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Lafreniere standing out in season-long 2020 NHL Draft spotlight

Projected No. 1 pick expected to excel at World Junior Championship, already has fan in Maple Leafs' Matthews

by Dave McCarthy / Correspondent

Alexis Lafreniere will have all eyes on him when Canada begins play at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship against the United States at Ostravar Arena in Ostrava, Czech Republic on Thursday (1 p.m. ET; NHLN).

As the projected No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, the attention is something Lafreniere will have to get used to. Even Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews, the No.1 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, has taken notice.

"Seventy points in 30 games right? That's not too bad," Matthews said of Lafreniere. "I've seen some highlights. He's a good player."

Matthews isn't far off on the numbers. Lafreniere, an 18-year old forward, has 70 points (23 goals, 47 assists) in 32 games with Rimouski to lead the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

The 6-foot-1, 196-pound left wing had one goal in five games for Canada at the 2019 WJC, when it finished sixth, but he'll be relied on in a big way in 2020.

The 2020 WJC starts Thursday and runs through Jan. 5, 2020 in Czech Republic. Canada is in Group B for the preliminary around, along with the U.S., Russia, Czech Republic and Germany. Group A consists of defending champion Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia and Kazakhstan.

"I just think the way his swagger has developed," Hockey Canada head scout Brad McEwen said of Lafreniere. "He has more confidence. I've watched him a few times with his club team and he commands the puck. He's such a confident player. He wants to be in that moment and make the play and that's only evolved as he's gone along."

McEwen said Lafreniere also possesses an incredible offensive skillset.

"His vision, his ability to make plays, his ability in tight spaces to get the puck in the right spot, his offensive sense is really good," McEwen said.

Dealing with the pressure of playing an entire season as the projected No. 1 pick can be overwhelming, because in theory a player only can go down in the eyes of scouts if performance suffers in any way. But so far Lafreniere has handled the pressure well.

Matthews entered 2015-16 as the projected No. 1 pick. Playing for Zurich in Switzerland's top professional league, he had 46 points (24 goals, 22 assists) in 36 games.

"That's not something I really thought about," Matthews said when asked how he handled the expectations. "It can be a bit of a stressful year with the projections and rankings but I tried not to focus on that. I just tried to focus on myself and get better every day."

Matthews said being in Switzerland helped keep the constant discussion about his progression out of his mind, though it was not the main reason he decided to play there after two seasons with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.

"It happened to work out where I could get over there and play in a really good league against some really good players," he said. "It was a good experience and seemed like a no-brainer. I was fortunate it worked out, and if I were to do it all over again I'd definitely do the same thing. I was in a good position in Switzerland where I was kind of away from that stuff, not being in Canada or in the U.S. program at that time, which would probably have made it a little bit more hectic."

Matthews said he thinks Lafreniere will be successful regardless.

"When it's all said and done it doesn't really matter what route you take, this guy is obviously a special player," he said. "Throughout the year you are going to go through ups and downs regardless of where you are. You just have to try to stay level-headed."

Ty Smith, who was picked No. 17 in the 2018 NHL Draft by the New Jersey Devils, played with Lafreniere at the 2019 WJC. The defenseman, who will play for Canada again in 2020, first played with Lafreniere at the 2018 IIHF World Under-18 Championship, where Lafreniere played as a 16-year old and tied for the Canada lead with six points (four goals, two assists) in five games.

"He was an elite player obviously," Smith said during Canada's selection camp last week in Oakville, Ontario. "Tons of talent, he had a few highlight-reel goals. He does everything so well, so it was pretty cool to see him play so well as a 16-year old playing with 17-year olds.

"Last year at World Juniors he was great in camp, and when he got the opportunity he was playing well in the tournament. He's an unbelievable player. It's pretty cool to have him here."

Smith, who attended the past two training camps with the Devils, playing in seven preseason games, thinks Lafreniere already is capable of competing against NHL players.

"I think he'd do well," Smith said. "He's projected to be the top guy and it's been like that for a while. It seems like he'd do well in an NHL-style setting. He has a ton of talent, he's physically strong enough and a good skater. There's nothing not to like about him."

There will be no shortage of teams hoping for the opportunity to select Lafreniere, but in the meantime there is nothing he can do but continue performing at the level that has put him on the path to become the projected No. 1 pick. Matthews said he hopes Lafreniere ultimately enjoys the process leading up to the draft as much as possible.

"Probably I would just tell him not to get too high or too low," he said. "Try to have as much fun as possible too during this year. For me, I was lucky to have my mom and sister with me over there in Switzerland. Especially around the draft, it's what you've dreamed of your whole life so just try to have to make sure you enjoy it as much as you can with your family and friends and try not to get too caught up with all the stuff going on around you."


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