'Dynamic in every sense': Top prospect Lafreniere only getting more dangerous
TSN reporter Mark Masters checks in with news and notes from the World Junior Summer Showcase. Team Canada practiced in two groups at the USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich., on Monday.
Alexis Lafrenière has scored 79 goals in 121 QMJHL games over the last two seasons and may only be scratching the surface of his potential.
"My offensive game is much better," the 17-year-old Rimouski left winger said when asked where he's grown the most of late. "This summer I've worked on my neutral zone a lot, getting quicker in the neutral zone. And still trying to work without the puck, it’s not perfect and will never be, but I'm trying to get better every day."
Lafrenière is backing up his words with actions so far at Canada's World Junior summer camp where he's one of only three draft-eligible players on the roster.
"You see him out there today, I mean, he's working," observed Mark Hunter, part of Hockey Canada's management group. "We all have God-given skills and we all know he has that kind of skill, but it was really enjoyable for myself to watch his enjoyment of the game out there and working hard to get things done."
"Growing up I always loved the game," Lafrenière said, "and, still, I don’t know what I’d be doing without hockey. It’s my passion and my biggest love."
Last year, Lafrenière became the ninth youngest player to ever suit up for Canada at the World Juniors, scoring once in five games while playing a depth role on a team that lost in the quarterfinals on Jan. 2 in Vancouver. Lafrenière played less than six minutes in the elimination game against Finland, but this year the St-Eustache, Que., native will be leading the attack.
"He's a special player," said new Team Canada coach Dale Hunter, "and with his character the players all gravitate to him, they like him so we need him to be a great leader and that’s what he's been doing here on and off the ice, showing the kids the right way."
"Age is just a number," said Lafrenière, who is projected to go first overall in the 2020 NHL draft. "You can be a leader whatever your age and this year I want to be a leader and it starts now."
Lafrenière has skated with Drummondville centre Joe Veleno, a Detroit Red Wings prospect, and Niagara right winger Akil Thomas, a Los Angeles Kings prospect, so far at camp. All three players produced more than 100 points last season.
"He's dynamic in every sense," said Veleno when asked about Lafrenière. "He can score, he can pass, great hockey sense and he’s easy to play with for any centre or winger, you know, he’s easy to find on the ice. He makes his linemates better. He’s just, honestly, an amazing player. Spectacular."
"He’s really fast," Lafrenière said, "and I like to have a centre who can pass the puck and I think he fits well with me."
Lafrenière and Veleno are the only returning players taking part in the on-ice sessions at Canada's camp. The four other players eligible to return – centre Barrett Hayton (Sault Ste. Marie, ARZ) and defencemen Noah Dobson (Rouyn-Noranda, NYI), Ty Smith (Spokane, NJD) and Jared McIsaac (Halifax, DET) – are all unable to participate, but will make the trip to Michigan.
"They’re coming in for two days to be around the coaches and take in the tech and do one-on-ones etc," said Shawn Bullock, Hockey Canada's director of men's national teams. "So, they’re going to learn our culture, they’re going to learn our expectations, a little bit about the tech plan."
Other players who are unable to participate, but will also attend part of the camp include, Dylan Cozens (Lethbridge, BUF), Ty Dellandrea (Flint, DAL), Cole Fonstad (Prince Albert, MTL) and Peyton Krebs (Winnipeg, VGK).
Unlike the last couple years when Mikey DiPietro and Carter Hart entered the summer with the inside track to be Canada's starter, the goalie competition is a bit more unsettled this time around.
"It's an open position right now," said Mark Hunter. "I mean, that’s why we have five here so it’s who comes in and grabs a job from the summer and the start of the season."
The party of five features Drummondville's Olivier Rodrigue, Rouyn-Noranda's Zachary Émond, Halifax's Alexis Gravel, Rimouski's Colten Ellis and Peterborough's Hunter Jones.
Rodrigue also attended last year's World Junior summer camp in Kamloops, B.C.
"He’s been a guy who’s played U17s, Hlinka, World Under-18s for us so experience-wise he’s definitely leading in that category," said Bullock.
"He’s really positionally strong," said Mark Hunter, who scouted Rodrigue when he worked in the Toronto Maple Leafs front office. "He’s always in the right place where the puck’s at and he comes out at the right time. He’s got real good hockey sense for a goalie and I’ve liked what I’ve seen. He was a high pick to Edmonton (second round, 62nd overall) and there's a reason why he was that high."
Émond, who is making his Hockey Canada camp debut, has been unable to hit the ice so far due to a lower-body injury.
The Americans, meanwhile, will have the luxury of having a goalie with World Junior experience this year as Spencer Knight returns to the fold after serving as the third goalie in Vancouver. He dressed as the backup twice, but didn't get in a game.
Knight, who is heading to Boston College this fall, was picked 13th overall by the Florida Panthers in June and has impressed Team USA general manager John Vanbiesbrouck.
"Maturity," the former NHL goalie said when asked what stands out about the 18-year-old. "Very calm in goal, he's very big, can move, all the standard terms, he's athletic. I have great admiration for him, his abilities. I think he could play now, myself, I mean, as a person who played as a young guy and got an opportunity. He's pretty good so I'm happy he’s on our side."
The highest draft pick at Canada's camp is Kirby Dach, who went third overall to the Chicago Blackhawks in June. And so far the six-foot-four Saskatoon centre has shown why he earned that spot.
"You know what, he’s a better skater than people talk (about)," said Mark Hunter after the first session. "I noticed it out here in practice already, he gets around the ice, for a big man, really well … you got to move and he’s moving and keeping up the speed where he needs to to make plays."
Hunter will be keeping a close eye on some of the younger players vying for spots.
"The 19-year-olds I've seen quite a bit, because I was scouting for Toronto," he said. "I haven't seen as many of the 18-year-olds so I got to get familiarized with the 18-year-olds. But the 19-year-olds I have a good read on, because I saw them a lot in their draft year."
Team Canada lines at Monday’s practices:
Lafrenière - Veleno - Thomas
Foote - Dach - Rees
Damiani - Groulx - McBain
Newhook - Suzuki - Dudas
Diliberatore - Bernard-Docker
Byram - Barron
Bahl - Addison
McShane - Focht - Lavoie
Foudy - McMichael - Noel
Burzan - Fortier - Tomasino
Tychonick - Woo
Harley - Schneider
Team Canada power play units at Monday's practice:
McMichael - Focht - Woo
Tychonick - Foudy - Lavoie
Fortier - Burzan - Tomasino
Team Canada’s summer camp schedule:
Tuesday - Game against USA at 4 pm ET
Wednesday - Game against Finland at 1 pm ET
Thursday - Day off
Friday - Game against Sweden at 1 pm ET
Saturday - Game against USA at 4 pm ET