By Kevin Woodley – NHL.com
Alexis Lafreniere is looking to join Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby and Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid in some exclusive company.
Lafreniere seeks to become only the sixth 17-year-old to play for Canada in the IIHF World Junior Championship. Crosby and McDavid are on that list, along with Jason Spezza, Eric Lindros and Jay Bouwmeester.
Being mentioned in the same breath as these players does not phase Lafreniere.
“It’s nice, they are big names,” Lafreniere said. “But I try to make my own road.”
Lafreniere, who turned 17 on Oct. 11 and isn’t eligible for the NHL Draft until 2020, is taking part in Canada’s selection camp for the 2019 World Junior Championship this week. Canada coach Tim Hunter doesn’t view age as an impediment to making the team, and already had Lafreniere lead the team stretch after the first practice Monday.
“He is capable of playing on this team because he is good enough,” Hunter said. “We like what he brings as a player. He doesn’t play like a young player. He’s real smart, plays heavy, plays hard and doesn’t have those young player moments where ‘oh this is hard’ or he forgets his assignments and what have you. We like him. He’s capable of making this team.”
The 6-foot-1, 192-pound forward had 80 points (42 goals, 38 assists) in 60 games in his first year with Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season, becoming the first 16-year-old since Crosby to score more than 40 goals. Lafreniere was named rookie of the year for both the QMJHL and the Canadian Hockey League.
He followed that up by captaining Canada to gold at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in August, scoring 11 points (five goals, six assists) in five games for a share of the tournament lead, and has 54 points (17 goals, 37 assists) in 31 QMJHL games this season.
“He’s an amazing player. He’s not here for no reason,” said forward Max Comtois, the Anaheim Ducks prospect who’s played against Lafreniere in the QMJHL this season and was a member of Canada’s gold-medal winning team at the 2018 World Junior Championship. “He’s the youngest here and I think he can help this team a lot.”
Playing against older players in the QMJHL like Comtois, who had seven points (two goals, five assists) in 10 games with the Ducks before being sent back to Drummondville, should help Lafreniere in a tournament traditionally dominated by 19-year-olds. And he is already comfortable playing for Canada, having represented his country at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and IIHF under-18 World Championship last summer, and the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in 2017.
“The challenge is bigger, so you have to raise your game and I was able to do it, but I’ll have to do it again in this camp,” Lafreniere said. “There is always a little pressure, but I don’t try to think about it. I just try to focus on playing my game and work as hard as I can and try to help my teammates.
“I am confident. I know I can do great things on the ice, but I just have to work hard and do it in practice and in games.”
As for being the youngest player, the only obvious sign is metal cage Lafreniere has to wear on his helmet.
“I don’t feel younger,” Lafreniere said.
Comtois, who with Ottawa Senators forward Alex Formenton are the two returning players from last year’s team, said he doesn’t think age will be a problem when the tournament starts Dec. 26.
“No, he’s a big boy, he can skate, he can hit,” Comtois said. “He’s got his place here and I think he is going to show everyone he has his place here.”