HAMILTON — Alexis Lafreniere has raised some eyebrows.
Heading into the world junior hockey championship, there was no doubting the projected No. 1 pick at the 2020 NHL draft had a clinical scoring touch, silky smooth hands and a superior skating stride.
What the casual observer — one who might have only seen his audacious Quebec Major Junior Hockey League stat line or the odd highlight — quickly realized is there’s so much more in the 18-year-old winger’s tool belt.
Lafreniere is tough, relishes the physical side of the game and won’t back down from a challenge — including the knee injury that could have very easily derailed his tournament.
Instead, the native of Saint-Eustache, Que., battled through whatever discomfort he might have been feeling to help Canada win gold at the under-20 event in the Czech Republic.
Just like he always has.
“He does it all the time,” said Dan Marr, the NHL’s director of Central Scouting. “It’s good to see that and it’s good to see it on an international stage, but when you have his talent with the speed, the skills, the smarts, the battle, the compete, perseverance, the will to be the best, the will to win … it shines through. You love to see that. All it does is confirm everything that everyone’s been thinking about him.
“He confirms it every time he’s on the ice.”
Lafreniere and the rest of junior hockey’s elite, draft-eligible talent will get another chance to shine on a big stage Thursday at the annual Kubota CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.
“It’s nice to play with them and play against them,” the Rimouski Oceanic star said following Wednesday’s on- and off-ice testing. “It’s fun to just be around those kinds of guys and enjoy my time here.”
Central Scouting’s top-rated North American skater, Lafreniere has 24 goals and 73 points in just 34 games despite missing nine contests while with Canada for the world juniors.
He was named tournament MVP after putting up four goals and six assists in five outings — Lafreniere missed two games with that knee problem — and added even more distance between himself and the rest of the draft field.
“The separation was (already) there,” Marr said. “The QMJHL, they’re making it hard on him. Nobody’s giving him an easy ride. He’s been suspended. He’s willing to defend himself, and he does. He’s shown at every level, every event, he’s capable of being a difference-maker.
“He knows what needs to be done, and he can go out and make that happen. There’s not many players who can take control of a game, take control of a situation, like he can.”
Lafreniere said the physical side — he laid a crushing body check on his first shift back from injury in a quarterfinal romp over Slovakia — is an important part of his overall makeup.
“Being physical helps you get in the games, especially early on,” said the six-foot-one, 196-pound teenager from a suburb just outside Montreal. “It’s good to be physical and try and get momentum for your side.”
The other players from Canada’s world junior team participating in Thursday’s showcase are centre Quinton Byfield, Central Scouting’s No. 2 North American skater, defenceman Jamie Drysdale (No. 3), forward Dawson Mercer (No. 6) and Nico Daws, the continent’s top-ranked goalie.
The latter four are all on Team Red, while Lafreniere will suit up for Team White.
“Maybe a couple chirps,” Lafreniere said with a smile. “We’ll see how it goes.”
“He’s so good,” the 17-year-old Drysdale said of Lafreniere. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he does something spectacular.”
Marr cautioned that while the game is an important step in a player’s draft year, it’s never a make-or-break scenario.
“You’re talking about the most talented players in the country at this age group,” he said. “We do want them to show their individual skills — what they do best — and they’re encouraged to do that.
“It’s a little different environment. They’ve got the green light.”
Cole Perfetti, ranked as the No. 4 North American skater, can’t wait to get going.
“It’s big,” said the centre for the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit. “A lot of big names have played in this game.”
Prince Albert Raiders defenceman Kaiden Guhle added competing in front of NHL scouts that might not have seen him play in person in the WHL is a plus.
“It’s awesome,” said Guhle, who turns 18 on Friday. “It’s an honour to be chosen.”
While he’s clearly above the rest of the field, Lafreniere constantly pushes himself against contemporaries. He has nothing to gain from being here — there’s no spot higher than No. 1 — but the internal drive that got him this far can’t be switched off.
He pushed himself, as usual, in testing Wednesday and continues to fine-tune his game at every turn.
“I have good people around me,” Lafreniere said. “I just try to keep working on everything. I still want to improve everything.”
Lafreniere and his world junior teammates have barely had time to put their feet on the ground. He had a few days off after the long flight home from Europe, but was right back at it over the weekend in the QMJHL with a goal and two assists.
“It’s been a pretty crazy month, but it’s been really, really fun,” Lafreniere said. “I had a chance to win gold with an amazing group.
“It was a dream come true.”
But also no doubt just one of many on his checklist.