The first thing that strikes you when you finally get into a packed arena to see Alexis Lafreniere electrify yet another QMJHL crowd is that he is already thicker than everybody else.
He’s one of those rare junior prospects who looks muscular even in full gear. Wide shoulders and generous backside a la Crosby, Lafreniere uses his girth to protect the puck, and the extra time he gets to make the right play results in him…making the right play…constantly.
What also becomes apparent upon closer inspection, aside from his prodigious skill level, is his elite hockey sense.
He made a play on Sunday in Rimouski’s 4-3 win over Gatineau that I have not seen very often, perhaps because it was so subtle…where he was going to receive the puck on his backhand, and he quickly shifted his body so he’d get it on his forehand. It was a fitting example of his instincts; he is in a class by himself in the QMJHL.
The other strong impression he made sense-wise was covering for his point men countless times…he reads the play at an extremely high level both offensively and defensively, and the one remaining concern some scouts had with his play last season is no longer in doubt.
“Last year I wasn’t sure how much he cared about playing away from the puck,” said one scout with a team that won’t be picking in the lottery. “But he was 16…he put those concerns to rest this season from the first time I saw him; he’s a complete player in all regards. We’d love to have him, obviously. We won’t get him.”
I asked a couple of NHL scouts about how Lafreniere stacks up against other recent high picks.
“Not as high as Hughes, but better than Hischier,” said one scout who isn’t certain that Lafreniere will be nearly as dominant in the NHL as he is in the QMJHL, comparing him to Rick Nash. “Things look rosy now…it’s still a big adjustment.”
He appears to be in the minority. I don’t see Lafreniere having any issues jumping to the next level given his physical and mental maturity, and one Quebec-based amateur scout concurred.
“He is certainly one of the more complete prospects in a while,” said the scout. “He is NHL ready as an impact winger.”
Another scout summarily dismissed comparisons to Nash, and instead compared him to John Tavares. “He has way better hands and hockey sense than that guy (Nash) ever had,” said the scout.
What scouts are now attempting to determine is Lafreniere’s offensive upside. He has 194 points in 103 QMJHL games (1.88 ppg) the past two seasons. Vinny Lecavalier had 217 points in 122 games before he was drafted (1.78 ppg). He hit the 100-point mark once in his career.
The more recent first overall pick example from the QMJHL is Nathan MacKinnon, who scored 153 points in 102 QMJHL games (1.5 ppg). To be fair…MacKinnon was 11 months and nine days younger than Lafreniere will be on draft day, so it is more relevant to look at Lafreniere’s stats in his first two seasons. He had 185 points in 122 games, which is 1.52 ppg. MacKinnon is headed for his third straight 97+-point NHL season, so it’s not outlandish to project that Lafreniere might one day score 100 points in an NHL season based on numbers alone.
“Does he have 100-point potential?” asked one scout. “I don’t have a crystal ball, but that is what you’d be hoping for.”
What all scouts agree on is that Lafreniere won’t be returning for a fourth junior season; he will be playing in the NHL, and contributing…most likely in a top-six role.
Do not rule out a 60- or 70-point rookie campaign and Calder consideration; he is certainly more NHL ready than Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier were – older, heavier, and stronger.
“It just depends who he gets to play with,” suggested one scout.
Right now, it’s hard to envision him not being one of Ottawa, New Jersey, LA or Detroit’s four best wingers next season; the same goes for Anaheim, Buffalo, Chicago or New York. In fact; he could be a top-line wnger for several of those teams tomorrow.
“He’ll be top six, and he’ll be good,” said one scout. “Some team is going to get maximum return from that Entry Level contract.”