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2020 NHL Draft Top Prospects: Alexis Lafrenière’s playmaking is unmatched

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While other players may have skills worthy of a top selection, none matches the talent of this year’s World Juniors MVP.

Jean Levasseur / LHJMQ

You’ve been hearing the name Alexis Lafrenière for several years now. Since coming away with a haul of hardware in Quebec’s Midget AAA system in 2017 and bein drafted first overall into the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League soon afterward, his trophy case has only grown as he’s matured.

He wasn’t just the QMJHL rookie of the year in 2017-18, but the best first-year player in the Canadian Hockey League, and a First-Team All-Star. He claimed the title of CHL Player of Year in his final two years with the Rimouski Oceanic, a feat that had only been achieved once before. Coincidentally, it was a player from that same Oceanic franchise — Sidney Crosby — who went back-to-back 15 years earlier. Now, like Crosby, Lafrenière is expected to be taken first overall in the NHL Draft.

Birthplace: Saint-Eustache, Quebec
Date of birth: October 11, 2001
Shoots: Left
Position: Left Wing
Height: 6’1”
Weight: 196 lbs.
Team: Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)

Crosby’s resume at the same age was more impressive simply based on the fact he was nearly a full year younger when he was compliling his Junior accolades. Crosby was born just a month short of the 2005 NHL Draft’s cutoff date (making his case more similar to 2020 prospect Quinton Byfield’s in that regard), whereas Lafrenière was just about the same distance away on the opposite side of the line last year.

Lafrenière isn’t projected to become the dominant player Crosby has been in his career, but at this stage he’s universally regarded as the top prospect in a draft featuring plenty of talent in the first round.

Elite Prospects

One thing that stands out from his Junior career statistics is that he was (with the exception of his rookie year) more of a setup man than a finisher. This season his assist total was more than double that for goals; a ratio that grew in his time in Rimouski. Watching his highlights, it’s obvious that he takes a lot of pride in setting up teammates for goals, and when the connection is reversed his reaction is to immediately point toward the player who set him up, a clear indication of the heightened value he places in the playmaking aspect of the game.

That pride in the craft has helped him become an elite passer. He has excellent hands and easily puts the puck on teammates’ sticks, whether via lobs, short passes to the slot in the offensive zone, or (what seems to be his personal favourite) zipping the puck across the Royal Road to force the goaltender to move laterally and then be in no position to stop the shot that comes from the opposite side of the net.

On his way to a gold medal at the 2020 World Junior Championship, he exhibited a similar preference. In that tournament it was Arizona Coyotes draft pick Barrett Hayton on the other end of Lafrenière’s passes. Hayton finished as Team Canada’s top scorer with 12 points in seven games, while Lafrenière was named the MVP for contributing 10 in five games — the only player in the event to average two points per contest. The QMJHL player was one of the standout stars, as a draft-eligible player no less.

While many scouts and analysts will say performances in the short tournament only serve as a small sample in determining their draft rankings, there could be little doubt that Lafrenière had cemented his place as the first overall pick in the showcase. He demonstrated that his offensive game translated well to greater competition, and proved a more effective forward than dozens of players at least a year older than him.

HockeyProspecting

Despite all the success he’s enjoyed as a teenager and his status as the consensus top pick, Byron Bader’s Hockey Prospecting model doesn’t peg him as a guaranteed superstar in the NHL. The goal-scoring is certainly a factor, and some wonder why such a gifted offensive player doesn’t find the net more often. It’s been established that he’s first and foremost a playmaking winger, and at times that can be regarded as a fault. As we see with other young players entering the league, there is often a reluctance to unleash shots that had proven effective in their amateur careers, as they need time and confidence to start taking opportunities themselves. The fact that Lafrenière is showing this trait in Junior raises a few red flags.

He doesn’t have a bad shot; his wrister is actually quite powerful and accurate. He just seems to get more satisfaction from dismantling a defence and leaving a goaltender flailing to react to a new angle than trying to beat them on his own. That’s probably a more impressive skill than just firing a puck in the net, but he’ll need to do both to be a star in the NHL.

What he does do well is get to the net when he isn’t handling the puck, looking for the same tap-ins he tries to set up, or be on the doorstep when a rebound is spilled. They’re not often pretty and hardly highlight-worthy, but goals scored by those methods do show a willingness to create offence any way he can, and that is a translatable talent.

Defensive play is another area that he will need to improve on in the NHL. He’s not nearly as adept at playing without the puck as he is with it on his stick, and often looks average in his own zone. It’s something he improved this year, and while he won’t be expected to handle the brunt of defensive activity in his zone as a winger, he’ll still have a role to play in limiting opposition chances and creating changes in possession.

Rankings

Elite Prospects: #1
Future Considerations: #1
Hockey Prospect: #1
McKeen’s Hockey: #1
McKenzie/TSN: #1
NHL Central Scouting: #1 (North American skaters)

Every outlet has Lafrenière going first overall. While there is a lot to like about Byfield and Tim Stützle (expected to be the next two picks on draft day), Lafrenière’s particular skill set is regarded as the best in the class. Stützle and Byfield are much better skaters, and they incorporate that into offensive chances that Lafrenière is unable to create with his reduced pace and mobility. He instead makes up for it by quickly and precisely moving the puck. Should he get the chance to play with more gifted finishers in the NHL (like, say, Dylan Larkin and Filip Zadina if the Detroit Red Wings win the draft lottery, or Josh Norris and Anthony Duclair if the Ottawa Senators do), relying on an exceptional puck-distribution ability will hardly be seen as a flaw.