World junior team selection camp: Alexis Lafreniere is learning on the fly

17-year-old Quebec league star is youngest at camp

Alexis Lafreniere is proving himself to be more than just a curiosity piece at The Q Centre as the youngest player skating in the Canadian junior team selection camp for the 2019 world junior championship.

Lafreniere, the early projected first overall pick for the 2020 NHL draft, was in the lineup Wednesday evening as Shane Bowers scored in the ninth round of the shootout in a 3-2 Canada victory over the U Sports all-stars. Lafreniere scored in the seventh round of the shootout.

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The consensus is the 17-year-old from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League can play. And play now, as attested by Lafreniere’s 17 goals and 54 points in 31 games this season for the Rimouski Oceanic. His 42 goals last year in a sensational 16-year-old rookie season were the most for a QMJHL freshman since Sidney Crosby in 2004. References to parallel paths become downright eerie when you consider Lafreniere is the first No. 1 overall pick Rimouski has had in the QMJHL bantam draft since the Oceanic selected Crosby first overall in the early 2000s.

Is this fate? Is it meant to be? Words like prodigy are being tossed about when discussing Lafreniere. Not that he’s getting ahead of himself at The Q Centre.

“I can learn a lot from these other guys [in camp] because they are older with a lot of experience,” said Lafreniere.

Alexis Lafreniere
Seventeen-year-old Alexis Lafreniere has 54 points in 31 games for Rimouski of the QMJHL. - Adrian Lam, Times Colonist

It would be quite the story if the native of Saint-Eustache, Que., were to crack the Canadian roster for the 2019 IIHF world juniors, which open Boxing Day with Pool A at Rogers Arena in Vancouver and Pool B at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria. Lafreniere is among 34 hopefuls in camp looking to land one of 22 spots on the Canadian roster.

The six-foot, 180-pound winger looked cool and composed beyond his years as he faced a media pack from across the country at The Q Centre.

“There is always pressure and I try not to think about it and just focus on my game,” said Lafreniere.

“The challenge is bigger so you have to raise your game. There are older guys here but I can compete against them . . . I have to work as hard as I can.”

Lafreniere has donned the Maple Leaf before at the U-17 and U-18 levels, including scoring five goals with 11 points in five games to lead Canada to gold over the summer at the Hlinka Gretzky U-18 Cup in Edmonton.

His junior national-team fate for the 2019 world juniors, and those of the other 33 in camp, is being decided this week at The Q Centre. Key to the vetting process are the three exhibition games against the U Sports all-stars, the first of which was the Canadian junior shootout win Wednesday in the Colwood facility. The second game is tonight at 6 and the third Friday at 2 p.m.

Jack Studnicka from the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League scored twice for Canada in regulation time with U Sports replies from Christopher Clapperton of the University of New Brunswick and Luke Philp of the University of Alberta Golden Bears, the latter with nine seconds remaining in regulation.

Lafreniere said he is not thinking about being the youngest player on the ice, but being among the best.

“Everyone is equal here, no matter how old you are,” he said.

“We all have an equal chance.”

As the only two returning players from Canada’s gold-medallist team from the 2018 world junior tournament in Buffalo, forwards Alex Formenton and Maxime Comtois know what it’s like to be on the younger side in camp. But even at that, Formenton and Comtois were 18 last year, not 17 like Lafreniere.

“This is incredible for him,” said Formenton, an Ottawa Senators prospect, who plays for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.

Comtois, an Anaheim Ducks prospect from Drummondville of the QMJHL, concurred.

“[Lafreniere] is here for a reason,” said Comtois. “He is a big boy and can skate and hit.”

As the senior statesmen of the Canadian team, Comtois and Formenton know their roles are much different than that of a brash camp newcomer like Lafreniere.

“I try to be as much of a leader as I can and be a character guy and make myself open to any questions,” said Formenton, who suffered a leg injury in the OT session on Wednesday and is doubtful to play in the rematch tonight.

“I’m trying hard to be a leader and lead by example.”

There are only seven WHL players invited to the Canadian selection camp in Colwood, which is the lowest among the three CHL leagues. The OHL leads the way with 14 players in camp, with eight from the QMJHL, seven from the WHL and four from the NCAA.

ICE CHIPS: The Kazakhstan national team, which will be based in Victoria at the Memorial Centre in Pool B for the 2019 world juniors, defeated the University of Victoria Vikes 6-2 in an exhibition game at the Langley Events Centre. Otis Goldman had a goal and assist for UVic. Kazakhstan is also playing the Trinity Western Spartans and a B.C. Intercollegiate Hockey League all-star team at the LEC through Monday as it prepares for the world junior tournament.

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