“I just want to improve myself every day and get better as a hockey player,” Lafreniere said. “I don’t have any expectations. I just want to play the best hockey I can play and be better than I was yesterday. That’s always something that I’m trying to work on.”
Except the challenge is different now. This is the NHL, and Lafreniere is coming in as the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. He’s playing in New York. There are expectations. There is pressure heading into the Rangers season opener against the New York Islanders at Madison Square Garden on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, TVAS, MSG, NHL.TV).
Lafreniere won’t be alone in managing it all. The Rangers will help guide, insulate and, if necessary, protect him. He has been asking questions of his veteran teammates in training camp.
“My advice was now that he’s playing at this level, men’s hockey, it’s all about mental stability, it’s all about preparation,” left wing Artemi Panarin said through a translator. “It’s no longer about skating laps, but really working on your mental part of the game and your psychology.”
Left wing Chris Kreider spent the past two months of the offseason training with Lafreniere in Connecticut, gaining an appreciation for him as a player and person, his work ethic and his maturity.
“I don’t think anyone is going to tell a young guy not to worry about expectations because any young guy coming in worth his salt is going to have higher expectations than what anyone else sets for them,” Kreider said. “He should have the highest possible expectations and I know he does. … If there is one thing that I could tell him in terms of expectations it’s just fall in love with the process, which I don’t know that he needs anyone to tell him that because he goes out there and he works hard and he’s always in the moment.”
Players who have thrived in New York agree that it’s the moments away from the rink, alone with his thoughts, phone and social media at the ready, that Lafreniere has to control.
“My biggest advice would be to get off that,” former Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. “I saw it with young guys the last couple of years in my career, you get off the ice and the first thing they’re doing is they’re on their phone checking Twitter. In a place like New York where there are enough distractions, enough media attention, enough emotion, you don’t really need to add to it good or bad.”
Callahan said that’s easier said than done for a teenager entering the NHL who has grown up in the age of booming social media.
“But say if he gets off to a good start, you start reading all these things about how great you are — the NHL is a tough league and it can give you a reality check really quick no matter how you’re playing,” Callahan said. “Try to seclude yourself and focus on your game.”
Lafreniere has done that well in previous pressure-filled spots, like as the captain for Canada in the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship. He scored 10 points (four goals, six assists) in five games, leading Canada to the championship as the tournament’s most valuable player.
Former Rangers goalie Mike Richter said the scrutiny on Lafreniere in a Canada sweater will be greater than what he will face as a rookie in New York.
“I don’t know if he could be more prepared coming in having gone through what he’s been through,” Richter said. “As a goalie growing up in Philadelphia you can fly under the radar here and there. But he has lived with this and produced. I think he’s been through the fire in a way that prepares him for just about anything. It’s a big jump [to the NHL] no matter how you slice it, but I can’t imagine a person coming in and being more equipped than this guy is. I think he’s uniquely prepared to handle Broadway.”
This offseason has been different than those for past No. 1 picks.
In a normal year he would have gone straight to development camp after the NHL Draft in late June, then to the Traverse City Prospects Tournament with the Rangers in September before going through a full training camp complete with playing in five or six preseason games.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a virtual NHL draft was held Oct. 8. There was no development camp nor prospects tournaments. The Rangers started training camp Jan. 3.
“In time he can make a huge difference; maybe immediately, but let’s not forget that there’s a big adjustment going to the biggest city going, there’s a big adjustment to pro hockey in general, new teammates and living conditions,” said Eric Lindros, the Hall of Fame forward and No. 1 pick in the 1991 NHL Draft who played with the Rangers for three seasons at the end of his career. “There’s a lot more than just playing that comes into the equation. Let him go play. There’s a reason why he was No. 1 and he’ll go out and prove it.”
Lafreniere will try to do so by looking to achieve his seemingly attainable goals.
“Let’s be honest, it’s a tough market New York, not the easiest place to play,” former Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi said. “But if he just does his thing and continues that for a long career, he’ll be a legend there.”