Alexis Lafreniere was on the ice for his first official practice with the New York Rangers on Monday, ending what felt like a forever offseason for the 19-year-old left wing and the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.
“It was kind of a long process from this summer, a pretty long summer, but I felt good,” Lafreniere said. “We had a really good skate and pretty good scrimmage. It was fun to be out there with the guys. There’s a lot of good players on the ice.”
Lafreniere hasn’t played in a game or participated in an official practice since March 8, 2020, when he was with Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Rimouski’s season was paused four days later and never resumed due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. Lafreniere was drafted Oct. 6, signed his entry-level contract six days later and moved from his home in Saint-Eustache, Quebec to live with a billet family in Connecticut in November.
Defenseman K’Andre Miller, the No. 22 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, was also living with the same billet family. Both prospects were training with several Rangers players for a month and a half before training camp began with testing and administrative protocols Sunday.
Lafreniere said he has moved into a team hotel for training camp, but he’s grown more comfortable with the Rangers and his new teammates during the past several weeks.
“I’m feeling pretty good for sure,” Lafreniere said. “There’s a little bit of nerves playing with these guys, but I think I’ll get used to it and then I’ll get used to the pace and I think I’ll get better as the camp goes. I’ll try improve myself and improve my game.”
Lafreniere impressed in his first practice, skating on a line with center Filip Chytil and right wing Julien Gauthier, the Rangers’ third line on their current depth chart. There was one part of the scrimmage when he led the forecheck and helped create a turnover that led to a breakaway chance for Chytil.
“I got a chance to watch him a little bit during the skates we’ve had here the last two weeks and you can see he plays fast, he’s got his head up, strong on his skates, competes hard and he’s got world-class talent,” Rangers coach David Quinn said. “I mean, this guy approaches the game the right way. He’s got a lot of pro to him already. I liked his effort today.”
Lafreniere said the pace of play is the biggest difference he felt in his first practice with the Rangers compared to other levels, which includes the QMJHL and the 2019 and 2020 IIHF World Junior Championships.
“Everything is quicker,” Lafreniere said. “You’ve got to make plays quicker. In juniors, you have maybe a little bit of time with the puck but here you have to think the game quicker. I think that’s something I’ll try to adjust and try to get better.”
The Rangers do not expect the adjustment to the pace and NHL style to take long for Lafreniere based on what they’ve seen from him already.
“You forget how young he is because he carries himself with a ton of maturity,” said left wing Chris Kreider, who was training with Lafreniere in Connecticut for several weeks. “I’ve played with him a bunch and the skill is very, very evident. He’s got the thing on a string, sees the ice incredibly well, heads up.
“He’s a lot thicker than a normal 18- or 19-year-old kid. Very strong on his skates and he competes. He’s a dog on the puck. Guys try to bump him and he’s trying to spin off and get to that ice. He’s hypercompetitive and he wants to win, and you can tell he loves playing the game. … You can tell he has serious passion for the game, enthusiasm, really good energy and he just wants to succeed and win.”