Team Canada held an off-ice workout (game players) and practice (scratches) at the Q Centre in Victoria ahead of tonight's scrimmage against the U Sports all-stars.
There are 34 players at Team Canada’s selection camp, but only one was asked to lead the stretch following the first practice.
"Coach told me to go, because I’m the youngest," said a smiling Alexis Lafrenière. "It was pretty funny. It was nice."
Head coach Tim Hunter has high hopes for the Rimouski Oceanic winger, who has already racked up 17 goals and 37 assists in 31 QMJHL games this season and seems to enjoy the spotlight.
"He's here to make the team," Hunter said. "He’s capable of playing on this team, because he’s good enough. He doesn’t play like a young player. Real smart, plays heavy, plays hard and doesn’t have those young player moments where, 'Oh this is hard,' and forgets his assignments."
"I don’t feel younger," Lafrenière agreed. "Everybody has the same chance and I have to work hard like everybody. Everybody’s equal here. It doesn’t matter how old you are."
He only turned 17 in October, but Lafrenière has already built an impressive track record especially when it comes to excelling against older competition.
"The challenge is bigger so you have to raise your game," he explained. "I’m confident. I know I can do great things on the ice so I just have to work hard."
Last season, Lafrenière became the first 16-year-old to score 40 goals in the QMJHL since Sidney Crosby. Last April, he led Canada in scoring at the under-18 World Championship. And in the summer, he led the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup in scoring (11 points in five games) while captaining Canada to a gold medal.
"He steps up in the big games," said Hunter. "I watched him in Edmonton at the Hlinka and he got better and better as that tournament went along. He competes hard and he’s very, very skilled and that’s the dynamic we like."
"I'm an offensive player," Lafrenière said. "I love to have the puck, make plays and shoot the puck. I have to get better in my D zone if I want to be a more complete player."
Lafrenière may be young, but at six-foot-one, 192 pounds he’s physically mature. And his opponents in Quebec dispute the idea that his game isn't well-rounded.
"He's an amazing player," gushed Drummondville forward Maxime Comtois, one of two returning players for Canada. "I think he can help this team a lot. He plays both ways of the ice really good. He's a big boy. He can skate, he can hit. I think he’ll show everyone he has his place here."
"He's a tough guy to play against just because he has so many assets," observed Acadie–Bathurst defenceman Noah Dobson. "He’s a big body, strong on the puck and when you get looking at the puck he’s able to put in between your feet or make a play like that. He definitely has a 200-foot game and it makes him real hard to play against."
All signs point to Lafrenière making Team Canada should he continue to play the way he has, but that doesn’t mean this process will be easy.
"For sure there’s always a little bit of pressure, but I try not to think about it," he said.
Lafrenière is the current favourite to go first overall in the 2020 NHL draft, which would see him follow in the footsteps of Crosby, a fellow Rimouski top pick. He’s aiming to become the first 17-year-old to make Canada's World Junior roster since Connor McDavid. But TSN's director of scouting Craig Button notes that Lafrenière's skill-set is more comparable to that of Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn. Hearing your name in the same sentence as such elite talents has to be surreal.
"For sure, it’s nice," Lafrenière said. "They’re big names, but I try and make my own road. I don’t think a lot about other players."
Josh Brook was asked what his identity is as a player.
"Just a two-way defenceman," the 19-year-old said. "Just be reliable and get pucks up to the forwards, worry about defence first and get up in the offence if there’s a chance. But, mainly, just focus on defence."
He left out an important trait that may just help the Moose Jaw rearguard crack Canada’s World Junior roster. Brook is able to play both sides having done so with the Warriors, who are coached by Hunter, the same man coaching Canada this year. Brook, a righty, estimates he spends about 30 per cent of his WHL shifts playing on the left. Is it a big adjustment?
"Not really," he insists. "Just open yourself up a little bit different to catch passes and stuff, but not too much difference. I’m comfortable with both sides."
Brook, picked in the second round by Montreal in the 2017 draft, skated on the left side on a pairing with Evan Bouchard in the first practice at Canada's selection camp. Bouchard, an Oilers prospect, is a favourite to make the team. Of the 12 defencemen in camp, seven are righties meaning there’s less competition on the left where no one, other than maybe Spokane's Ty Smith, can feel secure of a spot.
Could his versatility provide Brook with an advantage?
"Yeah, maybe," he said, cautiously optimistic, "hopefully it does."
Drummondville's Joe Veleno may be the hottest player at Canada’s selection camp having recorded an astounding 31 points in his last nine games surging into a tie for second place in QMJHL scoring with Lafrenière and two others.
"It gives me a lot of confidence for sure," the Red Wings first-rounder said. "I know I’m able to do it and doing it in the Quebec League, it’s not much different than being able to do it here."
Veleno had 23 points in the first 19 games of the season before taking off and reaching a new level. Half of his 22 goals this year have come during this scorching nine-game run. So, what’s been the biggest difference?
"Just doing the little details right in my game," he explained, "stopping on pucks, finishing in front and just playing the right way, playing hard, playing fast and not cheating to get points."
The hot streak comes at an opportune time as the 18-year-old is on the bubble to make the World Junior roster and he'll likely need to produce offensively during a series of scrimmages against the U Sports all-stars this week.
"It feels like the game has slowed down a little bit," Veleno said, "and you just know where to be on the ice, reading plays easier and you’re just more focused. You go into every game having the right mindset."
After averaging 1.2 points per game last season, Veleno is up to 1.9 per game this season.
Projected Team Canada line-up for Wednesday's game v uSports all-stars:
Scratches: Comtois, Glass, Tippett, Ratcliffe, Hayton, Vilardi, Anderson-Dolan
Scratches: Brook, Bouchard, Joseph, Mitchell, Phillips
Canada goalies: DiPietro, Scott
U Sports goalie: Villalta
Power play units in Tuesday night's practice: