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NHL Draft

Lafreniere embracing status as projected No. 1 pick in 2020 Draft

Left wing proving adept at handling pressure, eyes bigger role at World Junior Championship

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / Staff Writer

PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- Alexis Lafreniere doesn't expect the pressure as the projected No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft to make him grip his hockey stick any tighter this season.

The 6-foot-1, 192-pound left wing from Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League welcomes the challenge.

"There's always a little bit of pressure, but for me it's not the first thing I'm looking at," Lafreniere said. "I'm trying to get better every day, every game, every practice. Trying to focus on myself and how I can grow as a player.

"My offensive game is much better now than it was this time last summer."

This time last summer, Lafreniere was invited to the World Junior Summer Showcase, the first phase in choosing rosters for the IIHF World Junior Championship, as a 16-year-old with visions of representing Canada at the best under-20 aged tournament in the world.

He earned a roster spot, played a limited role and is now determined to showcase even more in his draft-eligible season.

"I've worked on my neutral zone play a lot, gained quickness there," he said. "I'm still trying to work without the puck. It's not perfect and it will never be, but I'm trying to get better every day."

Lafreniere is one of 38 players invited by Canada to the summer showcase this week. He and center Joseph Veleno (Detroit Red Wings) are the only returning players from the team that finished sixth at the 2019 WJC. The 2020 WJC will be held Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Czech Republic.

Veleno has been playing on a line with Lafreniere at the showcase.

"He's dynamic in every sense," Veleno said. "He can score, he can pass, he has great hockey sense and he's easy to play with. For any center or wing, he's easy to find on the ice and he makes his linemates better. He's just an amazing player."

Lafreniere was awarded the Michel Briere Trophy as most valuable player of the QMJHL after he had 105 points (37 goals, 68 assists) in 61 regular-season games and 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in 13 playoff games last season.

"Hockey players love pressure," Canada coach and former NHL forward Dale Hunter said. "You want to be playing in the World Junior Championship, in the final game of the Stanley Cup Final. You want to be on the ice for overtime. Alexis is a kid who enjoys the game. There's always going to be pressure, but that's the great thing about hockey because when you retire, you miss that pressure. I think he'll embrace it and enjoy it."

Rimouski's Colten Ellis, one of five goalies competing for a spot at the position for Canada, is probably the player most familiar with Lafreniere's tendencies.

"Alexis deals with pressure like a professional," Ellis said. "Obviously, he's been dealing with any type of pressure at a young age. Just seeing the way he handles himself on and off the ice and deals with that is pretty cool.

"His shot is pretty lethal. He's got a quick release and good accuracy, so to be able to go up against him in practice every day is really challenging for me. It's a challenge I like."

Lafreniere, now 17, said his shot is an underrated part of his game.

"This summer, I've been getting a lot better with my shot and I'm still trying to improve it even more because I think it's a big asset if you're going to play in the NHL," he said.

Lafreniere is hoping to become more of leader on the ice and in the locker room after his experience at the World Juniors last year. The native of Saint-Eustache, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal, began the tournament in a middle-six role on a line with Nick Suzuki (Montreal Canadiens) and Jaret Anderson-Dolan (Los Angeles Kings), but barely earned seven minutes of ice time in four of five games.

At the time, Canada coach Tim Hunter disapproved of Lafreniere's effort, saying, "he was out there skating around like it was a free skate."

It's something Lafreniere hasn't forgotten.

"I learned that you earn your spots and you have to work for every minute of ice time," Lafreniere said. "I know having a different role isn't always easy, but I think that'll be good for me this year. At the start it's difficult but you accept the role. There are so many good players out here, so you have to work for your ice time.

"Sometimes I had to sit ... even in Rimouski. But that's part of the process you have to learn. You just need to get better every game you play and try to do your best."

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