I’m always cautious to bestow the term “generational” on a prospect. For my money, there are only two current NHL players who deserve the tag: Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. Lafrenière isn’t on that level, but the Quebec-born winger isn’t far off.
The list of Lafrenière’s career accomplishments is not short. The first overall pick in the 2017 QMJHL Entry Draft, Lafrenière quickly made an impact for the Rimouski Oćeanic, tallying 80 points through 60 games as a QMJHL rookie, more than enough to earn him the title of CHL Rookie of the Year.
An dominant forward, Lafrenière doesn’t always stand out as an elite talent by eye, but his impact is impossible to miss. He’s the complete offensive package, with plus tools across the board. He isn’t an overly dynamic player like Jack Hughes was this year, but his puck skills are unreal and he knows exactly how to maximize them.
With 105 points in 61 games, Lafrenière was nothing short of dominant for the Océanic this season. Those numbers would be unbelievable for a draft eligible, nevertheless a draft-minus-one player like Lafrenière. In fairness, the winger is a late birthday (October 11, 2001), so he’s a little older than most eligibles, but it’s still an unbelievable accomplishment. His 1.72 points-per-game were good for third in the entire QMJHL, behind only Maxime Comtois and Joe Veleno. His 5v5 production on a per game basis was 4th in the league, and his primary points-per-game at 5v5 ranked 3rd. He came out similarly (3rd and 4th in total points and primary rallies, respectively) when we look at those statistics per 60 minutes.
By essentially all available measures of offensive output, Lafrenière comes out looking like a top 5 player in the QMJHL— arguably top 3— at just 17 years old. I really cannot understate how impressive that is.
Lafrenière is a very well-rounded attacker— his goal to primary-assist ratio at 5v5 was 26:25— but I’d classify him as a tad more playmaker than scorer. Working off the wing, Lafrenière is terrific at penetrating the slot with quick, accurate passes. We hear a lot about the importance of having a quick release on a shot, but it can be tremendously useful to be able to quickly release a pass too. Lafrenière is excellent at this. His passes leave his stick in short order, sometimes with Lafrenière getting just a single touch on the puck before it is sent on its way to a teammate.
Here’s an example.
The puck is only on Lafrenière’s stick for an instant before he sends it right onto the stick of his teammate in the slot. The defence has no time to adapt to Lafrenière’s position before he moves the puck, so he has an uncontested passing lane into the most dangerous scoring area on the ice. This is a tremendously useful ability to have when you’re looking to create scoring opportunities (as all players are), but only a select group of high-end distributors are able to consistently complete passes of this nature. There are a lot of moving parts involved in a play like this— you need excellent vision, strong coordination, and excellent touch on the puck. Lafrenière has all three, and that’s what makes him such an effective all-around playmaker.
Let’s look at a few more examples of his playmaking ability.
Here’s a nice assist.
Lafrenière hits his target in motion with a perfect pass right into his wheelhouse for a one-timer. This would be an impressive feat on its own, but Lafrenière manages it while under pressure from two defenders— one in front, and a backchecker applying a heavy presence from behind. This is just a small play, but it’s a terrific representation of his intelligence. Lafrenière processes the game at an exceptional rate; consistently making smart plays under heavy defensive pressure. He’s among the most intelligent players in junior hockey and has a strong argument for the top of that list.
Part of that intelligence is his sense for teammates in the offensive zone. Lafrenière has outstanding vision offensively, seemingly with eyes in the back of his head. His offensive awareness is probably the most essential part of his attacking profile— he doesn’t have the flashiest, in-your-face skill, but he’s unbelievably smart and he’s able to create a staggering amount of opportunities with that intelligence alone.
Here’s a good example of that vision in action.
He’s moving from right-to-left in the offensive zone, with his back turned to his teammate. Not only is he able to identify that he has a teammate open behind him, but he puts the pass is in the perfect spot for his linemate to finish off the play with a well-placed one-timer.
Lafrenière is an exceptional playmaker off the rush. He slices apart rush defences with intelligent passes into space.
Here’s a nice one. He delays just enough for his teammate to get the jump on his man, and slides a perfect pass right onto his teammate’s for a one-on-one opportunity with the goalie, ending in a tally for the Oćeanic and a primary assist for Lafrenière.
And now here’s another similar play that I really love.
