Alexis Lafreniere has been in the spotlight for probably half of his 20 years on Earth, an elite hockey player destined for greatness from a very early age.
But I’d venture to say that rarely, if ever, has the personable young man from Saint-Eustache, Quebec, been the subject of a postgame critique singling him out, as appeared here on Tuesday after his head coach name-checked him.
Lafreniere responded just as you’d hope he would, with the class and maturity that bespeaks well of his upbringing and self-awareness, and portends better things ahead for the first-overall selection of the 2020 draft.
He could have ducked a session with the press following the Rangers’ practice Tuesday. He could have declined to sit on the podium and take questions about head coach Gerard Gallant saying, “I want more from Laffy,” following the Rangers’ 5-1 Garden loss to the Flames on Monday.
But Lafreniere did not. Instead, he took full accountability for a game that was lacking pretty much straight through a lineup that played as if exhausted physically and frayed mentally.
“For sure, I have to be better,” Lafreniere said. “It was a physical game, tough game and you have to be able to win your battles one-on-one, so no, it wasn’t good enough for me and we’ll try and fix some things and get back to it Friday night [at home against the Blue Jackets].
“In general, I think I played some good games on the first road trip, but I have to do the same things every game and be more consistent. I know exactly what I have to do better. You know when you play a bad game. I’ll be better on Friday.”
When Lafreniere was offered an escape route by a reporter who noted the winger’s youth, he would have none of that.
“There’s no excuses of being young,” he said. “I know what I have to do to play [well] and I know what I can do, so I just have to do it every night. It’s hard for sure but there’s no excuses. I just have to work hard every night.”
Gallant was clear on Tuesday that he had wanted and needed more from much of the roster versus Calgary and he was not scapegoating or singling out Lafreniere. Understood. Of course the team’s brain-cramped performance was not on Lafreniere on a night when the Rangers didn’t get a whole lot from Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Adam (gasp!) Fox.
But the fact is, the coach did name-check Lafreniere. So there was something there. Or, more to the point, not enough there at all.
“I’m glad Laffy took a little responsibility but he’s not alone,” Gallant said. “I coached against the Rangers for a few years and you come in here and say that’s a good team on paper, skilled team. But you’ve got to get grittier.”
The point is taken. But the larger point concerns Lafreniere’s ultimate trajectory. The Rangers — just as essentially everyone in the hockey universe — believed they were getting a franchise player after winning the lottery. So far, and acknowledging all of the disclaimers, that highest of ceilings has not been apparent.
“I like Laffy a lot. I’ve liked him since Day 1 of training camp,” Gallant said. “He’s got skill, he’s got talent, but you’ve got to grow and keep getting better. Laffy is going to be a great player.”
Lafreniere is diligent, he can obviously play, but there have been few “wow moments” indeed through the first 63 games of his NHL career. Again, I know: 63 games is a proverbial drop in the career bucket. No one is rushing to any conclusions.
But it is not so much about what Lafreniere has accomplished thus far, it is about what he will be able to accomplish following a glorious career in the QMJHL. It’s not only about being better at what he does, it is about adjusting to the NHL.
“I think it’s a little bit of both of that,” said Lafreniere, who does lead the Rangers with two five-on-five goals. “They’re big boys, big D-men, you’ve got to be heavy on the puck, where in juniors you’re playing against younger guys, so it’s not the same.
“I’m still learning every day so it’s good for me. I want to get better in my practices and the games. There’s a new system, too, so there are a lot of things, but coming to the rink and working hard are the only things I can do.”
There is one attribute we know that Lafreniere possesses, which is not at all surprising for an individual who has been lauded for his innate abilities as a leader and as a teammate. That is accountability. And that is not insignificant.
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