|Antoine Lafleur was all smiles on June 23 in Columbus, Ohio, after being chosen by the Rangers with the Blueshirts' second pick, 48th overall, in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. |
The Rangers opened their 2007 Training Camp on Thursday at the Madison Square Garden Training Center. The day was filled with fitness tests and an orientation that included having photos taken for the team media guide and video shoots for GardenVision. That's pretty run-of-the-mill stuff for most hockey players, but for one youngster, there was no doubt that Thursday was a day he will never forget.
Goaltender Antoine Lafleur, taken in the second round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft three months ago in Columbus, was the youngest of the 52 players on hand Thursday. He was also one of the few who got ice time. Because Lafleur had played on the Rangers team that won the Traverse City Prospects Tournament earlier this week, the 18-year-old had already taken his fitness tests and was instead able to hit the ice with his Traverse City teammates, while the veteran returnees settled back into their lockers.
Lafleur was not originally expected to attend the main camp, not even for its opening day. Like many of the players who went to Traverse City, Mich., Lafleur was set to be returned to his major-junior team, the Prince Edward Island Rocket of the QMJHL, once the tournament ended. His performance there was so impressive, however, that the Rangers coaches opted to reward him with a full day at the team's main camp on Thursday.
When he wasn't on the ice Thursday, Lafleur found himself looking around the MSG Training Center like any 18-year-old hockey fan. Seeing NHL veterans like Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka and Brendan Shanahan, who entered the league before Lafleur was born, in the locker room was more thrilling than he could have imagined. He found himself thinking about his first encounters with these players as computer-generated images in a video game.
"You always look at them and think 'Wow,'" Lafleur said of the veterans. "I remember when I was a kid, and we were playing NHL 93, and I would be excited to score a goal as Jagr or Shanahan. And now I'm here. … It feels like it's the best day in my life right now."
His stay was indeed short. Lafleur left the Training Center at 5 p.m. on Thursday and headed out to continue his junior career in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Still, even one day at the Rangers' main camp made him the team's only 2007 draft pick afforded such an honor. First-rounder Alexei Cherepanov is not in camp because he has already reported to his Russian club team. The only other 2007 pick who played in Traverse City, forward David Skokan, had already returned to junior.
Lafleur's reward of a day with the big boys was certainly well deserved. In two starts at Traverse City, he went 2-0, stopping 33 of 37 shots for an .892 save percentage. That included 17 saves in the championship game against Columbus on Tuesday -- almost all of them made after he allowed the game's first goal just 70 seconds into the first period. His calm in net allowed the Rangers to regroup from the early 1-0 deficit and win the game easily with five unanswered goals.
Earlier in the tournament, Lafleur made 16 saves in a 5-3 win over Atlanta. He was strong in that first start, too, particularly since it was his first time ever wearing a Rangers uniform.
"In that first game, I was a little anxious, because it was the first game and I wanted to have a good game," said Lafleur. "It's always hard to get adjusted because it's faster than my junior league. But I played well, and then in the second game I went in there and played well again."
Lafleur's remarkable self-confidence is one of the things that make him such a force in net. The big, 6-foot-4 goalie gave his teammates an immediate sense that he wasn't going to let anything get by him and played with a mental toughness that impressed all of the Rangers, including Assistant and Goaltending Coach Benoit Allaire.
"I think his performance in Traverse City was very, very, very good," said Allaire. "We expected it, too, because he was a big pick from us, but he took a lot of advice from a lot of people, and right away he went out on the ice and worked hard. Right away. … What I saw from him is a guy who is very in control of his game and is very technical. Very patient with the puck like a good goalie should be."
Being a second-rounder weighed heavily on Lafleur and helped motivate him to raise his game.
"As a second-round pick, you want to do well and show the staff that they made a good choice," he said.
Lafleur found the speed in Traverse City to be much faster than the usual QMJHL fare, but also said the quality of play and the skill of his teammates was what he'll remember most about the tournament.
"I think my best memory is just being able to play with some big guys who played in the AHL," said Lafleur. "To be with them and play against some other teams' big players was fun."
Because of his size, Lafleur said it's easier for him to adapt to a faster game. Allaire agrees that size is one of Lafleur's best assets right now.
"It's going to be relatively easy for him to adjust to the NHL, because he's a big guy and he plays just inside the crease and gets square," said Allaire. "I think he has to play another year of junior and then spend time in the American League, but he's going to be an NHL goalie. I'm very sure of that."
A vote of confidence from the coach who has mentored Henrik Lundqvist
for the past two seasons is certainly a grand compliment for Lafleur. So, too, is the compliment Allaire directs at the Rangers' scouts who identified Lafleur's potential.
"We made a very good pick with him," Allaire said with a smile.
One day in the limelight certainly left a big impression on Lafleur. As he prepared to return to junior – becoming the first player officially reassigned from the Rangers' main training camp – his focus was clearly on what it would take to return to the MSG Training Center.
"I want to have a big season," he said. "We're going to have a good team this year in PEI, I want to be one of the best goaltenders in the league."
Given his two-game stint in a Rangers uniform at Traverse City, there's no reason to doubt Lafleur's ability to back up that statement.