If a song comes on the radio and he knows the tune, the rookie left wing, who was selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, is going to belt it out.
Just ask his roommate, Rangers rookie defenseman K’Andre Miller, who hears it in the two-bedroom suburban apartment they share, during the short car rides they take together to and from the practice rink, and the much longer ones to and from Madison Square Garden.
“He thinks he’s a great singer and he sings all the time, and he tries to convince people that he’s good,” Miller said while laughing during a phone interview with NHL.com. “He sings anything that’s on the radio.”
“I mean, I’ve definitely heard better,” Miller said. “Let’s just keep it at that.”
Fair enough, but knowing what we know now about Lafreniere, it should come as no surprise that the 19-year-old is starting to find his voice in the Rangers locker room while also discovering his game on the ice.
The difference between Lafreniere at the start of the season in January compared to now is striking in how much more comfortable he appears, how much more willing he is to engage physically and how much more of a factor he is for the Rangers (25-18-6), who are four points behind the Boston Bruins for fourth place in the MassMutual East Division. The top four teams will qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“A lot more confident for sure,” Lafreniere said after getting a goal and an assist in a 4-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday. “I’m making a lot more plays. I found my game a little bit, but still need to get better and that’s what I’ll try to do for the rest of the season.”
Lafreniere, who has scored 17 points (nine goals, eight assists) in 49 games, hasn’t yet come close to meeting the lofty expectations that accompanied him into the NHL, which included some analysts believing he would be a point-per-game player right away.
But New York never put those expectations on him, instead placing him in positions where he could succeed, including a top-nine role all season, and, in the past three games, on the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich.
Lafreniere has also recently found himself back on the second power-play unit.
“He and I have talked a little bit about sometimes the problem with the situation he’s in is we’re trying to have a 19-year-old play like a 24-year-old because he plays important minutes,” Rangers coach David Quinn said. “We’re demanding a lot from a 19-year-old, and sometimes that can be unrealistic.”
In the past month, however, Quinn has seen Lafreniere’s game grow to the point where it’s not all that unrealistic anymore.
“One of the things I think that’s happened to him is he understands how to create offense at this level right now a little bit better than he did maybe a month ago,” Quinn said. “I think his effort has been elevated to an NHL level. That’s the biggest thing young players have to learn when they get to this level, there’s a whole new definition of hard work. I think that’s something that he’s embraced. He realizes it and it’s allowed him to have a lot more success here over the last few weeks.”
Quinn also raved about Lafreniere’s coachability.
“I just love the fact that he’s paying attention and wants to learn about the other areas of the game that make him the complete player that he’s going to be eventually,” he said.
Since March 25, Lafreniere has scored nine points (five goals, four assists) in 18 games. Modest production for sure, but it is better than the eight points (four goals, four assists) he scored in his first 31 games.
Lafreniere had been playing on a line with Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko before moving up to play with Zibanejad and Buchnevich in a 3-2 loss to the Flyers on Thursday, and it doesn’t look like that line is going to change any time soon.
“Playing with great players and I’m just trying to learn every day at practice, every game,” Lafreniere said. “Trying to get better. It’s fun for me to play with Mika and ‘Buch,’ they’re two great players. Just got to learn from them a little bit and get better every day.”
In front of the public, Lafreniere shows a serious, professional demeanor. Privately, Miller said, Lafreniere is “the total opposite.”
“A goofball,” Miller said. “Living with him has been a blessing. He’s just a goofy guy and we get along really well.”
Miller said Lafreniere is always in the middle of the conversation, cracking jokes, laughing, smiling and in a good mood but prepared to work.
At home they play together on Xbox or PS4, watch YouTube videos and, of course, eat and sleep a lot, as you’d imagine a 21-year-old and a 19-year-old would.
Neither can cook, so they order from a personal caterer they found through a mutual friend.
Lafreniere is a big pasta, steak and burger guy, Miller said.
They talk about everything, from hockey to the team to just life in general and everything they’re going through. Miller said they made a pact early in their living arrangement to be open and forthright because of how much they can help each other.
Lafreniere also talks daily with his parents, who have not been able to travel to New York from their home in Quebec because of quarantine and travel restrictions.
“I know that’s really hard on him,” Miller said. “Even for me, I’ve seen my mom once this whole season and one time before this whole pandemic happened. It’s hard, but we’re getting through it. Living together helps.”
It affords Lafreniere a chance to be himself, a teenager who likes to have fun.
The Rangers are seeing that same enthusiasm on the ice too.
“He’s got a swagger about him,” Quinn said. “But he’s not arrogant. He knows he’s good and he knows he’s good because he’s going to put forth the effort to continue to be good to become the great player he’s capable of being.”