At just 16, Alexis Lafrenière was named Captain of Team Canada at the U18 Hlinka-Gretzky tournament.
He was one of the youngest players on the team by a couple of months, but that was not an issue for head coach Andrew Tourigny.
“We were looking for leaders… and Laf is an out-going person who relates well with every player on the team,” said Tourigny. “There’s that little something where he gets better when the pressure’s on… that’s why he’s the captain.”
In a post-game media session, he added: “When you’re a leader you’re a leader, it’s not a matter of age.”
Indeed, when you look at his career to date, Lafrenière almost seems like the obvious choice.
He was drafted 1st overall in the 2017 QMJHL Entry draft after posting 83 points (including 33 goals) in 36 games for the St-Eustache Vikings of the QMAAA. This was 15 points more than anyone else in the league that year. In his rookie year with Rimouski Oceanic, Lafrenière earned an incredible 80 points (42 goals, 38 assists) in just 60 games played. His 42 goals ranked sixth in the entire league and first for Rimouski, where he was 16 goals clear of the next highest scorer on the team.
Following the season, he played on Canada’s U18 World Championship team in Russia as an underage player. He was 2nd on the team in goals and put up 6 points in 5 games against guys two draft years ahead of him.
So really, Lafrenière earning the C at the Hlinka was no surprise- and neither was his production. He had 5 goals and 6 assists in 5 games, and an eventual gold medal. The next prolific Captain Canada.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) August 12, 2018
The Next Sidney Crosby?
I don’t use that moniker out of the blue. Lafrenière has been increasingly compared to the undisputed Captain Canada and former Rimouski Oceanic star Sidney Crosby. It’s his size, his hands, his elite hockey IQ. A lot of it may just be because he plays for Rimouski, but there is no denying that Lafrenière, like Crosby, is a franchise-changing talent. He was the first QMJHL rookie since Crosby to hit the 40 goal mark as a 16-year-old. Lafrenière was also the second person to reach 80 points as a rookie in the Q since Crosby in 2003-4. It’s not quite the lofty heights of Sid’s 135 points in his rookie year, but it’s good enough to get people talking.
Does the talk bother him?
“It’s nice, but I think Crosby’s on another level,” said Lafrenière. “He’s already winning Cups and gold medals. I just try to do my stuff. That will be good.”
Quite rightly, he is trying not to focus on the comparisons. Lafrenière is just beginning his second year of juniors. He recognizes that he has a long way to go until he even reaches the NHL, let alone earns the kind of accolades awarded to those such as Sidney Crosby.
These comparisons are also unfair. While Lafrenière’s developing skillset may seem somewhat similar to Crosby’s, he is unique as a player and as a person. Daniel Renaud, assistant coach of the U18 World Championships team, argued against the Crosby comparison, stating, “He is who he is. He’s Lafrenière. He’s gonna evolve into himself. It’s not fair to compare him to anybody right at this point in time.”
The early signs of that evolution are definitely promising. Lafrenière is different, and it’s evident when watching him play. It’s difficult to pick out one aspect of his game that rises above the others. He can score and set up plays equally well, combining the opportunistic, shoot-from-anywhere attributes of a sniper with the elite vision and slick passing of a playmaker.
In his own words, “I am a playmaker, but I can also score.”
Lafrenière is confident with the puck on his stick, playing with the composure of a veteran already. His shot is both heavy and fast, and he possesses a plethora of finishing moves that usually end with the goalie staring woefully at the puck in the net and wondering how?
His IQ is off-the-charts good. He has excellent vision, with an ability to see the entire ice at all times. This means he passes with an instinctual fluidity, able to spot open teammates and passing lanes before anyone else. Without the puck, his vision enables him to circle into free ice just as it opens up, creating a scoring chance out of nothing. His smarts alone make him a threat, but Lafrenière also has the stickhandling ability to go with it. He can carry the puck through traffic at top speed, with puck-on-a-string tendencies that make even the most composed defender look foolish 1-on-1. It’s a deadly combination of skill and vision that’s already up there with the best. All he has to do is develop it.
— QMJHL (@QMJHL) October 9, 2018
At 6’1, 192 lbs, Lafrenière is also not afraid to use his body. He has the strength to fight through checks and isn’t shy about throwing a couple of his own. Even as a 16-year-old he showed a willingness to battle in the corners, and often comes up with possession. Further, Lafrenière is a good skater, with a balanced stride and strong edgework that enables him to neatly step around defenders.
Of course, no player is perfect. Lafrenière still needs to work on his defensive game, and he admits that his shot could be better. While his speed is very good it is not elite, and his compete level can sometimes fall off a little. However, these are all things he recognizes and is working on. He credits his stints with Team Canada for helping improve his defensive responsibility and believes that he is a more complete player this season than last.
World Juniors and 2020 NHL Draft
Due to his strong rookie season and notable international performance, Lafrenière may just earn a spot on this year’s World Juniors team. It is rare for 17-year-olds to find themselves on the roster, the last being Jonathan Drouin in 2012-13. However Lafrenière has the skill and maturity to repeat Drouin’s success story. If he continues with his strong start to the season, an invite to the final camp at least seems inevitable.
As of right now, Lafrenière has 17 points- 4 goals and 13 assists- in 11 games. He is tied-2nd in the league in assists and is 2nd in team scoring, beaten only by Calgary Flames prospect Dmitry Zavgorodniy. Further, he has already reached 100 career points in just 75 QMJHL games played. It’s an exciting rate of production to start the season and is likely enough to earn him a good look for the U20 team.
Lafrenière certainly wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to play for his country again.
“I had a good tournament at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup.” He said in a recent interview. “If I still have the chance to represent Canada, I will make the most of it.”
It wouldn’t hurt his development or his draft stock either. Although we are still two years out, Lafrenière is already projected to be the number one pick come the 2020 NHL Draft. Early signs indicate that the 2020 draft class might be the strongest we’ve seen in a few years. Numerous names are already making themselves heard in the world of media and scouts. Quinton Byfield, Lucas Raymond, Alexander Holtz, to name just a few. All of these have the talent to go 1st overall.
As of now, it is Lafrenière who stands at the helm, and he shows no signs of relinquishing his position. He is currently riding a 5 game point streak, with 10 points in that time. A lot can happen in 2 seasons. But Lafrenière has the size, the skill, the intelligence, the confidence, the drive and the sheer point-producing magic touch that are all trademarks of a 1st overall pick. Right now, he’s the top dog.
Alexis Lafrenière is not yet a household name. With a likely World Juniors spot and two more lights-out seasons before his draft year arrives, I expect that to change very, very soon.
(Feature photo credit: Stlvain Charest)