“Growing up it’s the dream of every hockey player. And to see how close we are right now, it’s pretty exciting,” Lafreniere said during a conference call Wednesday after the NHL Central Scouting Bureau had the Rimouski Oceanic forward topping its final ranking of North American draft-eligible prospects.
“I think we’re all excited for the draft,” he said. “And for the team that’s going to draft me, I’m going to be really happy to join them.” The only question for Lafreniere and his fellow prospects is when the draft will take place and what form it will be conducted.
The draft, scheduled to take place in Montreal in late June, has been postponed. So has the draft lottery to determine the top seedings and the weeklong pre-draft combine in Buffalo, New York. The draft can’t feasibly be held until the playoffs are completed or the entire season canceled.
That places the likelihood of the NHL holding the draft in September or as late as October. What’s not in question is the 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds Lafreniere topping the class of prospects. “He makes plays that you don’t even think those plays are possible, and he still makes them,” said bureau regional scout J.F. Damphousse.
"What separates him from the pack is his compete level,” Damphousse added. “He’s willing to play physical. He battles very game, and any time the game is on the line, you want him on the ice.” Forward Tim Stuetzle, the German professional league’s rookie of the year, was the top-ranked international prospect, and considered second behind Lafreniere.
Forward Quinton Byfield and defenseman Jamie Drysdale, both from the Toronto area, were ranked second and third among North American prospects. When play ended, Lafreniere was leading the Quebec Major Junior League with 112 points (35 goals, 77 assists) in 52 games. He was the league’s rookie of the year in 2017-18, when he scored 42 goals – the most by a rookie since Sidney Crosby scored 54 in 2003-04.
Overall, Lafreniere has 114 goals and 183 assists for 297 points in 173 games. In January, he captained Canada’s gold-medal-winning team and earned MVP honors at the world junior championships. From suburban Montreal, Lafreniere has the opportunity to become first Quebec-born player selected No. 1 since goalie Marc-Andre Fleury went first to Pittsburgh in 2003.
Stuetzle is the first German-born player to top Central Scouting’s list. He's in position to become the second German to be selected among the top-five picks, after Leon Draisaitl was chosen third by Edmonton on 2014.
Russia’s Iaroslav Akarsov is considered the top-ranked goalie, with a chance of being the first at his position chosen in the top 10 since Carey Price was selected fifth by Montreal in 2005. The draft order remains unknown with the season incomplete and the draft lottery on hold.
The Detroit Red Wings had already assured themselves of finishing 31st with a 17-49-5 record and 39 points, 23 behind Ottawa. Only six points separate Ottawa and Buffalo, which sits 25th. Stuetzle has a bit of an edge over many of his North American counterparts, who are forced to work out on their own while gyms are closed. Under German rules, Stuetzle is allowed to hold personal workouts with his trainer, who owns a gym.
Still, all prospects face a potentially long wait before they might be able to work out in a team setting once again. “It’s definitely going to be a bit difficult,” said Byfield, a 6-foot-4, 214-pound center, who had 32 goals and 82 points in 45 games for Sudbury in the OHL last season. “But everyone’s in the same boat. Nobody’s going to have been playing hockey for six months.”
Central Scouting director Dan Marr said the final rankings are usually released in early April, so he and his scouts missed only about 10 days of evaluation. With uncertainty over holding the combine, which includes two days of prospect testing, Marr said Central Scouting is collecting players’ medical histories, which will be distributed to NHL teams. He added, the top 75 players also conducted on-ice tests at various prospect games this year.
—- AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.
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