Playing for Canada at the World Junior Championship brings immense pressure very few teenagers can thrive in. Doing it as the top prospect in a loaded draft class? Alexis Lafreniere has his work cut out for him.
But Lafreniere is a year older now, and with 70 points through 32 QMJHL games with Rimouski this season – an eight-point lead over linemate Cedric Pare and Hamilton's Arthur Kaliyev for first in the CHL – there is no better major junior player in the country right now. Last week, Lafreniere didn't skate during Canada's four-day selection camp in Oakville, Ont. due to a lingering ankle injury, but it's not like the team's coaching staff didn't already have a big book on him as it is. Lafreniere was Canada's 13th forward for most of the 2019 edition of the world juniors, finishing the tournament with one goal in five games. As a 17-year-old, he saw some top-six duty alongside Nick Suzuki as the event went on, but the Canadians didn't have much intention of giving him significant minutes.
And that experience could go a long way. Lafreniere is one of five returning players on Canada's roster, joining forwards Joe Veleno and Barrett Hayton and defensemen Jared McIsaac and Ty Smith. The difference? Lafreniere just turned 18 in October, while the other four were drafted two summers ago. Last year was a steep learning curve for the young star who looked good at points but otherwise struggled to stay comfortable in a role he wasn't too familiar with. That opportunity was important for Lafreniere, who'll play a much more significant role for Canada this time around.
"It was hard to lose the quarterfinal, Lafreniere said. "We wanted to go as far as we can. We will use this experience for this year."
Lafreniere won't be a stranger to the spotlight going forward, with the Quebec native projected to go first overall at the draft in June – in Montreal, no less. But even with all of Lafreniere's big-game experience, including medals at the U-17 World Hockey Challenge and Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, he knows what he's getting into in the Czech Republic later this month is a completely different animal, and having last year as a warm-up was valuable.
"It's different, it's big. Everybody is watching, it's short," Lafreniere said. "Every team is really good and every game you've got to be at your best. It's fun hockey to play."
As for his ankle, Lafreniere didn't seem too concerned when he talked about it at camp and has since resumed skating on Canada's top line with Hayton and Nolan Foote. While the specifics of his ailment weren't confirmed at the time, Lafreniere missed the CHL-Russia Series in November due to injury. Since the series, Lafreniere posted points in 13 consecutive games, including 10 points during a 3-in-3 prior to joining Canada in Oakville.
"When I'm playing I don't feel it that much," Lafreniere said in Oakville. "Maybe a little bit after, but it’s good when I'm playing. I can skate pretty good I think, so I'm good with it."
Lafreniere will be one of Canada's most important players, and as a late 2001-born forward, the team won't be using the "too young" card to determine his ice time. Connor McMichael and Dylan Cozens, two of Canada's most dangerous scoring stars, were also born in 2001. Lafreniere's mixture of speed and skill will be a good complement to Hayton's two-way play and Foote's lethal shot, assuming the trio stick together, but Lafreniere also showed considerable chemistry with Joe Veleno during the World Junior Summer Showcase, too. Regardless of who Lafreniere plays with, he shouldn't have an issue putting up points for a strong Canadian squad destined to battle for gold.
Having last year's run in his back pocket will take some of the butterflies away from Lafreniere as he heads overseas for what should be his last tournament with the under-20 team before stepping into an NHL role next year. The biggest lesson he learned last year?
"No games off," he said. "Because it can be really hard at the end of the tournament if you missed games or you didn’t show up. You’ve got to play every night like it’s your last one."
For Lafreniere, that will be the case. But this time, he hopes to bring a medal back home with him – preferably one of the gold variety.
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