It wasn’t long ago that there were strong whispers that it was a two-man race between Alexis Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield for the top spot in the NHL Draft. A world junior tournment and Top Prospects Game later, there are no such whispers…not even a peep.
Lafreniere is the top prospect in this draft. On draft day, his name will be called first.
If there were any doubt before the WJC, those doubts were erased after a dominant performance as Canada’s top player in a gold-medal winning performance. Lafreniere led all players with 2.00 points per game despite missing a couple of games with a knee injury that many thought would keep him out for the remainder of the tournament.
His main competition for the top spot at the time was Byfield, and with good reason. A skilled 6-5 center that was leading the OHL in scoring when he departed for Canada’s WJC camp, Byfield struggled to find an identity on the talented Canadian squad, bouncing around on a few lines and ending the tournament on one of the bottom lines.
Several scouts have suggested that his stock is dropping, and one offered this explantation during the tournament: “He’s struggling a bit here,” he noted. “Not a dummy but sense is not a strength. He would overcome any sense deficiencies if he used his size better. He always tries to be a skill guy.”
Lafreniere has kept it going since returning to his junior club in Rimouski, and outplayed Byfield by a significant margin at the recent Top Prospects Game.
“Byfield was not good at the Prospect game or the WJC,” noted another scout. “I wonder about his hockey sense.
There are no such reservations about Lafreniere.
“I don’t see any weaknesses,” said one scout. “Last year you wondered a bit about his defence and consistency, but he plays an all-around game now. He’s a complete player.”
Lafreniere leads all QMJHL players by 11 points despite missing a month copeting at the World Juniors.
Last week I contacted a scout while watching Lafreniere dismantle Chicoutimi on TV, unaware that he was at the game.
“I’m here,” said the scout. “Laf is in another world. Too easy for him.”
Too easy for the scouts. Lafreniere will be slotted number one on every NHL scouts’ draft list for the first time since Connor McDavid last electrified OHL rinks.
“He will play in the NHL next season and produce right away,” said one scout/ “He’s ready physically and mentally.”
At this point, it is the battle for second overall that is more in question. German forward Tim Stutzle made sure of that with his breakout performance at the WJC.
For those who have followed his career to this point, his jaw-dropping displays of skill throughout the event were no surprise – he has been dazzling at different levels of German and international hockey for several years.
Stutzle’s vision, puck skills, quickness and confidence won over the scouts and media members seeing him for the first time.
“The kid is awesome. Wow,” was the text I received from TSN analyst Ray Ferraro during the Canada-Germany game.
Similar comments pored in from NHL scouts later in the tournament.
“He is legit,” texted one scout. “He’s fun to watch. So much skill.”
It’s a sure bet that a German will be chosen in the top ten of the NHL in back-to-back seasons for the first time. It’s also quite likely that Stutzle will join Leon Drasaitl as the only Germans to go in the top three.
“I don’t see how you can’t have him in the top three at this point,” noted one scout who will be making another trip to Germany this winter. “I like him ahead of Byfield at this point.”
Erie Otters defenceman Jamie Drysdale also outperformed Byfield at the WJC, one of the rare Canadian defencemen to play a regular shift in his draft year.
“He is such an elite skater,” said one scout. “That will make up for any issues he might otherwise face because of his size; he uses that mobility to get out of trouble. I like him a lot. He looks like a future top-pairing defencemen, and those are hard to come by.”
Drysdale is averaging more than a point-per game, an uncommon feat for an OHL defenceman before the age of 18. He is now considered a strong bet to be chosen in the top five of the upcoming draft, and if the team picking second overall is in dire need of defence help, his name may be called right after Lafreniere’s.
Marco Rossi has kept rising in the rankings since the start of the season, demonstrating to the scouting world that a 5-9 draft-eligible center can indeed dominate a junior league at both ends of the rink. Despite missing nine games, Rossi is leading the OHL in points and plus/minus. His mark of +57 in just 39 games is testament to his overall effectiveness.
His junior coach, Andre Tourigny, doesn’t expect to have the stocky Austrian back in Ottawa next season.
“I had Nico Hischier in Halifax, and I think Rossi is more ready physically than Nico was in his draft year,” said Tourigny. “His lower body is so strong; he’s built like Sidney Crosby.”
Look for Rossi’s profile to contimue to rise if Ottawa goes on a long playoff run as expected. He may not be top five on a lot of list just yet, but that may indeed change.