VANCOUVER– Alexis LaFreniere had a lot to prove heading into Saturday’s World Junior contest against Czech Republic. He had not recorded any points in the first two Round Robin games. But more importantly, it had appeared that Team Canada coach Tim Hunter had lost faith in the 17-year-old, evidenced by his benching of LaFreniere in the third period against Switzerland.
“We showed him some video from the Denmark game and he was out there skating around like it was a free skate, lots of circles in his game and we weren’t happy with that,” Hunter stated. “And we talked to him about it and we showed him the video and explained it to him. I told him, ‘At the start of the game, you’re going to show me whether you understood this or not and if you don’t we’re going to limit your ice time.’
But against the Czech Republic, LaFreniere was a new player. He was exerting his physicality, checking his Czech opponents into the boards. The Rimouski Oceanic forward scored his first goal of the tournament; a slap shot top shelf after a pass from Boston Bruins prospect Jack Studnicka. He even appeared briefly on the top line with Cody Glass and Owen Tippett, when Captain Maxime Comtois wasn’t on the bench. It shows that things can change pretty fast at a short tournament like the World Junior Hockey Championship.
“It was nice to get my first goal of the tournament,” said LaFreniere. “I tried not too much on social media. Coach is right, I need to improve my defensive game, which I did tonight. It’s a huge weight off my shoulders.”
Alexis LaFreniere Entered Tournament With Tons of Praise
Before Hunter’s comments, you could not find any criticism about LaFreniere. He leads the Oceanic in points with 54 (17 goals, 37 assists). He can control games with his high hockey IQ and his ability to make smart playmaking decisions with the puck. On the international stage at the IIHF U18 World Championship and Hlinka Gretzky Cup, LaFreniere was everywhere on the ice, creating an abundance of scoring opportunities. Everywhere you look, LaFreniere has been cemented as the next young hockey prodigy, projected to go first overall in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.
When the Quebec native got selected to join Team Canada, it sent positive shockwaves throughout the hockey world. He is the ninth 17-year-old in Team Canada history to be selected to play in the IIHF U20 Championship. Given the ‘prodigy’ prophecy that has been deemed onto him, it is clear that LaFreniere wanted to learn from the older players.
“There is always pressure and I try not to think about it and just focus on my game,” said Lafreniere. “I can learn a lot from these other guys [in camp] because they are older with a lot of experience. The challenge is bigger so you have to raise your game. There are older guys here but I can compete against them . . . I have to work as hard as I can.”
Hunter’s Comments Fuel LaFreniere Needs for Rest of Tournament
Hunter was a Pat Quinn disciple. He was a tough hockey player when he played for the Calgary Flames and his toughness is shining through as a coach. With the World Junior tournament entering a more difficult phase, it requires Hunter to be candid and honest so that his team can take the next step in its gold medal defense.
“We’ve had lots of good looks, we just haven’t had enough success,” Hunter said. “Like I said after the game against Switzerland, these guys are still finding their way playing together, building the chemistry that they need to click.”
All eyes were on LaFreniere against the Czech Republic. And the young forward delivered on the international stage once again. There is still a steep learning curve when a 17-year-old is playing against players that are older and stronger. But his response to the adversity of not playing up to expectations shows that LaFreniere is pesky and not afraid of pressure.
“I am happy with the progress of Alexis and this team,” said Hunter. “But there are still things done tonight that the players weren’t happy about. We can be better and we have to be if we want to go far into this tournament.”
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