CRANBERRY, Pa. — Zachary Lauzon once considered giving up his NHL dream.
After being selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round (No. 51) of the 2017 NHL Draft, the 20-year-old defenseman prospect struggled to stay healthy following post-concussion symptoms. He considered attending a university, searching for a direction to steer his life.
Lauzon couldn’t do it. The game meant too much. So he attended Penguins development camp in June, looking for a path to continue his hockey career.
“I was exploring what I could do with my life, other than hockey, because when you play hockey your whole life, it’s kind of your identity,” Lauzon said. “You feel good about yourself mostly because of that. Once it’s taken away from you, I felt a little bit lost. I played hockey all my life, so I didn’t know really what to do.”
Not having played since 2017-18, Lauzon knows where he stands.
The Penguins relinquished his rights, choosing not to sign him to an entry-level contract by the June 1 deadline. His future likely was more tenuous than any of the high-profile prospects at development camp.
“I still have the mentality to play in the NHL one day, and getting a professional contract with the Penguins,” Lauzon said. “They drafted me for a reason in 2017.”
They also didn’t sign him for a reason, Lauzon said.
“Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to play,” he said. “So it’s tough for them to give me a contract if I don’t play.”
Lauzon (6-foot-1, 187 pounds) has to prove himself all over again. Not just that he can still play at a high level, but that he can do so and remain healthy.
Before he was drafted in 2017, Lauzon sustained a concussion in the playoffs with Rouyn-Noranda of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The Penguins kept him off the ice during their development camp that year, which led Lauzon to push himself before skating during rookie camp and the main training camp that September.
Lauzon admits that was a mistake; he experienced headaches and dizziness and has not played in a game since he had four assists in 25 games with Rouyn-Noranda in 2017-18 and hadn’t skated in a high-paced practice since November before taking the ice at development camp.
“All I wanted to do was prove myself after being drafted,” Lauzon said. “It was hard for me to go and take the time I needed to heal. But at the end of the day, I learned a lot from that experience. I’m happy and fortunate to be able to play hockey again. That’s the most important thing, to be healthy.”
That optimistic mentality is something Lauzon cultivated the past two years.
“If I look back at who I was and how I was feeling mentally a year ago, I’m a totally different person,” Lauzon said. “I feel like I’ve grown a lot. I feel like I’ve matured a lot in this process. … I’ll be able to go back and use the experience I acquired to help me with any situations in my life.”
Penguins player development coach Tom Kostopoulos also thinks that attitude will take Lauzon far.
“He’s ready to go. So it’s great to see him,” Kostopoulos said. “I think we all wish the best for him and just want to see him in a competitive environment to see what he can do. So I think it’ll be a big year for him. He’s got a lot to prove, and I think he can do it.”
The future remains uncertain; two years ago, Lauzon likely expected to be on his way to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League by now.
With the right mindset, he thinks that will come. Even still, he thinks he has already won.
“I went through a lot of adversity,” Lauzon said. “I think just being able to come back here and skate and be the hockey player I was before, it’s really a good story.”