When Alexis Lafreniere did his first media availability this training camp, it was the first time the second-year Rangers forward had seen the (masked) faces of the local reporters who cover the team day-to-day. But the 19-year-old French-Canadian, the No. 1 pick overall in the 2020 draft, seemed perfectly comfortable interacting with the New York media.
Why should an in-person news conference faze him in any way, after all? Nothing else does.
"I didn't know him until three weeks ago, [but] what I see, I like,’’ Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said following Tuesday’s practice at Boss Arena on the campus of the University of Rhode Island. "I mean, he's a little overconfident. He comes in and he's — not cocky — but he's loose. And that's a good thing.’’
Maybe overconfident is a strong word, but Lafreniere sure does seem confident, relaxed and happy all the time. He doesn’t seem weighed down by the expectations that come with being the No. 1 pick overall, and being considered a generational talent coming out of junior hockey with Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. A two-time QMJHL and Canadian Hockey League Most Valuable Player, the St. Eustache, Quebec, native played in all 56 games for the Rangers last season, scoring 12 goals, with nine assists.
Asked Tuesday to assess his rookie year, Lafreniere admitted he had a tough start, with one goal in his first 15 games.
"But at the end, I thought my game was better,’’ he said.
With two more preseason games remaining (Wednesday vs. the Devils and Saturday vs. the Islanders in Bridgeport, Conn.) before the Rangers open the regular season next Wednesday in Washington, Lafreniere seems set to start the season at left wing on the first line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, who is switching from left to right wing.
Lafreniere started training camp on the right wing with Kreider on the left, but Gallant switched them in the first preseason game, reasoning that Lafreniere will just be more comfortable in his normal left wing position. Lafreniere admitted he prefers playing left wing, but said he would switch sides if asked.
"I'm ready to play everywhere,’’ he said. "Me and Chris talked about it. We’re still trying to figure out some things, but he's good at right wing. He's really fast, and he has a good shot. So, we'll keep working together and keep trying to get better as a line.’’
One thing Gallant has added to Lafreniere’s plate — and that of third-year forward Kaapo Kakko — is penalty killing. Lafreniere did not kill penalties in his rookie year, but he did in junior hockey, so it isn’t completely new to him. Gallant said he will rely on Zibanejad, Kevin Rooney and newcomer Barclay Goodrow as his primary penalty-killing forwards, and he doesn’t know how much shorthanded ice time Lafreniere and Kakko will get when the regular season starts. But he wants them to be ready.
"Those kids want more ice time, and they get the opportunity to do that, and they’ve got to grow as players,’’ Gallant said. "Hopefully they're real good at it. They're talented, and there's no reason why they can't kill penalties.’’