Lafreniere trying to block out NHL draft talk as Canada begins world junior prep

PLYMOUTH, Mich. — Alexis Lafreniere has allowed his mind to wander, if ever so slightly, beyond what’s right in front of him.

And it’s hard to blame the always-smiling 17-year-old phenom.

Lafreniere is not only projected to be first overall pick at the 2020 NHL draft, the event will be held at the Bell Centre in Montreal — about a 40-minute drive from his hometown of Saint-Eustache.

“It’s going to be crazy,” he said looking ahead to next June. “It’s pretty far away … but it’s going to be really big.”

It’s really not that far away. Less than 11 months, in fact.

First things first, however, for the highly-touted winger and 37 other Canadian hopefuls at the World Junior Summer Showcase.

The event in suburban Detroit at the home of the U.S. National Team Development Program is the first opportuity for Hockey Canada’s management and coaches to get an up-close look at many of the teenagers bidding to make the country’s 2020 world junior hockey championship team.

Lafreniere secured a place on last year’s squad following the December selection camp, but as a player two years younger than most competitors, he often found himself stapled to the bench as Canada finished a disappointing sixth in Vancouver and Victoria.

“I learned your spot’s not assured,” Lafreniere said. “You have to work for every minute of ice time.”

For someone not used to sitting very often, watching key moments — especially when Canada needed a goal — was difficult.

“You accept your role,” said Lafreniere, who scored once in five tournament games. “You want the team to be good.”

The Canadian Hockey League’s player of the year last season, Lafreniere is plenty good.

Set to turn 18 in October, he had 37 goals and 105 points in 61 contests with the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic in 2018-19. That came on the heels of a rookie campaign where Lafreniere registered 80 points (42 goals, 38 assists) in 60 outings.

In 20 career playoff games in junior, the kid appropriately nicknamed “Laffy” by teammates put up 13 goals and 30 points.

Joe Veleno, who was also part of Canada’s 2019 world junior setup in a supporting role and has centred a line featuring Lafreniere early at the summer showcase, said the six-foot-one, 192-pound forward comes as advertised.

“He’s dynamic in every sense,” said Veleno, selected 30th in the 2018 draft by the Detroit Red Wings. “He can score, he can pass, great hockey sense.

“An amazing player.”

Lafreniere met Jack Hughes, who just went No. 1 at the 2019 draft, for the first time during a recent combine. The star American centre handled the scrutiny of his 18-year-old season with impressive poise, and advised Lafreniere to block out everything he can’t control.

“(Hughes) told me to focus on myself,” Lafreniere said. “There’s going to be a lot of attention.”

Shawn Bullock, Hockey Canada’s director of men’s teams, said apart from Lafreniere’s obvious skills, his passion is what stands out.

“This guy loves hockey,” Bullock said. “Energy. Enthusiasm. Smile on his face 24/7. You can’t instil that in people. He’s infectious. He’s captivating to his teammates. They look to him for leadership. They look to him to guide them.

“I don’t know if Alexis has ever had a bad day.”

That leadership aspect is something Lafreniere’s looking to embrace heading into the world juniors, which begin Dec. 26 in the Czech Republic, even though he stands to still be one of the youngsters on the team.

“Age is just a number,” said Lafreniere, who has been focusing on his shot and play in the neutral zone this summer. “I want to be a leader, and it starts now.”

Canada could have as many as six returning players at this year’s tournament, but only Lafreniere and Veleno are on the ice in Plymouth for a series of practices and exhibition games against Sweden, Finland and the U.S.

In all, eight skaters invited by Hockey Canada to the summer showcase are unable to participate.

But no matter how the rest of the roster shakes out, the country will be looking to Lafreniere when its world juniors kick off against the Americans in Ostrava on Boxing Day.

“The experience he had last year is only going to be a benefit,” said Mark Hunter, who is part of the Canadian brain trust. “He’s going to be in a role where we need him to do good things.”

Dale Hunter, Mark’s brother, will serve as Canada’s coach. He said the microscope Lafreniere is set to live under between now and this time next year — the world juniors, trying to get Rimouski to the CHL’s Memorial Cup and the draft — is always embraced by the best of the best.

“You want to be in the Stanley Cup final, you want to be in the world juniors,” Dale Hunter said. “When you retire from hockey you miss that pressure.”

The term “generational talent” gets thrown around far too often in hockey circles, but Lafreniere is fine with whatever moniker tossed his way as he ramps up towards what will be a hectic 11 months.

And it’ll be with a smile on his face.

“I don’t know what I’d be doing without hockey,” Lafreniere said. “It’s my passion and my biggest love.”

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