Lafreniere, 2020 draft class steal the spotlight at Hlinka Gretzky Cup

Canada's Alexis Lafreniere and Dylan Cozens celebrate a goal Hlinka Gretzky Cup action against Sweden. (Codie McLachlan/CP)

EDMONTON — The Hlinka Gretzky Cup was supposed to be about the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver, an under-18 tournament stacked with the best draft-eligible 17-year-olds in the hockey world.

Then Sweden played Canada in by far the most intriguing, Edmonton-based tilt of the week, and the game was all about the 2020 draft. And 2021, if you consider 15-year-old Swedish goalie Jesper Wallstedt.

Canada beat Sweden 4-3 Wednesday night in a wildly entertaining tilt, securing first place in Group A and a semifinal matchup with the United States. The Americans were shellacked 8-3 by Russia down in Red Deer Wednesday, setting up Russia and the Swedes in the other Friday semifinal at Rogers Place.

For Russia, that means a date against the Tres Kronor’s two best forwards, 16-year-olds Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz. Canada will be favoured against the USA, and led by captain Alexis Lafreniere, who is 17 but about a month too young for the Vancouver draft.

He’ll be with the two Swedes in the 2020 NHL lottery, where Lafreniere is already touted as the potential No. 1 pick.

He has that certain something, this Saint-Eustache, Que., kid. He sees the play a step before everyone else, like all the great players. Like Walter Gretzky told his boy, Lafreniere goes to where the puck is going, never to where it used to be.

“I see the same things as you. I wonder if he can teach me,” laughed Canada’s head coach, Andre Tourigny. “He’s good in a lot of ways: He’s strong physically, he’s strong on pucks. He passes the puck really well and has a super heavy shot. He plays with a lot of emotion, a lot of character right now. I really like his game.”

Tourigny made Lafreniere his captain here, despite the fact he is the second-youngest Team Canada player. It was an obvious choice, yet still, a rare occurrence at this age. Or so you might think.

“What do you think about Connor McDavid as captain of the Edmonton Oilers? Sidney Crosby won the Cup at 21,” countered Tourigny. “When you’re a leader, you’re a leader — it’s not a matter of age. The fact that he is a few months younger than the other (players), maybe it’s good for the first 48 hours. But now we don’t see the age anymore. He’s a good player — period.”

Lafreniere is humble, and not eager for comparisons with Crosby and Vincent Lecavalier, two superstars who came through the Rimouski Oceanic, where Lafreniere scored 42 goals and 82 points last season as a 16-year-old. He’d rather talk about the two young Swedes than himself — “They are really skilled, both of them. They made great plays, but in the end we had the win, and that’s what you want.” — and won’t get caught up with wearing the captain’s ‘C’ here.

“It’s still my age group. I know a lot of guys in the room,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like I am younger. The guys are amazing.”

But Lafreniere has consistently produced at this Hlinka Gretzky Cup, notching three consecutive two-point games to lead the tournament in scoring through the group stage. He is an equal threat to take the puck to the goal, or pass to a teammate in a dangerous scoring position. Like all the best players, he skates well without the puck, and every bit as well with it.

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He plays as a left-winger, but there is at least one observer who see a different position in Lafreniere’s future.

“He reminds me of Gilbert Perreault,” Wayne Gretzky said Wednesday, invoking one of the all-time smooth Francophone players. “He can skate, handle the puck … I said to someone, ‘I think he’s going to be a centre in the NHL.’ And they said, ‘No, he’s a left-winger.’ I said, ‘One of the best centres ever played the wing for three years. He didn’t have any problem moving into the middle.’”

Of course, Gretzky was referring to his old teammate, Mark Messier.

“He’s just around the puck so much,” Gretzky said of Lafreniere. “When you have that much puck sense, that much speed, I can see him being a centreman at the next level.”

Kirby Dach, the right-winger on Canada’s top line, can’t get enough of playing the game with a player of this pedigree.

“He’s got a sixth sense,” said Dach, a lanky, skilled winger who looks like a fabulous prospect as well. “He knows where the puck’s going to be. He’s a fantastic hockey player. He sees the ice so well, and he makes the players around him better. He’s an easy guy to play with. Just a great guy off the ice as well.”

It’s fun to look into the future. And this weekend, when the games really matter, we will likely learn a little bit more about the 2020 draft class that has hijacked this tournament.

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