while he’s on the ice, the shots-against aren’t typically of high-quality. In short, he’s playing low-event hockey, while providing a well-timed, aggressive forecheck when the opportunity presents itself, which is sort of exactly what you want from a player like Lazar.
At only 24 years old, his situation will be interesting to monitor as the season progresses. As a pending restricted free agent, he could serve as an inexpensive replacement for Girgensons, who is set to hit the unrestricted market on July 1. The Latvia native will probably pursue a modest raise from his current salary of $1.6 million AAV. For a smaller price tag, Lazar could be a more-than viable alternative on a short-term contract.
If the Sabres see things the same way, they might want to try him on the wing with Johan Larsson in order to get an accurate gauge of how well he could assimilate to that role without negatively impacting the Sabres’ shutdown line in 2020-21. This of course operates under the assumption that he’d stay with the blue-and-gold (which he absolutely should) once players like Tage Thompson, Vladimir Sobotka, and Jeff Skinner are all healthy.
Shot Location Chart courtesy of Charting Hockey
RAPM Chart courtesy of Evolving Hockey
Shot Heat Map courtesy of HockeyViz
Corsi and xG Metrics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick