Watching Alexis Lafrenière hit the ice, there’s a lot that stands out about his game.
For Emilie Castonguay, two qualities top the list and separate him from the rest of the 2020 prospect class:
“His compete level. And his I.Q.,” she told Sportsnet earlier this year. As Lafrenière’s agent, Castonguay knows the top prospect better than most, helping guide the highly touted franchise talent through a crucial draft year.
“I think he makes players around him so much better. He would anticipate plays that would always lead to scoring chances no matter what,” she said, thinking back to the early days of watching him play. “I think that was a big thing, for us, that we saw very early on … his I.Q. and his compete level were what stood out the most with him.”
Hockey fans hooked on the highlights coming out of Quebec over the course of his three-year QMJHL career with the Rimouski Oceanic have seen how quickly he can change the pace of a game, finding his teammates in almost any situation and creating scoring chances seemingly out of thin air.
“When you have a player like that, it makes everybody around him better. Just the way that he’s able to see the game,” said Castonguay, who also serves as Momentum Hockey’s director of legal affairs & hockey operations. “For me, when I look at a player – especially of his talent – the first thing you notice is every time he’s on the ice or every time he touches the puck, the game just slows down. There’s not a lot of players that are able to do that. Since he was very young, every time he’s been on the ice at every level, that’s what he’s been able to do. And just the fact that he’s able to do it at every level that he goes up, to me, kind of makes him part of that conversation as a franchise player or a generational talent, if you want.
“I think time will tell that tale. I have no doubt in my mind that he’ll be able to do that in the pros and be a franchise player for whoever is lucky enough to draft him.”
As things stand now, the Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators have the best odds to be the team to call his name. The race to the bottom is at a standstill, with the league suspended amid the COVID-19 pandemic and putting the fate of the 2019-20 in flux. The last-place Red Wings currently have an 18.5 per cent chance of landing the top selection and are certainly crossing their fingers for a reunion between Lafrenière and his Team Canada teammate (and 2018 first-rounder) Joe Veleno in Detroit.
“For sure, it would be really fun to play with him,” Lafrenière told reporters during a conference call last week when asked about the possibility of playing alongside Veleno in the NHL. “I know it’s a great organization.”
The Ottawa Senators, meanwhile, should be pretty excited about their odds considering they’ve got two shots at the No. 1 selection: their own, from their current 30th-place position (13.5 per cent chance), as well as the pick belonging to the 29th-place San Jose Sharks from the Erik Karlsson trade in 2018 (11.5 per cent). Combined, that’s a 25 per cent shot at landing the franchise winger, and it would mean Lafrenière would be staying close to home, embarking on his NHL career just a two-hour drive away from his hometown of St. Eustache.
“It would be fun. It would be special for sure,” Lafrenière said. “It’s a great place to play, and they have a lot of good players, so it would be an honour for sure.”
Though Lafrenière has done everything he can to ensure he’s atop the draft board, he’ll need to wait a little longer to hear his name called. The league announced in late March that the draft, originally scheduled to run June 26-27 in Montreal, is postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Castonguay said Lafrenière has worked hard to build himself into “an all-around player,” and you can see that progression by looking back at his junior career with the Oceanic.
Lafrenière’s first year playing major junior hockey (2017-18) brought CHL rookie-of-the-year honours thanks to a 42-goal, 80-point campaign that saw him finish ninth in league scoring and second among rookies behind Filip Zadina. He surpassed the 100-point plateau one year later, tallying 37 goals, 68 assists, and 105 points while being named the CHL’s Player of the Year. He’s worthy of that title again this year, finishing the shortened season with 35 goals and a league-leading 77 assists and 112 points through 52 games played.
The prospect we see today is a much more physical player than the one drafted first overall to Rimouski in 2017, unafraid to drive hard to the net and battle for the puck in the dirty areas.
“He’s becoming a very complete player which, to me, is another sign of just his passion for the game and dedication to it and his desire to always want to get better,” said Castonguay.
He’d have finished with even more points, but the league was forced to shut down for the season upon the completion of 572 of its 613 games, due to the pandemic.
Alexis Lafreniere is going to be a problem in the League!
— NHL (@NHL) March 5, 2020
Lafrenière’s elite playmaking was on full display on the international stage this past winter as the Team Canada star led his nation to gold in Ostrava, Cze., with four goals and six assists — including two helpers in the gold medal game — for 10 points through five games.
“He likes to be in big games, he likes to be counted on in big moments and he’s been able to perform in big moments and I think that’s because he’s got such composure and a confidence in himself – like a quiet confidence, in a way,” said Castonguay. “He’s not cocky, he just has a very quiet confidence and he lets his talent speak on the ice.”
That attitude makes him popular among his teammates.
“Guys love him. He’s a great teammate. He gets into the zone once he’s on the ice but he’s kind of a relaxed guy off the ice, likes to have fun, likes to be with his teammates, doesn’t take himself too seriously,” said Castonguay. “And the fact that he’s able to do that tells me that he’s able to handle pressure.”
As for his compete level, Castonguay says the 18-year-old comes by that honestly.
“He gets it from his parents. He’s got such a compete level – like, the kid hates to lose. You meet his family and they’re all the same, so competitive,” she said, adding that the competition even ramps up during a game of cards or a family softball game. “He’s been brought up that way and I think it’s going to help him at every level.”