When looking for a read on the winner of the Mike Bossy Trophy that is awarded to the best professional prospect in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, it is not a bad idea to check in with Mike Bossy himself.
And perhaps even more so when the recipient of the award, Alexis Lafreniere, is poised to become the first-overall selection of the October 2020 NHL draft, and the Rangers are the team poised to snap him up.
“I’ve met Alexis, and I can’t say I know him, but I have a couple of friends who do,” the famous No. 22 told The Post after the Blueshirts hit the jackpot in Monday’s lottery. “And from everything I hear, he’s a great kid beyond being a great player.
“He’s one of those career kids who has been preparing for this for a long time. People knew how good he was at a young age. He’s been on this trajectory for a while. He’s one of the faces of hockey in Quebec.
“He’s prepared for this. He’s ready.”
Apparently much has been made of John Davidson’s and Jeff Gorton’s refusal to commit not only to taking Lafreniere, but to keeping the pick — with both the club president and general manager suggesting it would be best to maintain their options.
But unless the Blueshirts are overwhelmed by a trade offer that objectively makes no sense on the other side — specifically, such as the Senators offering 20-year-old center Brady Tkachuk and the third-overall pick in exchange for the Quebecer who was born and raised approximately 100 miles from Ottawa — then this is as slam dunk of a personnel decision as it gets.
The NHL won’t be too big for Lafreniere and neither will New York, whose Original Six team has never had the first-overall pick since the universal draft was inaugurated in 1969.
“ ‘Character’ is the word that I use to describe Alexis,” said Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy, who has seen Lafreniere up close and personal the past two years from behind the bench as GM/coach of QMJHL Quebec. “It is one thing to be a top prospect, or maybe the runner-up, but it is different when you are No. 1 and are under the spotlight all year, the way he was.
“I thought he did a super job of handling that. He has quality people around him. He has stayed humble. I’m not sure of the exact word in English, but he always has two feet on the ground. He’s a team player and a team guy. Without a doubt he would fit in with the Rangers and perform very well in New York.”
As Bossy asked rhetorically when asked about the assimilation into New York City, “Who’s not awed at first by New York?”
“He’s going from Rimouski to Manhattan. It’s a big jump,” Bossy said. “But he’s been under the spotlight for a long time and has thrived. I don’t think it’s a worry.”
Craig Button, the former GM of the Flames, is TSN’s director of scouting. He scoffed at any suggestion that Lafreniere would have difficulty adapting to New York.
“He’s a worldly guy,” Button told The Post. “Six years ago, Hockey Canada initiated a program in which they bring together the top 100 16-year-olds to help them assimilate culturally outside their region. As an aside, when Mat Barzal was 17 or 18, he was a conduit to French-speaking kids.
“Alexis grew up speaking French, but his English is excellent. New York might be an adjustment for just about everyone, but I don’t think that is anything the Rangers should concern themselves with.”
If the Rangers were talking, they could tell you how well Lafreniere communicates in English. For after not wanting to “jinx ourselves,” as Gorton phrased it, by interviewing him before the lottery drawing, the hierarchy conducted a Zoom call with the winger following the flight of the ping pong ball, The Post has learned. We are told there were no red flags unearthed, only the vision of many red lights ahead.
OK. Vision. That is certainly one of Lafreniere’s greatest assets. He’s a playmaker and an offense-driver from the wing. But he’s not a cutie. He’s not going to attempt to slice you and dice you from the outside. And, he is not a front-runner.
“When things are going well, he is very, very good. He plays with confidence, he goes to the dirty areas, he makes plays,” Roy said. “But a lot of times you see the character of a person when it is not going so well.
“With Alexis, he is also going to work as hard as he can to get back to his game. He will always try to find the way. He sets a high standard for himself. If he is not at the top of his game, he will get his game back. He is not a complainer.
“He does what it takes. He is committed to winning.”
Lafreniere led the QMJHL with 112 points (35 goals, 77 assists) in 52 games. He was named CHL player of the year for the second consecutive season. Sidney Crosby is the only other pre-draft prospect to accomplish that double. The only players to score more goals in the QMJHL before the age of 17 are Crosby, Mario Lemieux and Jimmy Carson. And there is more than skill to his game.
“He is not flash-and-dash. He has an edge to his game. He could easily have been suspended a couple of times before he actually was suspended,” said Button, referring to the three-game sentence Lafreniere received for delivering a head shot in late January. “Let’s put it this way: He knows how to keep fleas off himself.
“He does not back down. He goes forward. He’s a competitor. That’s his mentality.”
As a youngster, Lafreniere’s favorite player was Patrick Kane, who just happened to be Artemi Panarin’s favorite player before the Russian Rockette made it to the NHL. Then, of course, the two were teammates in Chicago. After the lottery on Monday, Lafreniere said that his favorite player to watch last season was Panarin. Now they, of course, will be teammates unless something crazy happens.
“Artemi makes his teammates better from the wing and so does Alexis,” Button said. “Usually the center makes his wingers better. Alexis is one of those unique left wings — and he is a left wing, he has played there his entire life — who makes his center better.
“My comparable is [Colorado winger] Mikko Rantanen, who is big and powerful and talented. He and [Nathan] MacKinnon make magic, so one-and-one equals three. I believe that Alexis will have that same impact.”
Roy coached MacKinnon in Colorado for the first three years of the winger’s NHL career after he’d been selected first overall in 2013 out of QMJHL Halifax. Lafreniere does not have MacKinnon’s explosiveness — few do — but no one believes skating is an issue.
“Since I got back to the league two years ago, everyone has seen Alexis as the one,” Roy said. “I’m not saying he’s [Sidney] Crosby or MacKinnon, but he is a phenomenal player in his own way.
“He’s a great playmaker. He skates really well. He goes in traffic. His shot is good. He is capable of scoring. He’s smart. He’s been dedicated for a long time to being very, very, very good.”
A Quebecer has not been drafted first overall since Marc-Andre Fleury in 2003. A Quebec-born skater has not gone first-overall since Vincent Lecavalier in 1998.
“Absolutely, there is a great deal of pride in knowing that Quebec has developed the No. 1 prospect in the world,” Bossy said. “From now on, Alexis is representing Quebec in the NHL. From everything I know, he’s going to handle that as well as he’s handled whatever he’s faced.”
The Rangers had Martin St. Louis, of course, but he came to New York late in his hockey life. The Rangers haven’t had a young French-Canadian star since Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle made it to Manhattan almost six decades ago.
“This is definitely good for our young players,” Roy said, alluding to the province’s hockey program. “He will be a role model and the example that it is possible to make it here and then go to the NHL.”
Lafreniere comes from a family of athletes. His sister, Lori-Jane, was an upper-echelon soccer player. His parents, Hugo Lafreniere and Nathalie Bertrand, were big-time softball players. Alexis Lafreniere was an excellent baseball player, too, and for a time weighed a future in that sport, winning a provincial Pee Wee AA championship playing for the Laurentides Red Sox.
Maybe that explains the teenager’s Instagram post last month in which he is relaxing on a boat while wearing a Red Sox uniform top. And maybe a confidant will advise him there shouldn’t be any more of that when — far more likely than, if — he gets to Broadway.
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