How has Lafreniere separated himself from the pack?
RIMOUSKI, Quebec — Alexis Lafreniere was no different than any other kid growing up in La Belle Province. He idolized Sidney Crosby.
Lafreniere owned Crosby’s Rimouski Oceanic sweater – long before he even dreamed of donning one himself – and wore Pittsburgh Penguins T-shirts with No. 87 on the back.
“I think every hockey player looked up to the best player in the world,” Lafreniere said.
Lafreniere has skated in Crosby’s footsteps for the last two years, wearing the same Oceanic jersey, becoming the first Quebec Major Junior Hockey League player since Crosby to collect 42 goals as a 16-year-old.
Now, the projected No. 1 pick in 2020 will finally get a chance to meet the No. 1 pick from 2005, when Crosby returns to town as the Oceanic retire his number prior to the team’s home opener on Friday night at Colisee Financiere Sun Life.
Lafreniere, still just 17, admitted he might be a little tongue-tied.
“I don’t know what I’ll say to him, I guess I’ll just go with the flow,” Lafreniere said, smiling. “It’s going to be special. He’s such an idol for me. It’s going to be a big day and a big moment for the organization.”
Friday night marks the Nics’ 25th season in this cradle (pop: 46,000) on the banks of the mighty St. Lawrence River, a remarkable legacy known not just for its on-ice success but as an incubator for first overall NHL picks.
Lafreniere would make three, alongside Crosby and Vincent Lecavalier (1998), tying the OHL powerhouse London Knights (John Tavares, Patrick Kane and Rick Nash) for most over these last 25 years.
“It’s special to wear this jersey,” Lafreniere said Thursday, before Crosby’s return to town. “A lot of good players have come to play here. It’s a good place to play junior. It’s a hockey town. I enjoy every moment that I’m here.”
Lafreniere has been on the NHL radar for more than five years, but he is no guarantee to join Crosby and Lecavalier in that elite class next June.
Yes, he was the unanimous No. 1 ranked player in Bob McKenzie’s preseason draft rankings, but so was Nolan Patrick in 2016-17. No one was talking about Nico Hischier in September.
TSN director of scouting Craig Button says that as many as seven players could challenge Lafreniere for the top spot. That’s seven players who could spoil what would be an incredible scene at the Bell Centre in Montreal, just 20 minutes from his hometown of St-Eustache.
To Lafreniere’s coach in Rimouski, Serge Beausoleil, all that talk is just noise.
“I call it mermaids,” Beausoleil said, searching for the English translation in his head. “You know Greek mythology, the sirens? They attract the boats and they crash on the rocks. It’s exactly the same [bleep]. You need to ignore the sirens, ignore the mermaids. He has a lot of hockey to play between now and the Draft. It’s easier to say than do, but he will be good at staying in the present.”
The chatter doesn’t seem to affect Lafreniere even a little.
“There’s so many good players around the world, everyone wants to be as good as they can be,” Lafreniere said. “I don’t look at it too much. I’ll keep going like this, I will just give my best every game and every practice.”
Lafreniere so easily turns aside that narrative – much like he deflected the inevitable comparisons to Crosby and the blunt criticism from Team Canada coach Tim Hunter at the World Junior Championship last year in Vancouver – because to Lafreniere, it has never been about what anyone else does or says.
Remember when Hunter put Lafreniere on blast and said it looked like he was “out for a free skate” for Team Canada?
Some in the hockey world felt Hunter bullied the youngest player on Canada’s roster, picking at the low-hanging fruit after a close call against Switzerland.
Lafreniere wasn’t bothered.
“I didn’t think about it too much,” Lafreniere said. “He told me what was wrong with my game. He was thinking of how I could be better and it’s good that he told me. I tried to get better.”
The next night, he one-timed a beautiful goal behind the Czechs. Message sent.
“Next game, I think I played a pretty good game,” he said. “I was pretty happy with that. It was big for me to try to respond.”
Beausoleil said it was important for Lafreniere – who previously had almost always been the best player whenever he stepped on the ice – to learn from playing limited minutes.
“I think it was really good for him to face adversity and to fail, to know that there’s no open window and you have to run through the door,” Beausoleil said. “He wants to take charge. He wants to make the difference.”
Spend just a few minutes with Lafreniere and what is most clear is that he is comfortable in his own skin.
This son of a teacher and construction manager has something in common with Crosby in that he likes being just “one of the guys.” Whether it’s at the rink or at school, he is almost always around teammates. Lafreniere often hosts ping-pong games and billiards matches at his billet’s house in Rimouski.
“He is a glue guy,” Beausoleil said. “Everyone wants to be with him not because he is Lafreniere, but because he loves the game. He likes to talk about the game, he likes the social part of the game in the dressing room. They are all drawn to him.”
Unlike Crosby, who came to Rimouski from Cole Harbour, N.S., and had to learn French, Lafreniere has made it a quest to become more comfortable with English.
“I couldn’t say much two years ago,” Lafreniere said. “I was shy when it became time for English. Way better now.”
Lafreniere wanted to speak better English not only for media interviews and his coming transition to the NHL, but because he said he wanted to be able to learn from his teammates at Hockey Canada events.
Lafreniere spent his summer learning. His goal? Better spatial awareness in the defensive zone, with a special focus on “loose pucks so I can transition quicker the other way.” He also worked on his basketball game and played a little tennis when he wasn’t training alongside current NHLers Cedric Paquette, Antoine Roussel, Charles Hudon and Jonathan Bernier.
“I lean on those guys for advice,” Lafreniere said. “They’ve been through it, they show me the right way.”
For one night, at least, Lafreniere will be able to lean on his idol in Crosby, who has always done it the right way. Sid The Kid’s return to Rimouski is a momentous night for the Oceanic franchise – and for Lafrenière.
It means the chase for No. 1 is officially on.
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli