Alexis Lafrenière is currently the easy number one as the 2020 class gets a little more wide open afterwards. I can see a pair of prospect in the #2 spot at this point— Quinton Byfield— a 6’4” dual-threat centre for the Sudbury Wolves— and Lucas Raymond— a electrifying winger with an elite combination of skating ability and skill on the puck.
The top pick in the 2018 OHL Draft, Byfield has gotten his fair share of attention lately so in this article, we’re going to focus on Raymond, who hasn’t spent as much time in the public eye.
Raymond first caught my eye as an elite-level up-and-comer at the 2018 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup. Sweden was opening their tournament against Slovakia, a team with some talent but only a handful of legitimate NHL prospects. Sweden fell behind by a goal early in the game as Adrian Valigura scored for the Slovaks less than a minute into the game. Sensing the domino effect that losing their opening game to one of the weaker teams in the circuit could have a major impact on the rest of the tournament, Sweden’s coaching staff got serious and started to lean on their best players. Usually in a tournament like this, you’d expect the players that the coaches lean on to be the older members of the team. In this situation, those players would be the 2019 draft eligibles, most of which would be 17 years old at the time. Instead, it was Raymond’s line, consisting of him, fellow 2020 eligible Alexander Holtz, and Karl Henriksson the sole 2019-eligible in the grouping.
Raymond performed exceptionally in this large role, creating tons of offensive chances and rallying a primary assist on Sweden’s second goal. As a 16 year old, he stood out as arguably the best player on team Sweden.
A Swedish speedster, Raymond is the best skater in the draft and it isn’t particularly close. A fluid, near-perfect stride propels him around the ice with a certain gracefulness that only an elite few possess. He blends vertical and horizontal movement beautifully, gaining speed through crossovers while throwing off his defenders with side-to-side mobility. On a 20-80 scale, I would put his skating as a “75”, which translates to “special”— a step below the generational skaters like Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, but still incredibly good.
Elite wheels are an invaluable asset, but what sets Raymond apart from the “Jake Virtanen”s of the hockey world— players who possess world-class feet but can’t make it as impact players in the NHL?
What sets Raymond apart is his ability to make plays at top speed. Demonstrated best by Connor McDavid, this is a trait that allows dynamic talents like Raymond to absolutely terrorize defences, combining quickness with the rest of their offensive repertoire to create an offensive force that can fly down the wing and leave defenders spinning in their tracks.
They’ll always catch defenders flat-footed on occasion, but it isn’t overly difficult to defend a player straight line flying down the wing. Remember the fundamentals— match speed, eyes on chest, and force them to the outside— and you can limit the majority of high-speed rush opportunities to low danger chances. Creating off the rush in a consistent manner requires more than just one dimension of attack— you can’t get by on just speed alone, especially against NHL defenders. Raymond is able to link all other elements of his offensive repertoire— puck skills, vision, and shooting— without sacrificing speed.
This goal from Raymond is a really terrific demonstration— not only due to the fact that it’s a a stunning highlight-reel play, but because it’s an excellent summary of his overall offensive profile and a nice representation of what I was just talking about.
— Robert Söderlind (@HockeyWebCast) April 28, 2019
As one might expect at a U18 tournament in the middle of the summer, Russia’s set-up is wide-open, giving Raymond tons of room to wheel down the wing. Powerful crossovers create speed for Raymond through the neutral zone, with the defender beginning his challenge with a sweeping pokecheck attempt just within the blueline. Raymond evades the challenge by putting the puck between the defender’s outstretched stick and body to the right, then cuts back to the left with a similar move. He barely even slows down and still has the puck skills to absolutely embarrass the defender. This connection between his feet and hands is a tremendous offensive weapon, as demonstrated here.
Here’s another example of Raymond embarrassing a defender at high speed.
For some reason, defencemen seem to think that they can get away with sweeping pokechecks against Raymond. As we can see from these last two clips, that’s a huge mistake— one quick move to dodge the challenge and Raymond is able to blow by the off-balance defender. Against a player with Raymond’s manipulative ability, the defender needs to be taking the body; of course, that’s far easier said than done.
The Swede is more than capable of flexing his playmaking talents off the rush. This next play is a nice demonstration of his processing ability as a distributor.
