If 2020 has proven anything, it is that nothing should be taken for granted. Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton would not have verbally engaged last night to get the projected top choice Alexis Lafreniere, and with two months until the draft he would not be doing his job if he did not take proper care of himself for other players and possible trade options.
But it would be one of the most shocking moments in draft history if Rangers switched to the first arm of the product earlier on October 9th.
Rimouski Oceanic’s last first choice was Sidney Crosby in 2005. As such, comparisons between him and Lafreniere are inevitable. Any discussion of Crosby̵7;s career for Lafreniere should be stopped immediately. However, there are similarities in the style of play worth mentioning.
Like Crosby, Lafreniere’s greatest asset is his brain. He thinks on the ice on an elite level. Hockey remains an extremely rigid, structured game, but coaches are slowly allowing more unorthodox approaches and roaming from position, especially for a highly cerebral player who can be trusted to make his own judgments, such as Lafreniere. The result is a left wing which in many ways serves as a pseudo-center, which – once the face occurs – dictates games from the outside and will often cut inside to take on more responsibilities left to the center of the wing.
Lafreniere’s vision and sense of hockey are elite. These are broad terms – if not vague, so let’s break down some different examples of what it means in his case.
It usually does not provide exit support or fly in the area as the wings usually do at rest. Rather, he returns to the track to collect bait and serves as a point guard.
And look at that accurate passing ability. The average floating cuts of players through the neutral zone or the passage to the middle lane through the opposition sticks is usually the source of the ills for a coach, and Lafreniere will have to strengthen slightly against higher levels of competition. But he is one of the few players who can get away with it, though, because he has the rare ability to read ice and hands to thread needles.
He will choose a defense to place high percentage shots even in the attacking area. Here is an example of him doing a show across the slot line, which I am sure will make Steve Valiquette happy.
These types of shows would be encouraging for an average prospect, but for Lafreniere it is the boring part. The thing about NHL players is that they are all ridiculously good. What I mean by this is, even the most mediocre NHL players can stand on a practical rink and hit targets with jaw precision. What makes elite playmakers is their ability to make games on the go and disguise their goals.
In this example, it is not enough to say that Lafreniere passes the ball accurately; what creates the possibility of scoring is that he keeps his feet moving and can make those shows while doing so. He does not lose any speed as he changes body position, both in terms of skating and the speed with which he leaves those crossings.
Its peculiarity is deception. Just like a pitcher who has the same release on a fastball and change, there is no “say” in his game. His body movements are so fast and efficient, he’s apparently has eyes on the back of his head, which is a disastrous combination for defenses. Continuous movement means new lanes open across the ice, and he has the vision to see them out of the corner of his eye and hands to execute with the pass before the defense can read the game and adjust (# 11 in these clips).
His stick treatment adds another dimension. His ability to anticipate openings combined with an extraordinary displacement means he can expose defenders who take bad angles in defense or who mist tries to defend him aggressively.
As a goal scorer, can he continue with the likes of Auston Matthews and Steven Stamko? Not even close. Is he nevertheless a player who can and should score 30-plus in his prime? Absolutely. Lafreniere will not ruin past goal shots. However, his note comes in different ways.
He has enough shooting skills to keep the opposition honest from the tops of the counties. Like Crosby, what he lacks speed in his goal he constitutes with the same deception and precision. At one point he stands nonchalantly handling the ball, and the next, he is sliding his wrists without his hands and swimming the ball rack of the ball before anyone can react. He uses the same types of body forgeries in his passes to open lanes for him to shoot or hold the ball in shooting position.
The last thing I will underline is Lafreniere moving the ball out. For all major roll performances, Lafreniere gets the score on the list often just ending up in the right place at the right time around the net. What seem to be easy goals are such only because of the thought and effort he made when the rooster arrived. He is not afraid of the middle of the ice and he will go into the net and fight through the traffic to get into the scoring position and find loose pucks around the crease. Just because he is a skill player does not mean that he is just a “perimeter” or “east-west” player.
