When the time came for him to announce his selection with the No. 1 pick of the 2020 NHL draft, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton didn’t mess around.
Gorton, who conceded before the draft he’d taken calls from people inquiring whether he’d be interested in trading the pick, did no such thing. Instead, he looked into the camera Tuesday night and declared that the Rangers would do the expected and take forward Alexis Lafreniere, universally regarded as the best player in the draft, and thought by most to be destined to be a can’t-miss star.
"It was an unreal feeling,’’ Lafreniere said, on a Zoom call with reporters, of being drafted. "The New York Rangers is a great organization and, for me, I'm really, really honored to join them, and when I heard my name, it was -- we've been waiting for a long time. So it was something really special for me and for my family. We're all really excited.’’
The Los Angeles Kings followed the Rangers in the draft, and with the second pick overall, chose 6-4, 215-pound center Quinton Byfield, of Sudbury of the Ontario Hockey League. With that pick, the Kings made Byfield the highest drafted Black player in NHL history.
The Rangers, who had a second pick in the first round, No. 22 overall (the result of the trade that sent Brady Skjei to Carolina at the February 24 deadline), traded that pick, along with one of their two third-round picks, to Calgary for the 19th pick overall. They then used that pick to take physical, 6-2, 202-pound defenseman Braden Schneider, of the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings.
Lafreniere, meanwhile, a 6-1, 193-pound left wing, was the MVP and Best Forward at the 2020 World Junior Championships, where he led Canada to the gold medal. His 112 points (35 goals, 77 assists) in 52 games for Rimouski Oceanic, led the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2019-20, and he was voted MVP of the league, and of the Canadian Hockey League – which encompasses Canada’s top three junior leagues – for the second straight year. He is the first player to win both awards in consecutive years since Sidney Crosby did it (also for Rimouski) in 2003-04 and 2004-05.
Crosby is a player to whom Lafreniere is often compared, but on his Zoom call, he tried to downplay that.
"For me, I'm really trying to focus on myself and on getting better as Alex Lafreniere,’’ he said. "I don't think I'm Sidney Crosby… I'm getting better as a player, and obviously Crosby's a different level, I think. So, I'll just try to improve as a player and keep getting better. And I'm really excited to see the New York fans and to come to New York.’’
Lafreniere, who is from St-Eustache, Quebec, outside Montreal, said he has never been to New York, and the border restrictions on travel between Canada and the United States during the coronavirus pandemic have prevented him from doing so since the Rangers won the draft lottery on April 10. He said he doesn’t know when he’ll make his first trip to his NHL home.
Lafreniere, who turns 19 on Oct. 11, is the first French-Canadian player to be drafted No. 1 overall since goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, in 2003. He is the first French-Canadian skater taken first overall since Vincent Lecavalier in 1998.
In drafting Lafreniere, the Rangers – who held the No. 1 pick overall for the first time since the league expanded from six teams – further accelerated their two-and-a-half-year-old rebuilding process. When the 2020-21 season begins, Lafreniere will join a young Rangers roster that includes 19-year-old Kaapo Kakko, whom the Rangers selected with the No. 2 pick overall last year. Looking at the lineup, Lafreniere immediately projects as the team’s third-line left wing, behind Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider.
Lafreniere said the Rangers have not told him where they envision him fitting in their lineup.
NBC analyst Pierre McGuire, who called Lafreniere "special,’’ said the thing that separates him from other players is that while he has "an amazingly high skill level,’’ he is also "extremely physical.’’
"There's a little bit of (Colorado Avalanche forward) Mikko Rantonen in him and I think there's a lot of Jarome Iginla in him,’’ McGuire said. "Jarome scored over 600 goals in his career, and has just been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.’’