The 2020 NHL draft is going to be a special one.
Not only do the Ottawa Senators possess two of the top picks, but the amount of quality talent at the top is some of the best we’ve seen in years. What the Senators do with these picks will alter the course of the franchise, which is why we’ve decided to make this year’s draft coverage on Silver Seven a little special too.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Ary and I will be profiling the top players in the 2020 NHL draft, as well as some of our favourites who might be available later on. The next two weeks will specifically be focusing on the consensus top six, all of whom we consider to be game-breaking talents.
Today, we start with the consensus #1 overall pick, a player who’s solidly held that title for over two years now. A player whose talent level is borderline generational, that top prize teams are eyeing in the draft lottery.
That player is Alexis Lafrenière.
Alexis Lafrenière (LW)
|Team||League||Height||Weight||Expected Range||NHL Rank|
|Rimouski Océanic||QMJHL||6'1"||192 lbs||1 - 1||#1 (NA)|
At only 18 years old, Lafrenière’s resume is already astoundingly long. He was the #1 overall pick in the 2017 QMJHL draft, he won the CHL Rookie of the Year title in 2018, then graduated to become the CHL Player of the Year in 2019. Let that sink in — Lafrenière was named better than everyone else in the entire CHL in his pre-draft year, being the third player to join the club alongside John Tavares and Sidney Crosby.
The Crosby comparisons will especially run rampant through the TV studios on draft day, and for good reason — Lafrenière’s 112 points in 52 games this season was the highest scoring rate for a QMJHL draft-eligible player since Crosby, while playing for his same junior team, the Rimouski Océanic.
The biggest immediate difference between Lafrenière and players like Crosby and Tavares is that he’s a winger. The idea of the “elite #1 centre” has become somewhat what of an expectation for the prized player of an elite draft year, with players like Jack Hughes, Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid all giving a name to their recent draft classes. But don’t be fooled, Lafrenière stacks up with the very best.
His resume continues on. He played for Team Canada at both the 2019 and 2020 World Junior Championships, where he won gold medal in the latter while being named the best player in the tournament, despite missing two games with an injury. Again, this is an 18-year-old we’re talking about, completely decimating a U20 competition.
He won gold as Canada’s captain at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, he served as Rimouski’s captain this past season — heck, he even won QMJHL Personality of the Year for two consecutive years. The 2020 league awards are just starting to pile in too, winning the Mike Bossy award as the league’s “best professional prospect”. Lafrenière has done nearly everything he possibly could do to make sure his spot is secure as the best player in this draft, and this is only looking at his awards cabinet.
To get a closer look, let’s move on to how he plays.
Of all the quotes I came across in researching this article, I think Will Scouch summed it up best in five words...
“He just gets the sport.”
The 2020 draft is a strong class. There’s a lot of special players available with the top picks. But if we’re just to boil it down to the player with the most pure, ingrained talent, it’s hard to choose anyone but Lafrenière.
The hallmark of his game is his puck skills. When the puck is on his stick, he finds seemingly unlimited ways to get creative in generating an overwhelming amount of offence. His hands are incredibly smooth which has landed him on the highlight reel numerous times, but he’s only pulling out his magic tricks when need be.
He has the smarts to evade defenders, whether it be in a 1v1 or a 1v5 situation. The way he processes all the details of the game are so quick that he capitalizes on the smallest mistakes of his opponents. A small gap or a slightly imperfect angle can lead him charging towards a dangerous scoring change.
While generally categorized as a playmaker, I tend to have a harder time using the definition with Lafrenière because he can do it all. His shot may not be the very best of the draft class (although there are some incredibly elite shooters to choose from), but it’s one of the many tools in his arsenal that he uses when the situation is best. It’s almost become an underrated aspect of his game, as he can get a quality shot off in almost any position, whether it’s close to his body or he’s surrounded by defenders.
The same can be said about his skating. His beeline speed isn’t the best of the draft class (but again, that’s pitting him against some fantastic skaters), but the pace with which he plays is so quick that he’s still frequently the fastest player on the ice.
All of this ties back into his smarts, which I really can’t emphasize enough. His selection of moves always seems like he’s three steps ahead of everyone else, breaking the ice open for him and his teammates to pellet the back of the net with pucks. It makes him a very fun player to watch, not only for the fancier plays, but his ability to create space in the most unlikely scenarios is something to behold.
While Lafrenière checks all the major boxes — puck skills, skating, creativity — it’s how he nails all the small things that elevates him to a truly special player. In an interview with Corey Pronman for The Athletic (paywall), he mentioned his hand-eye coordination as something that he works on in practice, trying to get the puck out of the air as often as he can. And it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear he’s really great at that too.
His competitiveness and sheer determination to make things happen has also drawn the attention of many scouts. Reports often cite his drive to get better in every single aspect of his game, from building strength to faster skating to everything else. All of this together makes him the most projectable player in the draft to not only play in the NHL, but to succeed at high levels.
Points are far from ideal when it comes to analyzing prospects, but with Lafrenière it’s impossible to ignore. He led the QMJHL in scoring this season with 112 points in 52 games, an increase from the the 105 points in 61 games he posted the year prior, good for third in the league. Forget draft eligibility, his 2.15 points per game was the highest the league had seen from anyone since Jonathan Drouin had 2.35 in his post-draft year.
