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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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Projected first-overall pick Alexis Lafreniere has received a lot of praise during his draft year, yet Mark Hunter still believes the 18-year-old Rimouski left winger doesn't get enough credit. 

"The thing that is underrated to me is he really enjoys the game," the London Knights general manager said. "It's an 82-game schedule in the National Hockey League and you really have to have that love of the game and he has that love of the game to go along with the skills, the smarts and the shot."

Hunter got an up-close look at Lafreniere during the World Juniors as the Saint-Eustache, Que. native helped lead Team Canada to its first gold medal on European ice since 2008. 

"He wants the big-time games," said Hunter, who served as general manager of Team Canada. "I still remember the one goal he scored there, late on Boxing Day against the Americans. It was a huge goal and it was pretty special to see that done at a key moment. Big-time players do that kind of stuff."  

In Canada's next game Lafreniere went down with a scary looking knee injury. It appeared his tournament was over, and it certainly would've been understandable, considering the stakes, if he decided to shut things down and take a cautious approach. 

"Some guys would have ​said, 'Well, I'm injured,' but he let our trainers and doctors look at it and calmed the knee down, he had some swelling, and we gave him a few days off," Hunter recalled. 

After missing the next two games, Lafreniere returned in the knockout stage and was eventually named tournament MVP. 

"He played through some pain," Hunter said. "He played through it and still played very well. So, that was important in showing he has the grit and the love of the game to come back. He didn't take the easy way out. He went the hard way and played through some pain and it was special."

With the end of the junior seasons being cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, scouts missed out on the chance to watch the top prospects in high-leverage moments, which makes the evaluation process trickier. But for Hunter, Lafreniere's NHL potential is crystal clear. 

"He's a No. 1 winger. I really believe that. His intelligence is off the charts. He's got good compete or NHL compete." 

  Hunter and his brother, Dale, the Knights head coach and Team Canada's bench boss at the World Juniors, have built a junior hockey juggernaut. They have a proven track record of identifying and developing talent. They've guided London to two Memorial Cup titles and produced three first-overall picks. 

With phase one of the NHL lottery on Friday, Mark Hunter spoke to TSN via Zoom this week and offered his take on the top prospects while also explaining why Toronto Maple Leafs fans should be worried about Knights winger and Blue Jackets prospect Liam Foudy.   

The following is an edited transcript of the interview.   

Sudbury centre Quinton Byfield didn't have the impact he had hoped for at the World Juniors, but he's also almost a year younger than Lafreniere. What potential do you see in his game? 

"He has all the tools to be a special player. He's big and strong, can skate, can shoot, can pass and he's going to be a centre, which we're all looking for. The upside is huge for him and he's only going to get better. In the tournament he had moments when he showed good stuff and moments when there wasn't enough ice time. That said, I wouldn't read too much into that tournament when it comes to him. I'd say what he's done all year matters and he was pretty dynamic for the Sudbury Wolves."

Erie's Jamie Drysdale is projected to be the first defenceman picked in the draft, what impresses you the most about him? 

"He's got a quiet confidence in himself. He doesn't go around and talk much about himself, but he knows he can do things against older players. And, you know what? I wouldn't put it off that he could jump into the National Hockey League next year, because of his calmness with the puck. He already reads forechecks really well and sometimes that takes time for a young defenceman. He knows where to go with the puck, and he has a knack to get pucks out clean, which is a hard thing to teach and usually takes time. But he has that figured out already." 

London's Connor McMichael is also among the eligible returning players for Team Canada at the next World Juniors, what steps did he take this season? 

"He took some big steps. There were some question marks when he came back because of his consistency and he took a step with his consistency. He comes back from Capitals training camp and said right away, 'I've got a good chance to win the scoring championship for the OHL,' and that's confidence. He knew that to do that he had to play every night and he did that. With the World Juniors, he had to make the club. I told him up front before he left, 'You're not guaranteed to be on this team,' and he battled hard at camp. He just finds ways to get goals, make plays at key times and I think he ended up with seven points in seven games and he was a big part of our club. He seemed to get better and better as the tournament went along."

After a great World Juniors, Knights winger Liam Foudy actually made his NHL debut this season for the injury-ravaged Blue Jackets. We know how fast he is, but he's spoken about getting his hands to catch up to his feet. Where is he in that process? 

