The New York Rangers selected Alexis Lafreniere with the first pick in the NHL’s pandemic-delayed draft Tuesday.
The star winger from the Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League registered 35 goals and 112 points in 52 games before the 2019-20 season was cancelled because of COVID-19.
Just the second back-to-back recipient of the Canadian Hockey League’s player of the year award, following in the footsteps of fellow Rimouski captain Sidney Crosby in 2004 and 2005, Lafreniere was NHL Central Scouting’s top-ranked North American skater and long-viewed as the consensus choice at No. 1.
Set to turn 19 on Sunday, Lafreniere was also named tournament MVP after leading Canada to gold at the 2020 world junior hockey championship.
The draft, which was originally scheduled for June 26 and 27 in Montreal, is being held remotely via video conference due to the pandemic. Rounds two through seven are scheduled for Wednesday before NHL free agency opens 48 hours later.
Lafreniere is the first Canadian to go No. 1 since the Edmonton Oilers selected Connor McDavid first overall in 2015. The Oilers announced late Monday that McDavid had tested positive for COVID-19, is experiencing mild symptoms, and is quarantining at home.
“It’s a big honour for me,” Lafreniere said on the TV broadcast. “The New York Rangers are (a) big organization with a lot of history and a lot of great players.”
Before the Lafreniere pick, commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league and its NHL Players’ Association are now focused on starting the 2020-21 season on Jan. 1 after previously hoping to get things going Dec. 1.
The Los Angeles Kings had the second pick and chose hulking, skilled centre Quinton Byfield of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves.
Byfield became the highest Black player picked in NHL draft history. Evander Kane (2009) and Seth Jones (2013) each went fourth overall. Kane congratulated Byfield on the feat on Twitter.
The Ottawa Senators used the No. 3 selection, which they acquired from the San Jose Sharks as part of the Erik Karlsson trade two years ago, to grab shifty German winger Tim Stuetzle. University of Ottawa alumni and “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek announced the pick in a pre-taped appearance.
The top-ranked European skater, who can also play in the middle, Stuetzle spent this season with Adler Mannheim in his country’s top professional league, where he was named rookie of the year.
Last in the overall standings when the NHL suspended its season in mid-March because of the coronavirus, the Detroit Red Wings dropped from No. 1 to No. 4 in the first phase of the NHL’s draft lottery in June, but still got talented Swedish winger Lucas Raymond with their pick.
Ottawa was back on the clock with its own selection at No. 5 and chose defenceman Jake Sanderson from the U.S. under-18 program to become the eighth team since 1969, and the first since 2000, to make two selections in the top-5 of a draft.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, meanwhile, did not trade the 15th pick they acquired from Pittsburgh in the Kasperi Kapanen trade and select left wing Rodion Amirov.
“Not exactly what they need, but he’s a gifted player,” Brian Burke says.
“With regards to how soon the player that we pick at 15 or 44 can make it into our lineup,” GM Kyle Dubas said, “the economics and the way that they’ve changed in the last number of months are going to put a major focus on development and having younger players that have tremendous talent try to get to the league as soon as possible.”
The Leafs got Morgan Rielly and Mitch Marner to make the announcement.
Dubas said there were many conversations on trading the pick, but his staff was high on Amirov, and the teenager is off to a nice start in the KHL.
This is a prudent “long run” choice, even though the Maple Leafs should be more concerned with the present.
Unlike their NFL or NBA counterparts, NHL teams are usually seated at tables on the floor of one of the league’s 31 arenas – in this case it would have the Bell Centre – for its draft, but the 2020 edition saw general managers and much of their scouting staffs spread across North America.
Instead of walking over to chat with a rival GM about a potential trade, cellphones had to suffice.
Detroit announced before the draft that GM Steve Yzerman would not be in his team’s war room, and instead participating remotely, after he was recently exposed to an individual who tested positive for COVID-19.
The Red Wings said the 55-year-old Yzerman, a three-time Stanley Cup champion and member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, has tested negative multiple times and is symptom-free, but would be staying away from the team’s facilities as a precaution.
The prospects set to take their first steps into the NHL, meanwhile, watched proceedings remotely, away from the usual bright lights that come with the draft.
First-round hopefuls were each sent hats from the league’s 31 teams – Stuetzle’s agent tweeted a picture of a table with all 31 logos set up in order of selection a few hours before the draft – so they’d have some gear once their names were called.
The Senators, who have largely made headlines for all the wrong reasons since getting within a double overtime goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup final, hope securing Stuetzle and Sanderson will accelerate a rebuild that saw a roster once led by Karlsson – the team’s captain and a two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenceman – torn down to its studs.
Lafreniere, a native of St-Eustache, Que., didn’t get the normal draft thrill of climbing on stage in front of friends, family and adoring fans in Montreal – a short drive from his hometown – but is still the first Quebec-born skater to hear his name called at No. 1 since Vincent Lecavalier in 1998.
The Rangers beat the odds and jumped over 11 teams for the right to pick Lafreniere by winning the second phase of the draft lottery in August following the disappointment of being the first team eliminated from the NHL’s 24-team restart to the season.
New York was bounced from the league’s bubble – tightly-controlled secure zones in Toronto and Edmonton that managed to keep COVID-19 at bay throughout the summer and early fall – thanks to a three-game sweep at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes in the best-of-five qualifying round.
The Rangers also moved up in the lottery prior to the 2019 draft, selecting winger Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko at No. 2.