The impact Lafrenière had on his linemates was equally astounding. 19-year-old Cédric Paré posted a career high of 88 points in 64 games as Lafrenière’s centre, scoring 20 more goals and 39 more points than he did the year prior in four less games. The same can be said about 20-year-old Dmitri Zavgorodny, whose points-per-game rate jumped from 0.96 to 1.68 playing on Lafrenière’s right wing.
I’ll be referring to the website Pick224.com throughout this series of draft profiles (created by Dave MacPherson), a premier resource for data on prospects and non-NHL leagues in general. According to their site, Rimouski controlled 67.9% of the goal share when Lafrenière was on the ice, 12.8 percentage points better than when he was off. Both those stats sit near the top of the QMJHL, as just another testament to his ability to drive play.
I also want to direct you to the tracking data of Mitch Brown, who I highly recommend supporting on Patreon. His database contains ten tracked games of Lafrenière this past season, and while a lot of it confirms just how good he is offensively (he led the QMJHL in both expected goals and shot assists), it also highlights the fantastic defensive parts of his game that we haven’t talked about yet.
Among QMJHL skaters in 2019-20, Lafrenière ranked highly in the following rate categories:
- Break Ups (including interceptions, won puck battles, steals and successful poke checks in the defensive zone) — 91st percentile
- Pressured Shots (shots from the opponent that he directly affected) — 93rd percentile
- Defensive Zone Retrievals (dump-ins against that he retrieved) — 93rd percentile/
This isn’t an entirely minuscule sample size either, as he also ranked in the 81st percentile just for the amount of times he was involved in the backcheck. As much as I love raving about his elite offensive abilities, it shouldn’t be lost that his defence is anything but a weakness.
The drawbacks to Lafrenière being the #1 overall pick in this draft are very minimal, and mostly boil down to contextual factors that he can’t control. He has stiff competition behind him on the draft board in Quinton Byfield, who although I personally believe to be the clear #2 in the draft, also possesses an incredible skillset that will be looked at in more detail in a separate post.
One thing worth taking into consideration is Lafrenière’s age. As an October 11th birthday, he’s one of the draft’s oldest players being born a month after the cutoff date for the 2019 draft. It’s gained him a full extra season in the CHL compared to Byfield who’s 10 months younger, and the difference in development time is proven to have an impact on draft-year performance.
The second potential drawback is the fact that he plays in the QMJHL, a slightly weaker league where defenders don’t tend to push as much physically. It will be a test to see whether Lafrenière’s ability to evade defenders will translate to playing against bigger and stronger competition, although his performance at international events has so far shrivelled any doubts.
I also think it’s worth drawing some attention to the uglier side of Lafrenière’s game. While he doesn’t rack up a massive amount of penalty minutes (he’s averaged 1.02 PIM per game in his QMJHL career), he was suspended for three games in January for a hit to the head against the Québec Remparts, and was also assessed two fines in an earlier game for abuse of officials and inappropriate language towards an opponent. Some have written it off as his passion seeping through, but these are both unacceptable plays that should be brought to a minimum in any league.
Like all draft analysis, though, these are just additional pieces of the puzzle to be balanced alongside everything else. And with Lafrenière’s sheer dominance in every other facet, it’s kept him firmly in the #1 spot.
It’s no secret that whichever team drafts Lafrenière is going to have a game-breaking player on their hands, one that will probably be able to have an impact in the NHL immediately. Seeing him in a Senators uniform for the next decade-plus would be a delight, as even though Brady Tkachuk has turned into a solid first line left-winger at a young age, there’s nothing holding Lafrenière back from being a bona-fide NHL star.
Now we keep our fingers crossed for the draft lottery.
I’m not a scout, these people are. Read and support their work.
“[Lafrenière] constantly analyzes his opposition and processes information quicker than anybody else. He plays like a quarterback on offense, showing the ability to make defenders look foolish and pick apart defenses with his excellent read and creativity. Lafrenière plays two steps ahead of his opponent, as he’s able to anticipate plays with his excellent offensive instincts and vision. He’s constantly aware of his teammates positioning too, which really helps quicken his decision-making.”
“Lafrenière’s now got a powerful stride that gives him the explosiveness he needs to cut through lanes and back defenders off, something that was once a (minor) concern. [...] He’s not passive, nor does he try to do too much — he takes calculated risks. He doesn’t tunnel vision as a shooter or passer, constantly surveying the ice for his best options. And he has all of the athletic tools he needs. When people lean on him, it’s like he doesn’t even notice they’re there.”
“The devaluation of the expected first overall pick in the months leading up to the draft is far from a new thing — in fact, it’s something we see on a yearly basis. Even in 2015, there were some trying their best to wish a McDavid vs. Eichel debate into existence. As part of that process in 2020, I think a lot of people are failing to recognize the magnitude and rarity of Lafrenière’s level of intelligence on the ice. His entire profile is full of strengths, but Lafrenière’s success at the NHL level will always be defined by his hockey IQ.”
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