Lafreniere driven by strong hockey roots to top of 2020 NHL Draft

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Alexis Lafreniere had other plans at an age when most would prefer firing up the videogame console to join friends for an afternoon session of virtual fun.

Not Lafreniere, who was more inclined to take a gameday nap. It was something already programmed into his DNA as a 12-year-old playing for his hometown club hockey team in Saint-Eustache, Quebec.

“If you ask my parents, they’ll tell you that at a very young age, about novice or pee-wee, I already started taking afternoon naps on game days,” Lafreniere said. “I was very motivated at a young age to work hard and learning the game was something super important to me. 

“I loved being a student of the game and learning all the aspects of it; I’m very passionate about hockey so I never saw it as a chore and was always happy to go to practice or to the gym.”

Fast forward six years and the left wing from Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League now is considered the slam-dunk choice as the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. 

The New York Rangers have the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft, which will be held virtually over two days. The first round will take place Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS) and Rounds 2-7 on Wednesday (11:30 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN).

The Oceanic captain, No. 1 in NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of North American skaters, led the QMJHL with 77 assists and 112 points and for the second straight season was awarded the QMJHL Most Valuable Player, QMJHL Personality of the Year and Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year.

The last league player to win those awards in back-to-back seasons was Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who also starred for Rimouski from 2003-05. Crosby also is the only other player in history to win consecutive CHL Player of the Year honors.

Lafreniere’s CHL-leading 2.15 points-per game average is the best since Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid averaged 2.50 with Erie of the Ontario Hockey League in 2014-15. 

Lafreniere (6-foot-1, 193 pounds) could become first Quebec-born player selected No. 1 since goalie Marc-Andre Fleury by the Penguins in the 2003 NHL Draft. The 18-year-old wasn’t even born the last time a Quebec-born skater was chosen No. 1 — center Vincent Lecavalier to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1998 NHL Draft.

 

Hockey or baseball?

Lafreniere faced a defining moment in his athletic career as a teenager.

Would he dedicate more time to baseball or concentrate solely on hockey?

“I was probably as good in baseball as I was in hockey when I was 13,” Lafreniere said. “For me, my passion for hockey was bigger. I liked baseball too and I had fun playing, but I had to choose one sport and it was pretty obvious that I’d choose hockey over baseball.”

He succeeded as a shortstop but growing up in St-Eustache, a suburb of Montreal, Lafreniere is a true-blue Quebecker. He watched the Montreal Canadiens on television and played even more in his driveway and on rinks of all sizes not far from home.

Lafreniere’s father, Hugo, can’t determine exactly when his son decided to dedicate a career in hockey, but clues were there in the summer of 2015.

“In his second year of bantam AAA (in 2015-16), he missed a lot of practices at training camp because his baseball season wasn’t over,” Hugo said. “I was coaching him at baseball, and I wanted him to finish the season before prioritizing hockey. He thought he wouldn’t make the cut if he missed (hockey) practices but when he arrived at camp, other parents were asking me if he went to a power-skating school during the summer and what he had done to be so dominant.

“He had only played baseball. He didn’t do anything special … it just happened.”

Lafreniere had 69 points (35 goals, 34 assists) in 26 games that season as a 15-year-old. He’d score 83 points (33 goals, 50 assists) in 36 games for St-Eustache of the Quebec Midget AAA league in 2016-17. 

“We knew when he was a bantam that he’d be the top player,” said Lafreniere’s coach at St-Eustache, Martin Daoust. “His first year in bantam was a good season but his second year (in 2015-16) was outstanding. It’s the moment that he improved the most and I think then was a simultaneous moment of development on four elements … physical growth, skills, speed and agility.”

Craig Button, TSN resident director of scouting, NHL analyst and former NHL general manager, got his first real glimpse of Lafreniere for St-Eustache in 2016-17.

“It was in Montreal and it was pretty obvious he was in full command … as a 16-year-old,” Button said. “By ‘full command’ it was like him saying, ‘I’m here to play and I know that I can drive play, so stop me if you can.’ 

“It was amazing to watch his smarts, his skills and competitiveness.”

 

Raised on hockey

Alexis was first introduced to sports through his mom, Nathalie, and dad. Nathalie, a first-grade teacher at École des Lucioles in Quebec, is a DekHockey player and dad a successful softball player in the Old Stove Softball League in St-Eustache.

He was first introduced to hockey at age 5.

“I really fell in love with the game the first time I stepped on the ice,” he said.

Rimouski, Quebec, is approximately 350 miles northeast of St-Eustache. 

“They would make the trip as much as they could whether I was in Rimouski or on the road,” Lafreniere said. “I know for certain they never missed a game online if they couldn’t be there in person. Every time I step on the ice for warmups, I never needed to look in the stands. I just know they are there to support me and cheer me on.”

