Alexis Lafreniere, fellow NHL hopefuls ready for pandemic-delayed virtual draft


Alexis Lafreniere was supposed to hear his named called in front of family, friends and an adoring crowd inside Montreal’s Bell Centre.

The presumptive top pick in the 2020 NHL draft from nearby St-Eustache, Que., would then climb on stage, shake hands with commissioner Gary Bettman, and pull on his new team’s jersey.

Like so many other plans scrapped, shelved or altered over the last seven months, COVID-19 had other ideas.

Originally scheduled for June 26 and 27, the league will instead hold a pared-down draft — one performed remotely via video conferencing 102 days later — this week. The first 31 picks will be made Tuesday, with rounds two through seven set for Wednesday.

It won’t be the exact moment top prospects envisioned, with a spot on the couch at home taking the place of seats in the stands overlooking the draft floor.

But at least it’s finally here.

“It’s been a pretty long [wait],” Lafreniere said. “It’s coming pretty soon.”

WATCH | Rob Pizzo previews the NHL draft:

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Of all the players set to be picked in what will be the most unusual draft in NHL history, the flashy winger from the Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is all but assured to be heading to the Big Apple after the New York Rangers beat the odds and won the second phase of the lottery in August.

Rangers ‘a really good team’

NHL Central Scouting’s top-ranked North American skater, Lafreniere is a two-time Canadian Hockey League player of the year, having registered 35 goals and 112 points in 52 games before the 2019-20 season was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lafreniere was also named MVP of this year’s world junior hockey championship after leading Canada to gold, and would join a forward group in New York that includes Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and 2019 No. 2 selection Kaapo Kakko.

“The Rangers are a really big organization, a really good team,” said Lafreniere, who’s set to turn 19 on Sunday and is primed to become the first Quebec-born player to go No. 1 since Marc-Andre Fleury in 2003. “We’ll see what happens, but it’s a really exciting thing.”

Things should get more interesting once the Los Angeles Kings are on the clock, with either centre Quinton Byfield of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves or winger Tim Stuetzle from Manheim of Germany’s top professional division viewed as the likely pick.

“Whichever team drafts me, I’ll be happy,” said Byfield, who only turned 18 in August. “[I’ll] call that my home team and hopefully stay there as long as I can [and] make a career there.”

Stuetzle said he’ll take in the first round in the middle of the night in Germany.

“Everybody’s excited,” said the top-ranked European skater, who has been compared to Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane. “I’m going to watch the draft with my teammates and my family.”

The Ottawa Senators own the No. 3 pick – acquired from the San Jose Sharks two years ago as part of the Erik Karlsson trade – as well as the fifth selection. If they hold onto both, they’ll become just the eighth team since 1969 to choose twice in the top-5, and the first since 2000. The Detroit Red Wings are set to pick fourth.

Among the players who could also fall in the top-10:

  • Smooth-skating defenceman Jamie Drysdale of the OHL’s Erie Otters
  • Blue-liner Jake Sanderson of the U.S. under-18 program
  • Forward Cole Perfetti of the OHL’s Sarnia Sting
  • Swedish forwards Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond
  • Centre Marco Rossi on the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s, winger Jack Quinn of Ottawa
  • Russian goalie Yaroslav Askarov

“We’ve gone through multiple scenarios, we’ve had multiple mock drafts,” Senators general manager Pierre Dorion said. “We’ll be ready.”

As for the other six Canadian NHL teams, the Winnipeg Jets are slated to pick 10th, followed by the Edmonton Oilers (14th), Toronto Maple Leafs (15th), Montreal Canadiens (16th) and Calgary Flames (19th). The Senators, who are continuing to rebuild, also own the 28th pick, which originally belonged to the New York Islanders. The Vancouver Canucks don’t have a selection until the third round.

The NHL finished its pandemic-delayed season inside the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles this summer and fall under tight health and safety guidelines, but June’s draft combine was cancelled, meaning there was no physical testing of prospects and no in-person interviews.

“It’s certainly been a challenge,” Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney said. “Everybody’s had to adjust”

Flames counterpart Brad Treliving said it will be a change conducting the draft remotely.

“We have a few of our people coming in,” he said. “The biggest difference is we won’t have all of our scouts in attendance.”

NFL, WNBA virtual drafts went smoothly

Trades on the draft floor are common, but while not having teams under one roof will present challenges, GMs don’t expect any major hiccups.

The NFL and WNBA both held virtual drafts because of the pandemic in the spring, with both going relatively smoothly.

“We’ve talked with other GMs from other sports that have had to go through this,” San Jose GM Doug Wilson said. “We’ll have enough setup that we’ll have all of our staff accessible.”

Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said he will miss the face-to-face interactions with fellow managers.

“[That’s] a really unique thing with the NHL and it added to the intrigue,” he said. “Now that’ll all just have to happen by cellphone.

“It’ll still be an exciting time. It’s just that the excitement will be spread out all over North America and in the individual homes of the players.”

Talking to teams via video conference

Cheveldayoff said he paid attention to the NFL draft and had “some discussions” about the pros and cons of the virtual draft.

“The most important person might be the IT person here right now for us when we flip the lights on in the [draft] room,” he said.

The players set to take their first steps into the NHL have become accustomed to communicating with teams through video conferencing platforms, so watching Tuesday’s first round won’t be anything new.

But there’s still a tinge of what might have been.

“I’ve just learned how to go with the flow,” said Perfetti, the fifth-ranked North American skater. “It’s tough to deal with when you dream of having things the way it’s going to be normally — miss going up on the stage and getting that full draft experience.

“Even though it’s not the traditional way, in the way I dreamed of it, it’s going to be great.”

Read more at CBC.ca