As Lafrenière enters the offensive zone, we can already see that he’s looking to make a pass into the middle. This pass isn’t initially available— the near side defender is in the passing lane, and Carson MacKinnon is well covered in the high slot. Rather than giving up on the central passing option and trying to drive the net himself like a lot of players would have done, Lafrenière delays just slightly with a skating move to face the middle of the ice as he drifts towards the boards. The defender tightens his gap on Lafrenière as he moves laterally, opening up a lane towards the slot just as MacKinnon breaks free from the defenders in the centre of the ice. Just like that, another assist for the budding star.
And here’s one more helper off the rush, showcasing Lafrenière’s passing ability and touch on the puck.
Lafrenière’s intelligence extends to his scoring as well. He takes intelligent routes offensively, he finds soft ice in the offensive zone, and he chooses his attacks very well. Let’s take a look at that aspect of his game.
Lafrenière has a very dangerous shot— he can score from just about everywhere in the offensive zone. Of QMJHL forwards with more than 20 games played, Lafrenière was 8th most dangerous from low-danger areas with a low-danger shooting percentage of 14.5%. He was 12th among forwards by goals-per-game and 17 by estimated goals-per-60, outperforming his Expected Goals total by 12.16 tallies (26th among QMJHL attackers).
Lafrenière has a powerful shot, a lightning-quick release, and an excellent one-timer. He’s a major scoring threat in the offensive zone whenever he’s in a shooting position.
Here’s a great example. Lafrenière creates space for himself with a nice stickhandling move, then wires a shot past the goalie. Nobody should be scoring from there, but Lafrenière makes it look easy.
And a nice one-timer:
— Steven Ellis (@StevenEllisTHN) December 30, 2018
He has terrific hands in tight, able to quickly react to defenders and maneuver around them on his way to the crease. His puckhandling and quick thinking in these scenarios is arguably an even more valuable component of his goal-scoring toolkit than his devastating shot.
This is just a beautiful all-around play. It starts off with a terrific give-and-go play between Lafrenière and Xavier Parent, his Canadian teammate. As Lafrenière takes the return pass, he is immediately challenged by a lunging USA defender, but he reacts with a quick toe-drag, giving him the space to put the puck in the net.
This next goal from the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup is just an outstanding display of Lafrenière’s skill on the puck.
Lafrenière grabs the puck, cuts to the middle while evading several defenders, and ends the play with an excellent finish. He’s just so smooth under pressure, always finding open ice with the puck.
The NHL seems to be moving towards quick, dynamic talents, but Lafrenière isn’t that type of player. He makes his impact through intelligent, all-round player. He isn’t a dynamic, fast-twitch skater like Connor McDavid or the recently drafted Jack Hughes, but he’s still an extremely mobile player.
We can see some of that in this offensive sequence from the Hlinka. Lafrenière has a powerful stride, and he uses his edges very well to patrol the offensive wall.
So how does Lafrenière, the projected #1 pick in 2020, compare to past first overall picks?
This table shows the draft-minus-one NHLe of several past first overall draft picks. NHLe is an equivalency system that translates point totals from non-NHL leagues into NHL points using translation factors. For example, one OHL point is worth roughly 0.16 NHL points under my approach, which is a lightly-tweaked version of the coefficients created by Emmanuel Perry.
As one would expect, McDavid tops the list, and by quite a comfortable margin, but it’s Lafrenière, not Auston Matthews, Taylor Hall, or Nathan MacKinnon that comes in second. To be fair, Lafrenière’s October birthdate makes him older than most, but this is still an excellent demonstration of how exceptional his production this season truly was. Of course, this isn’t to say Lafrenière will be better than players like Matthews or MacKinnon— there’s absolutely no guarantee of that— but this is an extremely promising indicator for the forward’s future.
Looking behind just stats, I’d put Lafrenière on a similar level to Auston Matthews. He seems to be a better prospect than someone like Jack Hughes, but he’s definitely a step below McDavid.
Lafrenière projects as an elite top-line forward who could reasonable threaten the 100 point mark (or whatever the equivalent mark becomes as scoring continues to increase) for the entirety of his prime. Right now, he’s the easy #1 pick in what could quite possibly become the best NHL draft of all time, and that should mean a lot. He’s the type of player you build around— the type of player that can accelerate a rebuild and finally lead a middling team to continued success.
It’s not a guarantee that he holds onto the top spot for the 2020 draft— Lucas Raymond and Quinton Byfield are unreal prospects too— but we do know that whatever team wins next year’s lottery has plenty of reason to get excited.