He’s going to be the No. 1 pick overall in the 2020 draft and now he is officially the best player in major junior – again. Alexis Lafreniere has been announced as the winner of the CHL’s David Branch Player of the Year award, cementing his status as one of the most talented teenagers in the world.
The Rimouski Oceanic left winger beat out Spokane’s Adam Beckman (MIN) and Ottawa 67’s import Marco Rossi (2020) to earn the award, which is named after the longtime CHL president for the first time this year.
While it is fairly common for a draft-eligible player to win the trophy – there have been 15 other players to pull off the feat since the award was founded in 1975 – what is less common is winning it twice in a row, which Lafreniere has now done, after winning last year as well. The only other player to go back-to-back was another hot-shot from Rimouski: Sidney Crosby. The future Pittsburgh Penguins captain won in 2004 and 2005.
Expectations surrounding Lafreniere are slightly less harried than they were around ‘Sid the Kid,’ but Lafreniere has proven time and again that he is a serious prospect to keep an eye on. His powerful, ferocious game was crucial to Canada’s gold-medal run at the world juniors and the left winger won tournament MVP honours despite missing games in the middle of the schedule due to an injury.
While Lafreniere went post-to-post as 2020’s top prospect, he really pulled away from the pack at that world junior showdown.
“He’s certainly the most developed right now,” said one scout. “Physically his game is mature – strong body, skating, hockey sense. But what I really appreciate is the second effort and the compete level from a guy who is as skilled as he is. He doesn’t cheat anywhere and he makes other people better. It can be four assists or a game-winner late; he’s always contributing.”
There is no question Lafreniere is ready for the NHL after dominating the QMJHL for 112 points in just 52 games this season. Really, the only question now becomes one of schedules.
As we all know, the NHL is planning on going deep into the summer in order to make a 2020 Stanley Cup tournament feasible in the midst of a pandemic, which means the 2020-21 regular season would have to be delayed substantially. That’s all well and good for whichever players go all the way to the championship, but what does it mean for potential rookies?
Keep in mind, Lafreniere and his peers in major junior haven’t played since March and will not be returning this season. The QMJHL has already announced its intention to come back for 2020-21 on Oct. 1, assuming conditions get better and not worse, naturally.
And that’s where this gets interesting. Does Lafreniere re-join the Oceanic in October, since the NHL would likely be on break at the time? Would Quinton Byfield head back to OHL Sudbury? Lafreniere in particular doesn’t need to do any more growing in major junior, but playing games is better than not. We’re in uncharted territory here because normally, players can’t go back to the NHL after they’ve been assigned to their CHL team (unless it’s an emergency recall, as Columbus did with Liam Foudy late this season).
I recognise this isn’t the most pressing issue on the hockey world’s mind right now, but it will have to be confronted eventually. Perhaps a one-year re-writing of the CHL-NHL pact will be necessary to allow a talent such as Lafreniere to join his NHL team for the 2020-21 campaign, even if he had already played 15 games for Rimouski. Otherwise, we’ll have our first back-to-back-to-back Player of the Year.