First of all, we see his speed again as he wins the race to the puck down the wall. I would hate to be the defender in that scenario— I can only imagine the feeling of hopelessness as Raymond blew by him. After winning a high-speed race in that location of the ice, your first focus is avoiding your apparent fate as a splatter mark on the boards. Raymond does so by cutting to the left, heading behind the net. Immediately after turning to the left, he has the presence of mind to pick up his head and find Karl Henriksson with a well-placed pass into the slot. There were a lot of things going on in that play to throw Raymond off, but the Swedish winger still managed to create a high-danger opportunity out of it.
With his elite feet, Raymond is just about as close to an automatic zone entry as you can get. His ability to mix in lateral movement with his straight-ahead speed through the neutral zone makes him practically impossible to stop. No defender is ever going to be able to move side-to-side fast enough to match Raymond with a full head of steam. Transitional play can be overlooked sometimes in the analytics community, but what happens between the two bluelines is imperative to the outcome of the game. Controlled zone entries create roughly twice as much offence as the uncontrolled variety, so having a player like Raymond who projects to create an elite number of controlled entries at the NHL level is extremely valuable.
Here’s a play where we see Raymond bring the puck through the neutral zone.
The game state is four-on-four so Raymond has a bit more space to work than usual, but he still encounters some defensive pressure and is able to navigate away from it with ease.
Raymond’s transitional ability is also a huge asset on the man advantage, where zone entries can make or break a powerplay. Coaches design specific entry plays to get the puck into the offensive zone with control on the powerplay. Wherever Raymond ends up, it’s a safe bet that he’ll be a key part of his team’s powerplay breakout. Here’s an example of that:
Raymond is a dual-threat attacker, capable of creating as a scorer or playmaker. He excels at generating opportunities off the rush, but is similarly capable of doing so through slower, more methodical offensive play. When he breaks into the NHL, he’ll join a new vein of increasingly common NHL players— headlined by offensive stars such as Mathew Barzal and Mitch Marner— who feel no rush to move the puck and are perfectly content to maintain possession until new opportunity reveals itself.
Here’s a clip of Raymond doing just that.
He comes just short of a full rotation of the offensive zone, circling around the perimeter until he finds a lane to take the puck to the net.
Raymond is very comfortable handing the puck and isn’t afraid to take as much time as the defence allows him, as we can see in this clip.
He floats around on the wall, using his edges to move around while maintaining an active position where he can move the puck at any time. He’s forcing the defence to move around through his own movement, making it extremely difficult for them to ensure that passing lanes don’t open up. Eventually, one does.
Exceptional vision and a heavy shot are directly responsible for the majority of Raymond’s offensive contributions, but it all starts with his feet and brain. Above all else, it’s his skating and processing ability that begins these plays and enables much of his offensive impact.
Raymond uses his skating to wind around the offensive zone, finding his way into the slot for a nice backhand opportunity.
Raymond is a cerebral offensive player, making creative plays to attack the net. In this clip, he uses a give-and-go to attack the slot, and then finds a teammate in a prime scoring position with a nice feed.
That’s a very advanced play. Raymond’s offensive instincts and vision on the pass are apparent. But Raymond— just 16 years old at the time of this post— made it look easy. Those are the type of offensive plays he’s capable of.
We know that Raymond is good, but let’s try to put his talent in perspective a little bit. How does he compare to some of the top prospects of recent drafts?
This table shows the draft-minus-one seasons of some recent top draft picks adjusted for league and age.
Statistically, Raymond finds himself on a level similar to Kaapo Kakko, who went 2nd overall to the New York Rangers less than a month ago. Mitch Marner, who posted a career-high 94 points last season, is one spot above. This is great company.
Looking beyond statistics, my eye-test would confirm that Raymond is a similar tier of prospect as Kakko. With a strong draft season, Raymond could join Kakko in the second-overall pick club. Both players project as elite talents that can take over a game, even if they play different styles.
If everything breaks right, Raymond could be a terrific multi-dimensional offensive threat and a perennial all-star. He’s an unbelievably well-rounded player, with well above-average grades in just about every category. And he isn’t even a consensus top 2 prospect for the upcoming draft! 2020 is special.