Call them a pair of early Christmas gifts for Canada’s National Junior Team.
On Dec. 9, New York Rangers rookie Anthony Duclair was loaned to Team Canada for the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship followed on Dec. 18 by first-year Ottawa Senators standout Curtis Lazar.
Hockey Canada officials were thrilled with adding the pair of pros, and for good reason; National Hockey League teams will, on occasion, loan their young stars to Team Canada, but it’s rare.
Prior to this year, it had only happened five times since 2006 – Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis) in 2010, Brett Connolly (Tampa Bay) and Devante Smith-Pelly (Anaheim) in 2012, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton) in 2013, and Mathew Dumba (Minnesota) in 2014.
Without a doubt, Duclair and Lazar are part of Team Canada because of what they can do on the ice, but their off-ice contributions – having spent three months in the day-to-day grind of the NHL – cannot be ignored.
“It’s about helping out the young guys here,” Duclair says of what he can contribute off the ice. “We have a bunch of different leaders in that locker room who can do just that, so that leadership can go a long way.”
What do the players themselves think they’ve brought to the table?
“Just that pro mentality,” says Lazar, a returning player from the 2014 World Juniors who was given the ‘C’ as captain four days after he joined the team. “You have to be able to perform and execute on a daily basis and it all starts in practice. It’s about good habits.
“For the most part, everyone here is skilled enough to play in the NHL. So it’s just a matter of a little detailed work, and that’s what I’m trying to bring to this club.”
Unlike Lazar, who was a highly-touted first-round pick of the Senators in 2013, Duclair was taken by the Rangers in the third round of that same year’s draft, and surprised many by making the team out of training camp this year.
And while he doesn’t have a letter on his jersey like Lazar, Duclair has still learned enough from his New York teammates in the first three months of his rookie season to share some of that knowledge with Team Canada.
“Veterans in New York have helped me a lot since the first day of training camp,” he says. “Especially [Rangers head coach] Alain Vigneault; he’s helped me mature on many levels. It’s been a great experience.”
While both are counted on as offensive leaders with Team Canada – Duclair has joined Sam Reinhart and Max Domi on Canada’s top line, while Lazar has five goals in five games playing with potential No. 1 overall pick Connor McDavid – they haven’t exactly been lighting up the NHL.
Both players have put up a goal and six assists with their respective teams, Duclair in 18 games with New York and Lazar in 27 with Ottawa, and both have been healthy scratches at times.
So, needless to say, the young Canadians are excited about playing a bigger role at the World Juniors.
“A big part is just to jump start my confidence,” says Lazar. “I really get to handle the puck here and play in all situations, which I haven’t had the luck to do back in Ottawa yet.”
“It’s a matter of being confident out there, even though we’re all still pretty young guys,” Duclair adds. “If you believe in yourself and tell yourself that you’re doing well, then things usually go your way.”
While the confidence they’ll take back to the NHL will be beneficial to their rookie seasons, taking back a gold medal, and national bragging rights, would be just as nice – for them and their teammates.
Not including Duclair and Lazar, the Rangers’ roster includes 12 players from four countries who played at the IIHF World Junior Championship, while the Senators have 11 representing four nations.
“Veterans like Marty (St. Louis) and Derrick (Brassard) wished me luck,” says Duclair. “Obviously, the Canadian guys are rooting for me and the other guys not so much, so it’d be very fun.”
“The Swedes were giving me a hard time talking about how good they are and what not,” Lazar says with his trademark grin. “So if we do cross paths with them again, I feel like there will be a little more on the line, especially when I go back to the Senators.
“I’ll talk to Lehner, Karlsson, Zibanejad and those guys when I get back.”
Hopefully, it will be with a gold medal around his neck.