My friend Jesse Marshall of Athletics pointed out a great example of this.
Many of Lafreniere’s fancy highlights but my favorites are the ones where he is simply smarter than everyone else. As in this clip, it goes from ball-holder to goal-scorer with a strong middle motion that puts him on defense. They do not even know he is there. pic.twitter.com/AginHa02by
– Jesse Marshall (@jmarshfof) August 10, 2020
Here are two more examples of me.
In both clips, the ball is on the opposite side of the attacking area and the game is seemingly innocent, with no apparent danger. But Lafreniere keeps his feet moving, predicts an injury that develops in the slit and loses his man.
When I compare Lafreniere to Crosby stylistically, what I mean is the variety of their offensive games. Think about Crosby’s physical strengths. Does he have a great shot, like Alex Ovechkin or Matthews? No. Is he an elite team, like McDavid or MacKinnon? No. Does he have overwhelming power and strength like Gordie Howe or Jaromir Jagr? Not at all.
Crosby’s strength is that everything is a force and he has the brain to make the most of each. The same is generally true for Lafreniere. Some players are dominant because they have some moves that the opposition is powerless to stop. In Lafreniere’s case, it is that he can beat you so many ways. He controls the tempo of the game with the ball on his stick. He makes extraordinary performances in space, and if there is no space, then he will find a way to create it. As soon as he moves the ball, he keeps his feet moving and finds the next place to contribute. He is never out of the game and is always a threat no matter the situation.
With all that said, what are Lafreniere’s perceived weaknesses? To answer this question, one must first understand that we are talking relatively. Compared to the average NHLer, Lafreniere is good for everything. Any criticism of his game is about the expectations of a first choice.
Skating is the “worst” part of his game. His dexterity is quite good, but he lacks explosiveness. It was a legitimate problem a year or two ago. He has improved in that direction to the point that he is now the worst average by NHL standards. He developed reliable separation speeds at the youngest level, but will that remain in the NHL? It is unlikely, though he is still only 18 years old and could improve a lot. Not a hindrance, but skating is probably the best reason why Lafreniere has not reached such a high level of generating prospects as Crosby or McDavid were the same age.
I also heard some criticism of his defensive play. I do not know if I personally buy it. Like most teenagers in juniors, he has work to do and – against low levels of competition – his individual ability probably allows him a runway for tactical mistakes.
His effort can not be blamed. He discovers enthusiastically and he creates plenty of passages for the selection of offenses. The same instincts that lead him to create offensive, also serve him well to predict what will unfold in defense. He takes his stick in the lane and spoils the games.
While I have no doubt that some will rush to stereotype it as “soft”, it is by no means the case. Lafreniere is just as physical as he needs to be in order to be effective. As mentioned earlier, he will lead the middle lane in attack and fight for pucks around the crease. At the World Juniors, he set the pace against the USA in their group stage match with some pretty big kicks.
He may not show up immediately as he moves from dominant juniors to play in the NHL, but as he matures I believe he will be a player with 200 feet who could possibly also contribute to the penalty shootout and decide to defend the leaders.
Lafreniere is likely to short Crosby and McDavid as Hall-of-Famers assurances before they even reach the NHL, but he is one level below that. Certainly and visibly over both Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko in last year’s draft, and that’s no criticism for either of them. Lafreniere is the best player to come through the Canadian Juniors since McDavid, and if there are any concerns about the level of competition, then just look at his 10 points in the five World Juniors games for Canada this past winter; good enough to lead the whole point-to-game tournament. If Lafreniere develops as expected – and there is not much reason to suspect he will – the Rangers will have a legitimate superstar winger who could challenge for individual tunes and be the best striker in a multi-year Cup rival. Stanley.
This ability is why Lafreniere is the best player in every table, and this is why the Rangers, even as drunk as they are on the wing, and as desperate as they are for centers and defenders, will take it in any reasonable scenario . hesitation.