"Some players take another step after a big tournament and find confidence in themselves to put everything together and I think he calmed down and found calmness in his game. He let his hands do more work with his legs and put it all together. First half, sometimes he was inconsistent, being too wild on the ice and then at the World Juniors he was excellent. He really took steps in that tournament and getting better and better every game and he came back afterwards in London and was excellent – maybe the best player in the OHL after the World Juniors. So, he really came back confident and you couldn't get the puck away from him. He had confidence in his hands and legs at the same time. I sometimes think he loses some confidence with his hands and where to go. Well, he had it all figured out. He was excellent in the second half."  

The Jackets are planning to bring Foudy to training camp, should Leafs fans be worried? 

"I think they'll have a hard time keeping him out of the lineup. We talked to [Jackets coach John Tortorella] after he went up there and Torts said, 'His calmness has come to another level.' Any good NHL player has to feel the time you have and don't have on the ice, and I think he's figured that out and how much time he has to make a play. The good players can figure that out quicker and he's figured that out. I'd be shocked if he isn't playing for Columbus during the playoffs."

What did you, personally, take from the World Juniors experience? 

"Relationships that we built over that time ... [with] a lot of players like Barrett Hayton. You see a young man like that with his character and you just know he's going to be an excellent player in the National Hockey League. And Bowen Byram, who played through being sick in the last game. He was really sick and showed a lot of will to win to do that and that will help him out at the next level. So, there's a lot of relationships there. Over time you see guys, the training staff, and all the people that were involved with Hockey Canada and, you know what? It's a group where everyone worked together and there were no cliques or different agendas and I think that's so important to any team. You need to have everyone pushing in the same direction." 

After waiting so long for that first World Juniors opportunity and then winning gold, were you and Dale interested in coming back for another run? 

"We did have some interest. We talked about it, but it was such a high ride and we had so much fun then you go, 'Can you duplicate that again?' And we didn't know, so we just said, 'Let's take a back seat here.' We got the Bear [Andre Tourigny] who will do a great job and he deserves that chance. Hockey Canada is in good hands." 

Ottawa 67s coach Andre Tourigny served as an assistant last year and, as you mentioned, now takes over as head coach. From your perspective, what makes him a good coach? 

"Technically he's strong, of course, but I just take that for granted. His communication skills are excellent, and everybody knows where they stand with him. I think that's important in a short tournament, because everybody needs to know what the pecking order is and where they're going to play. Are they third line or second line or first line? Are they on the top power play? First penalty kill? I know Bear will get that sorted out quickly and the quicker you sort that out the better your team is."

Like last year, goaltending appears to be a wide-open competition for Team Canada and London's Brett Brochu is among those invited to the virtual summer camp. What allowed him to make the jump to the OHL so smoothly this season? 

"Last year he played Junior C close to where I live, I live out near a farm in Petrolia, and I had someone come to me and say, 'You got somebody good here.' And I said, 'Are you sure?' And he said, 'This guy is the real deal.' And he came into our camp and just got better every day and by the end he was our No. 1 goalie and making big saves at big times. He'll be a goalie that people will have off the radar a little bit, but with his drive and his ability, he will be a player to be reckoned with when he's 18, 19 and pro."

Were you surprised at what he accomplished this season? 

"For a 17-year-old goalie to come in and play in front of 9,000 fans and deal with the expectations of performing every night and the pressure of that, you know, yes, he did surprise us that he could do that on a consistent basis. He got the record for most wins for a 17-year-old goalie in the OHL, which is a great accomplishment. He accomplished that while being 5-foot-11, 170 [pounds], but people forget about his heart and his heart's huge and his will is exceptional." 

Knights winger Luke Evangelista is ranked No. 50 on Bob McKenzie's final prospects list, for the team that ends up taking him, what type of player are they getting? 

"Smart, crafty and knows how to play both ends of the ice. He was one of our penalty killers as a 17-year-old and our unit was No. 1 or No. 2 in the OHL, so he knows how to play an all-around game. He needs to get more strength and he knows that. He's got some good upside because he will get stronger. When he gets stronger and a little more pop in his legs he'll be hard to deal with."