His 21-year-old sister, Lori-Jane, plays soccer and is attending the University of Montreal to pursue a career in teaching. Lafreniere is thankful his older sister was there whenever he needed someone to play goalie during his shooting sessions outside their home.

“I would beg her to put on goalie equipment and go in net for hours while I would shoot on her,” Lafreniere said. “I would even give her grief if she didn’t cover her angles enough … I needed to be challenged.

“L-J has always been there for me and it was nice to be able to count on each other. Even though I left home when I was 15, and have been away for a while, I know we’ll always share that special bond and we’ll always be there for each another.”

Not only is she there for her brother, but she also knows his weakness — homemade cookies.

“She’s a very caring sister, and I realize sometimes she had to take a back seat so that my parents could support my schedule, but she never said a word because she knew how much it meant to me,” Lafreniere said. “I will always be grateful to her. When I come home, she always has my favorite cookies made before I arrive.”

 

World Junior sensation

Lafreniere proved himself at the next level after his performance at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic.

He dominated against older competition with 10 points (four goals, six assists) in five games to help Canada win the championship. He missed two games during preliminary-round play with an injury to his left knee but returned for the medal round, had six points (three goals, three assists) in three games, and was named the tournament’s most valuable player. 

It was the first time an NHL draft-eligible prospect was named WJC MVP since Jesse Puljujarvi (Edmonton Oilers) of Finland in 2016.

Tweet from @HC_WJC: Most Valuable Player.Top Forward.Media All-Star Team.🔟 points (4���🚨 6���🍎) in 5��� games.What a performance from Alexis Lafreni��re.#WorldJuniors pic.twitter.com/w6T5kKMHK3

“The performance that Alexis displayed at the world juniors showed the hockey world what he is made of and this is what places him in a special category as the top pick,” said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. “The natural competitive instincts and skills he displayed to take charge and lead Canada to victory put on display the determination, perseverance and passion that is part of his hockey DNA, which is truly exceptional and impressive.”

The 2019 WJC was a learning experience for Lafreniere, but also a moment that strengthened him mentally.

He began the tournament in a top-nine role, but barely earned seven minutes of ice time in four of five games for Canada, which finished sixth.

Tim Hunter, Canada’s coach at the 2019 WJC, disapproved of Lafreniere’s effort, saying, “he was out there skating around like it was a free skate.”

Lafreniere said that experience helped during preparation for the 2020 WJC at the World Junior Summer Showcase in August 2019.

“I learned that you earn your spots and you have to work for every minute of ice time,” Lafreniere said. “I know having a different role isn’t always easy. At the start it’s difficult but you accept the role. There are so many good players out here, so you have to work for your ice time.”

Tweet from @BradyTrett: World Junior MVP Alexis Lafreni��re literally wearing the Canadian flag as a cape pic.twitter.com/HPxjhoKJc0

That’s what Lafreniere did in January to help Canada to its 18th first-place finish at the World Junior Championship. In the end, he had draped the Canadian flag over his back as he celebrated with teammates on the ice following a 4-3 win against Russia in the tournament final.

“That was a really special event to be with a group of guys who were really close; we had a lot of fun there,” Lafreniere said. “It was obviously everybody’s dream to win the tournament and to be able to do it was really special to us.”

 

The real deal

Lafreniere has been on the radar of NHL scouts the past three years, particularly after he became the first 16-year-old to score at least 40 goals in the QMJHL since Crosby had 54 in 2003-04.

“Just stop, pause and think about that for a second … the first 16-year-old rookie since Crosby to score that many goals,” Button said. “You know everybody is gunning for you, but he still showed them.”

Lafreniere scored six points (four goals, two assists) in five games for Canada at the 2018 IIHF World Under-18 Championship as a 16-year-old. 

His performance in the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup was another breakthrough. As a 17-year-old, he tied for the tournament lead with 11 points and led Canada with five goals in five games in a first-place finish. He had two goals and an assist in a 6-2 win against Sweden in the final. 

His performance even left a positive impression on one of the greatest NHL players in history.

“I got a chance to see you play the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and you’re a pretty good hockey player,” Hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky told Lafreniere during an NHL “#HockeyAtHome” video call with Lafreniere and four other top 2020 draft-eligible prospects on April 29. “I know you’re going to do great things.”

Lafreniere said he gained tremendous confidence in his midget AAA season in 2016-17 prior to joining Rimouski the following season. 

“(The QMAAA) has really good players there and really good competition and as a 15-year-old you’re playing against 16- and 17-year-olds,” Lafreniere said. “To have that kind of competition against older guys and with all of the talent did help me for the QMJHL.”

Daoust remembers giving Lafreniere a shot as a call-up during Team Quebec bantam (13-14 years old) championship game matches.

“He still found a way to end up on the first line,” Daoust said. “Every time he was on the ice, we ended in the opponent’s zone with a close scoring chance. His vision, his offensive skills with the puck to take the open ice to create time and space for himself and linemates are what made him so special.”

