By Peter Robinson
It is unfair (and too early) to compare Rimouski Oceanic left winger Alexis Lafreniere to Vincent Lecavalier and Sidney Crosby, two Oceanic stars who previously had been taken first overall and reached Stanley Cup heights.
But Lafreniere is special in his own right. His skill set, vision and ability to create offence makes him the type of player an NHL club can build around. He also has an underrated physical quality when battling for the puck and has noticeably improved defensively.
“He’s another level now,” said a scouting director from an NHL club who had Lafreniere as the “close but clear” No. 1 prospect before the World Junior Championship that wrapped up on January 5 in the Czech Republic with Canada winning gold over Russia in the final.
Lafreniere’s performance has now solidified his No. 1 ranking. He was a leading contributor on Team Canada despite an injury scare that forced him to leave his team’s second game against Russia and miss two other preliminary round contests. Lafreniere dramatically increased his WJC production from last year, where he had just a single point, a goal, in five games.
He eventually was named tournament MVP despite missing almost half the tournament.
“I had Nico Hischier in Halifax,” said Andre Tourigny, now the Ottawa 67’s head coach who was a Team Canada assistant at the World Junior, drawing a comparison between the last Canadian Hockey League player to go No. 1 overall and Lafreniere.
“Nico is like the company president. All serious and professional. Alexis is different. Happy all the time…just a great teammate in a different type of way but a great player. A franchise-type player.
“Look at the way he came back from the (World Junior) injury. He went out there, created a turnover on the forecheck and, boom, set up a goal.”
Tourigny then emphasized the point:
“On his first shift.”
Perhaps the best reflection of Lafreniere’s stature within this draft class was his dominant performance at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in August 2018. Canada also won gold in that event played in Red Deer and Edmonton and Lafreniere led the tournament in scoring (with Russia’s Vasili Podkolzin) with 11 points (5G, 6A) in five games. That tournament included both a handful of 2019 first-round picks and a few others, who, like Lafreniere, who have late birthdays that pushed them into the 2020 NHL Draft.
That Lafreniere has become a more complete player in the past 17 months further validates his stature as the most likely candidate to hear his name called first overall.
For a Quebecer to do that at an NHL Draft held in Montreal, speaks for itself.
“He is special,” said Tourigny, who was Canada’s head coach in Alberta in 2018.
If there is a criticism of Lafreniere this season is that he has been a bit inconsistent. Others disagree. “Prospect fatigue,” said another scout, of the tendency to imagine a weakness in a top player after so many viewings.
With Lafreniere now having the clear inside track to go No. 1 overall, he would become the third Oceanic star to occupy that lofty perch over the past two decades. Twenty-two years separate him and Lecavalier, who was the first pick in 1998.
Crosby came along seven years after Lecavalier.
Crosby’s two years in Rimouski brought a national buzz not seen to that point. He twice won the Canadian Hockey League player of the year award and led the Oceanic to the QMJHL title and Memorial Cup championship game in 2005. The Oceanic recently retired Crosby’s famous No. 87, a testament to his splendid 303-point (120G, 183A) run in Rimouski colours.
Crosby has since won the Stanley Cup three times with the Pittsburgh Penguins, including back-to-back wins in 2016 and 2017. He has also twice won Olympic gold with Team Canada, as well as World Cup and World Championship crowns. Still just 32, he is the most decorated player in the modern 31-team NHL.
Lecavalier had 218 points (86G, 132A) in two seasons with the Oceanic and went first overall to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Despite lofty expectations with a struggling franchise, Lecavalier soon found his footing. Often playing with good friend and fellow Oceanic grad Brad Richards, the highlight came during a four-month stretch in 2004. Lecavalier helped the Lightning win the Stanley Cup in June and Canada to the World Cup crown in September. His OT winner over the Czech Republic in the World Cup semi-finals remains an iconic image, scoring it as he did while falling and from a tight angle. He later won the Rocket Richard Trophy after a 52-goal campaign in 2006-07.
The Lecavalier-Crosby-Lafreniere Oceanic trio could join former London Knights Rick Nash, Patrick Kane and John Tavares who have an unofficial event record as players from the same Canadian Hockey League club who were taken first overall. (Crosby missed the event in 2005 due to injury.)
Lafreniere is also poised to become the 15th Kubota CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game participant to go No. 1.