HAMILTON — Alexis Lafreniere has already played in some nerve-wracking moments during his hockey career.
Just over a week ago, he helped Canada rally from a 3-1 deficit to defeat Russia with two assists in the gold-medal game of the world junior championship.
Despite earning tournament MVP honours in the Czech Republic, the draft-eligible prospect said there’s still a little bit of nerves ahead of Thursday’s CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.
“You play a gold-medal game at the world juniors, for sure it’s a big experience,” Lafreniere said. “But tonight is still a big game and I think it’s going to be really fun for me to play with those guys and against the best players too.”
Lafreniere is among the top 40 draft-eligible players to compete at FirstOntario Centre in front of a plethora of NHL scouts.
The 18-year-old left-winger from Saint-Eustache, Que., has long been projected to go first overall at the NHL Draft this spring in Montreal. His numbers this season with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Rimouski Oceanic have been outstanding and he still leads the league in scoring despite his extended absence with 73 points — 24 goals, 49 assists — in 34 games.
He scored four goals and six assists at the world juniors and overcame a knee injury suffered in the second preliminary-round game against the Russians.
As for how close he feels to being ready for the NHL spotlight, Lafreniere said he’s not sure.
“But I know I still have some points to work on my game and that’s what I’ll do for the rest of the season,” he said.
Lafreniere, the captain for Team White, will get to line up against some of his world-junior teammates for the 25th annual showcase of the league’s top draft-eligible players from the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and QMJHL.
Quinton Byfield, ranked the No. 2 North America skater by NHL Central Scouting, will captain Team Red and said he became close friends with Lafreniere at the world juniors.
“Definitely will be something special,” Byfield said Tuesday of playing against Lafreniere. “Probably have to put a bit of money on the line, I guess, for this game or something.”
At six-foot-four and 214 pounds, Byfield is a big body through the middle of the ice while playing centre. He’s had success this season with the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves, with 25 goals and 38 assists in 33 games.
His experience at the under-20 world juniors didn’t stand out as much as Lafreniere’s with just one assist in seven games, but that doesn’t seem to have made a difference with scouts.
Dan Marr, the Director of NHL Central Scouting, said the world juniors are a 19-year-old event and a negative experience at the tournament is thrown out the window.
“His experience there is only going to advance his development,” Marr said. “But he’s one of those players that’s able to take charge of the game there. There’s a pressure on him here. If he takes charge tonight, it’s not going to surprise anybody, if he doesn’t have a take-charge type of game, it’s not going to make a difference to anybody.”
Other top players to be featured on Thursday include those ranked Nos. 3 through 6 in defenceman Jamie Drysdale (Erie), Cole Perfetti (Saginaw), Marco Rossi (Ottawa) and Dawson Mercer (Chicoutimi).
As for which players make the jump next season to the NHL, that remains to be seen. But Team White head coach George Burnett said he’s received every indication over the last few days of watching Lafreniere in practice that he’s ready.
“It’s not going to surprise me to see him playing at the next level next year,” Burnett said.