Lafreniere had four points (two goals, two assists) in five tournament games.

“Without the puck, he supports, and his puck protection is outstanding no matter where he is on the ice,” Daoust said. “He’s very responsible in all aspects of the game and he’s a gamer, competing all the time; even on the bus playing cards with his teammates.”

Lafreniere was born Oct. 11, 2001, so he’s one of the older first-year draft eligible players of the 2020 draft class. Had he been born a month earlier, he would have been in the conversation with Jack Hughes (New Jersey Devils, No. 1, 2019 NHL Draft) and Kaapo Kakko (New York Rangers, No. 2, 2019).

“He scored 42 goals as a rookie with Rimouski,” said NHL Central Scouting senior manager David Gregory. “You knew he was going to be dynamite. Then, early on in his under-age year, we saw him in Calgary at the Canada camp when they were picking the Hlinka team. He was probably the best player at that camp; he just popped out.”

The camp included forwards Kirby Dach (No. No. 3, Chicago Blackhawks, 2019 NHL Draft), Dylan Cozens (No. 7, Buffalo Sabres, 2019), Peyton Krebs (No. 17, Vegas Golden Knights, 2019) and defenseman Bowen Byram (No. 4, Colorado Avalanche, 2019).

“Knowing everything we did and what had happened his first year in Rimouski, we knew this kid was coming,” Gregory said. “He’d always been on the radar for Canada but I don’t think he played too much international stuff to that point. Then he was very dominant in that tournament, so it was just like, ‘Ok, we know.'”

Lafreniere was named CHL Rookie of the Year after scoring 80 points (42 goals, 38 assists) in 60 games for Rimouski in 2017-18. He became the sixth player in the history of the QMJHL under the age of 18 to win CHL Player of the Year after scoring 105 points (37 goals, 68 assists) in 61 regular-season games in 2018-19.

 

Earning his status

Lafreniere did all he could to convince NHL teams he should remain the No. 1 pick in the draft even after the CHL announced the cancellation of the playoffs for the QMJHL, the Ontario Hockey League, the Western Hockey League, and the Memorial Cup, due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

“I tried to do my best to play as good as I could in every game I was in, and for sure there’s some really good players around the world, so you never know who’s going to go No. 1,” he said. “But I tried my best to play as good as I could.”

Rimouski (38-18-8) finished fourth in the QMJHL with 84 points before the cancellation of the remainder of its regular season March 18 and its playoffs March 23.

“I think we had a great team this year and we believed that we could do something special; I had a lot of fun playing in Rimouski,” Lafreniere said. “It’s a little bit sad that the season came to an end quickly like this, but like I said, everyone has to stay healthy and that’s the important thing.”

Lafreniere said he isn’t concerned about the future right now.

“I really live it day by day and try to control what I can control, and the most important thing is that everyone stays healthy,” he said. “I think it’s really fun to be projected No. 1 and I think it’s a really nice honor but during the season you don’t think about it too much. You really try to help the team win as much as you can. It’s still an honor to get drafted and by an NHL team. 

“I’ve been staying at home and working as hard as I can, trying to gain some strength, so when it’s time to come back I’m going to be ready.”

Lafreniere said Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane is a player he watched extensively as a kid.

“He was my favorite player and still is,” he said. “He’s kind of like my idol so I watched him a lot. With the way he can change games, I think it’s really special and I always learned a lot watching him.”

 

‘Give him the puck’

The fact Lafreniere is a wing and not a center makes no difference to anyone who has witnessed his play the past three seasons.

“He can adjust his game to different types of players but one thing for sure … if you’re the center on his line, look left and give him the puck,” Rimouski coach Serge Beausoleil said.

Lafreniere said he did play some center during his midget AAA season in 2016-17 but never developed as a pivot. His natural position is on the wing.

Paul Castron, the New Jersey Devils director of amateur scouting, said the team selecting No. 1 should feel comfortable in choosing Lafreniere.

“If he’s going to score 40 goals for you every year, it doesn’t matter what position he plays,” Castron said. “You’re going to be pretty comfortable making that pick because it’s pretty hard to score in our League and be consistent at it. He’s a kid who’s got a phenomenal shot, he goes to the right areas to score and isn’t afraid to mix it up. He’s got a pretty well-rounded game to go with a high skill level and hockey sense.”

It’s something he’s worked at for some time now.

“The fun parts to me [about hockey] were not just to play the games, but everything else, and I still feel like that today,” Lafreniere said. “That approach has helped me improve through the years.”

Button said Lafreniere will not only play in the NHL next season but earn a big supporting role.

“I think he’s capable of 60 points as a first-year player,” Button said. “He’s physically mature, mentally mature and he’s got all the skills. Some players aren’t ready to handle the rigors of a full season when they enter the League as a teenager … Lafreniere does.”

 

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