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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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TSN reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on Team Canada, which practised Sunday at the Albert Schultz Eishalle in Vienna. 

Alexis Lafrenière scored just one goal in five games at the World Juniors last year and was actually benched at one point, but what stood out the most to Arizona Coyotes forward Barrett Hayton was how the team's youngest player reacted to the adversity. 

"I know he got sat there for a little bit, but his response was unreal and it just says a lot about his character," Hayton said. "We had an older team last year, we had a lot of 19-year-olds so his opportunity and role was a smaller role than what he's used to and I think he learned a ton. I was impressed with his development even through that short time we had."

Lafrenière was the ninth youngest player to ever suit up for Canada at the World Juniors and only made the team because Gabe Vilardi was injured. But even in a limited role in host cities Vancouver and Victoria, the big left winger was able to show off his high hockey IQ. 

"Skill-set's unbelievable, everyone knows that, there's no doubt in that," Hayton said, "but it's an intense tournament, it's high competition and the game's fast, the reads are really quick so I think just his ability to adapt to that was impressive."

"His hockey sense is off the charts," said Team Canada coach Dale Hunter. "He can sense where people are going and strip pucks and I think it's important to strip pucks and get going the other way."

With 70 points in 32 games this season with Rimouski, Lafrenière only seems to be getting better. The biggest difference this year? 

"Much more confident," he says. "I've been through it last year a little bit so I know what to expect and, for sure, I got better over the last year skill-wise and got faster."

"He wants to be in that moment and make the play," observed Hockey Canada head scout Brad McEwen, "and I think that’s just evolved as he's gone along."

"I want the puck a lot," Lafrenière agreed, "and I'm asking for the puck, what I maybe didn’t do as much last year, and I think that's good. I'm involved in the play and when you have the puck then you can make plays and that's where my game is good."

As for the speed element, Lafrenière believes that's been a big help when it comes to busting through the neutral zone. And he points out that will be an even bigger factor on the bigger ice surface in Europe. 

After sitting out all of selection camp to rest a sore ankle, Lafrenière has now taken part in two practices with Team Canada and even in those workouts his new teammates have been blown away. 

"He's an exceptional player," said Sudbury’s Quinton Byfield, who's trying to displace Lafrenière and be the top pick in the next draft. "All around I think he's just insane. He has quick hands, a nice shot and you saw in the battle drills how he can shield the puck really well. He's just really exciting to watch."

Lafrenière seems immune to pressure. He was a stud at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup captaining Canada to gold in Edmonton and also produced 23 points in 13 QMJHL playoff games last spring. 

"It's something you like," he said of pressure. "In big games, in big moments you want to be on the ice and you want to make the difference so it's something that's pretty fun."

Lafrenière is also supremely motivated after last year's bitter sixth-place finish in Vancouver. 

"For sure it's always in the back of your mind," he admits, "a tough loss like this is always hard and we're proud Canadians, we want to win."

Lafrenière will also play a leadership role off the ice this year. Hunter describes him as the kind of guy who always has a smile on his face while Hayton notes the native of Saint-Eustache, Que., is "a bit of a prankster … I'm sure a couple stories will develop through this tournament."

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Lafrenière will start on a line with Hayton and Kelowna's Nolan Foote. When it came to putting that trio together, Hunter didn't overthink things. 

"They're offensive guys and you need a top line," the coach said. "Footer's got a great shot, can score, and Barrett and Laffy are skilled guys that can move pucks. It's one of those things where you put them together, they scored some goals today and we'll see how it goes."

What potential does Byfield see in that line? 

"Oh, I see a lot of goals, that's all I know," the 17-year-old said with a wide smile. "There's (already been) a couple tic-tac-toes, Foote finishing, I think that's going to be unreal to watch. I'm just going to be there enjoying the ride and seeing them play. It's something special, for sure."

"There's high expectations for us," said Hayton. "I know we all hold ourselves to a very high standard and they're two special players and it's going to be fun."

Foote has potted 15 goals in 25 WHL games this season and possesses one of the best shots on the team. 

"It's pretty heavy," Lafrenière said with a chuckle. "When you're on the ice with him and you see him shoot it’s impressive. He can really shoot so we'll try to get him the puck."

Lafrenière also owns an excellent shot, which gives Hayton, who had four assists in five games at the World Juniors last year, plenty of options. 

"The biggest thing is they just find those holes," Hayton said. "Obviously, their shots are deadly so my job is just to find space and create room and feed them the puck."

Hayton posted 40 assists in 39 OHL games last season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. 

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Byfield was a standout performer at Canada’s selection camp, earning a roster spot despite his draft-eligible status. But the native of Newmarket, Ont., is far from satisfied regardless of the rave reviews. 

"I definitely have more to give," he said. "It wasn't a bad camp. I showed them what I need, I guess, to make the team, but there's a lot more I can give out there. They really want me to play, as they say, I'm there to play and if I want to play with the best I can."

Team Canada's staff appears poised to give Byfield a prominent role as he's been skating on a line with Benoit-Olivier Groulx​ and Dylan Cozens at practice. When Joe Veleno joins the group, it seems likely the Grand Rapids centre will replace Groulx on that line making it the second unit. 

Where, in particular, does the six-foot-four, 215 pound Byfield feel he can improve? 

"I can definitely be a lot more physical for a bigger guy," Byfield said. "It's harder to be physical on the bigger ice, but I think I can definitely do that and show my skating ability as well."

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Aidan Dudas skated on his own before practice and then stayed out for a couple drills in the main session as he continues to recover from a hand injury. Is the Owen Sound forward getting closer to returning to full practice? 

"He is," confirmed Hunter. "He took a few shots, but he hasn't taken full shots, but he’s getting closer every day."

If Dudas is able to suit up in Ostrava, Team Canada will need to release one more forward. Has the management staff already identified who will go? 

"We're evaluating," Hunter said. "It's a process right now."

The coach also there has been no decision on who will be the third goalie. 

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Lines at Sunday’s practice: 

Forwards
Lafrenière - Hayton - Foote
Byfield - Groulx - Cozens
Foudy - Dellandrea - Mercer
McMichael - Thomas - Lavoie

Defencemen
McIsaac - Smith
Bahl - Bernard-Docker
Byram - Addison
Drysdale 

Goaltenders
Daws
Hofer
Rodrigue

Absent: Dudas (hand), Veleno (AHL)