The year was 2010, and Jared Cowen had just been sent back to junior.
The prospect’s prestige was undeniable. A first overall selection in the WHL draft, his team, the Chiefs, would win the league championship in his first full season with the club and Cowen would receive the team’s rookie-of-the-year award. He was ranked the fourth best skater heading in the NHL draft despite a terrible-looking knee injury, and was eventually selected by Ottawa ninth overall. The feeling at the time was that Ottawa might have snagged itself a top-five pick. The club began pouring echinacea directly into his kneecap and prayed.
At the time it seemed the burnish on Cowen was blinding. His ceiling wasn’t just as a serviceable NHL defender, but as a stud shutdown player, capable of playing half the game on the top pairing. He was to be the perfect defensive yin to Erik Karlsson’s offensive yang.
More than that, Cowen was the corrective to the wrong that was allowing Zdeno Chara, who would become a generationally great player and perennial Norris contender, to walk for nothing. Cowen and Karlsson would be the foundation on which the team would complete its rebuild-on-the-fly, and return the team to the high-flying years when Chara and Wade Redden formed one of the best tandems in the league.
I can’t really overstate this: coming out of the modern franchise’s first finals appearance and having lived through the devastating Heatley affair, dismissing multiple coaches, and missing the playoffs for the first time in ages, the Ottawa Senators were all about hope. They’d jump-started their rebuild by taking Erik Karlsson in the middle of the first round. Cowen was just another piece in the narrative puzzle, a stepping stone on the road back to glory.
In 2010-2011, with Cowen already having played an NHL game and expected to challenge for a roster spot, Ottawa opted to send him back to junior for the year. He was a dominant player there, the captain of his team, and capped his year by joining the Binghamton Senators on a run that would result in an AHL Calder Cup. Everything was falling into place.
It’s sort of a fairy-tale when told this way. We, the fans, want so badly for the narrative to be true: a blue chip prospect, succeeding at every level, all but destined to join the team and take it over the top.
And at times it’s seemed as if the management has wanted to believe this as much as the fans do. They’ve played him in top four minutes, often on a pairing with Erik Karlsson despite less-than-stellar results. There was the rumoured eight-year deal Ottawa had on the table, which you could argue was just an attempt to get good value out of a prospect with a lot of potential but still represented a massive gamble on a player who’d yet to really establish himself as a regular NHLer.
During what sometimes seemed like a contentious negotiation on his RFA deal it seemed like even Cowen had bought into the narrative, looking for salary in excess of $4MM a year. The team eventually settled on a deal that would pay him just a shade over $3MM for four years. It wasn’t the richest deal in the league, but keep in mind that Cowen had missed close to a whole season with a hip injury, and had played about a season’s worth of games at that point.
While there have been highlights–he had a good series against Montreal that one year, though most of the team did–we’ve come associate Cowen with mind-boggling brain farts. Despite (perhaps because of) his size, he loses his assignments in transition. Far from the perfect complement to Karlsson, he seems baffled by his linemate’s speed and mobility. He was supposed to be the safety net that would allow Karlsson to follow his riskier instincts; too often we see the gaffes inherent to Karlsson’s free-wheeling tendencies exacerbated rather than remedied by a confused Cowen. And then there are the penalties, which came early and often.
So, here we are: 11 games into the season and Cowen has already been a healthy scratch in consecutive games. It’s the nadir of his early NHL career, and the narrative is looking a little bit like a fairy tale after all. None of which is to imply that he’s a bust, or should be traded. Cowen still has potential, and Ottawa needs all of the young, potentially good defensemen it can get. It’s just that the narrative and the expectations associated with Cowen, before he was ever really a regular part of the lineup, don’t match.
Which brings us to Curtis Lazar. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…
Lazar was a second overall selection in the WHL draft. The Edmonton Oil Kings won the WHL championship in his first year on the team. The next year they lost in the finals, and then, the season following, won the championship again and the Memorial Cup to boot. He played on Team Canada’s Junior Team, was drafted 17th overall in the NHL draft, and the feeling was both that Lazar was a steal at that spot and almost a complete player at the tender age of 18.
But, more than that and also like Cowen, Lazar’s particular set of intangibles were thought a perfect complement to the perceived gaps in the NHL club. Lazar was gritty, determined, and a natural winner. Ottawa, and particularly its ultra-skilled captain Jason Spezza, had failed to establish an identity, were being pushed around by other clubs, didn’t work hard enough, and on and on. (I don’t believe any of that, but it was the narrative.) Once again a promising young prospect was expected to address the historical injustices of a club that’s never been able to win the whole enchilada.
So here we find ourselves, at the nine game cusp of Curtis Lazar’s tryout before his deal kicks in, and it’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll remain with the big club as opposed to being sent back to junior. After all, he’s won everywhere already; what more is there to be gained from him returning to Edmonton? It’s a solid argument, but there’s a lesson here.
Cowen wasn’t able to live up to expectations, and he had the advantage of a buffer year in the juniors. I worry that Lazar sticking with the big club means even bigger expectations. By sending Lazar back to juniors you have the protection of a kid from the unreasonable, pretty much mythical expectations attendant all sports franchises. The club needs to actively manage those expectations for Lazar, and not just for this season, but for the next couple, maybe even the next few seasons. Because those expectations are ridiculous.
We have plenty of evidence that 18 year old players rarely contribute at the NHL level unless they’re a first overall pick and being used in all situations. And so far it seems like Ottawa is doing the right thing; Lazar is playing sheltered minutes on the third or fourth line, getting offensive zone starts and some limited power-play time. Nobody expects him to set the world on fire right away.
But what about next season? We’re in a fickle, Canadian market, remember? How long do you think it will be before analysts start saying that Curtis Lazar needs to “step up his game”? How long is it before Lazar finds himself in the position Mika Zibanejad is in now, under the uncomfortably hot spotlight of armchair analysts and fans?
There’s a part of me that wonders if Lazar would benefit from another year in junior, not because he needs more seasoning, or because being in the NHL isn’t better for his skill development, but because it allows us to keep the narrative just that–a narrative–for a little while longer. Sure, it holds off having to pay Lazar for another year. But it also keeps expectations abstract and distant for the moment. Lazar the savior, with the leadership and intangibles to fill the void. Lazar, representing everything and nothing at the same time.
And there’s another part of me that thinks it’s up to us, the fans, to keep our heads screwed on right. This is a teenager we’re talking about. Cowen couldn’t fill our expectations because, really, how could he? There are only 60 top-two NHL defensemen in the world on any given game night. It’s a pretty exclusive club. But he’s whipping boy number one at the moment, and perhaps rightly so. We, the fans, can avoid doing this same thing to Lazar when his time comes.
It starts now, with us busting up these narrative when we encounter them. Lazar is a promising young player. But first and foremost he’s a kid trying to make his way into the best hockey league in the world. If the club isn’t going to insulate him by sending him back to junior, then let’s let him be that for as long as he needs to be.