Alexis Lafreniere wanted to take the stage at Montreal’s Bell Centre near his home and hear his name announced at the NHL draft.
The playmaking forward had to settle for being selected first overall by the New York Rangers on Tuesday night.
“Obviously, it’s different, and we didn’t expect that a couple of months ago,” Lafreniere said. “Growing up, you’re dreaming of being drafted. And for me today, it’s amazing to go first. I’m really honored.”
Lafreniere was the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s top-ranked North American skater. The 6-foot-1 left wing becomes the first Canadian to go No. 1 since Connor McDavid was chosen by Edmonton in 2015. From suburban Montreal, he was the first to earn both Canadian Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League MVP honors in consecutive seasons since Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby in 2004 and ’05.
In a sign of the unusual nature of this year’s remote draft amid the coronavirus pandemic, Lafreniere spoke by video call from a bedroom in his home. Rather than walking up on stage and having a team official provide his new jersey, Lafreniere stood up from a living room chair, gave his sport jacket to his sister and pulled on a Rangers hat and No. 20 Rangers jersey handed to him by his father.
“Today, I woke up and I was really excited and I just got ready for the pick,” he said. “I’m just a little speechless.”
Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton, who spent the weeks leading up to the draft refusing to tip his hand, laughed in revealing when he knew he was going to select Lafreniere.
“I think when the ball came out of the machine, we knew he was going to be our guy,” Gorton said. “It was pretty clear cut how we felt about him.”
The Rangers bucked the odds by jumping ahead of the NHL’s seven non-playoff teams to win the draft lottery after being swept by Carolina in the preliminary round in August.
The Los Angeles Kings then selected Ontario Hockey League center Quinton Byfield with the second pick. The 6-foot-4 Byfield, whose father moved to Canada from Jamaica, became the highest drafted Black player.
“My dad and mom didn’t play hockey,” Byfield said. “It just shows that there’s a lot of opportunity for everyone in the world.”
The Ottawa Senators were next and chose top-ranked international forward Tim Stuetzle, who played professionally in his native Germany last year, with their first of three first-round selections.
Detroit, which was bumped to the fourth spot despite finishing with the league’s worst record, selected Swedish forward Lucas Raymond. A little over an hour before the draft, the Red Wings announced general manager Steve Yzerman had to self-isolate in overseeing the draft separate from his staff after coming into contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19.
It was an NHL draft like no other, the first one held in October, with teams selecting remotely from their home cities.
“Jeopardy” game-show host Alex Trebek announced Ottawa’s first pick in the form of a question. “And the answer is, Tim Stuetzle,” Trebek said.
Commissioner Gary Bettman was busy putting on and pulling off his protective mask in introducing the next team’s selection from the NHL Network studios in New Jersey.
North Dakota freshman Jake Sanderson, who went No. 5 to Ottawa, was joined by his family in watching the draft from a suite at the school’s Ralph Engelstad Arena.
“It’s pretty crazy and surreal,” said Sanderson, the son of former NHL forward Geoff Sanderson, and the first American and defenseman selected. “It was a little bit of a different draft this year. But I think it’s kind of special in its own way.”
The San Jose Sharks closed out the first round by selecting forward Ozzy Wiesblatt, with scouting director Doug Wilson Jr. using sign language in a message to the player’s mother who is deaf.
“To see the picks, and to see the reactions by the families, it was all there. It was a very special night,” Rangers president John Davidson said. “All these things made the whole draft so human.”
The top 10 selections featured five Canadians, one American, and four Europeans, including center Marco Rossi, who became the fifth Austrian-born player to be chosen in the top 10 when he went ninth overall to Minnesota.
Overall, 19 of the 31 selections were Canadian-born players, matching the most since 2003 when the NHL had 30 teams.
Russia’s Iaroslav Askarov became just the eighth goalie selected in the first round since 2010, after being chosen No. 11 by Nashville. At 17, Askarov made 23 saves in a 4-2 win for SKA St. Petersburg in becoming the second-youngest goalie to play a Kontinental Hockey League game last November.
The Washington Capitals traded the 24th and 80th picks to Calgary to move up and select Quebec junior center Hendrix Lapierre at No. 22. Once considered a top-10 prospect, concerns were raised after the Chicoutimi player sustained three concussions from Feb. 6 to Nov. 21, 2019. He was diagnosed with a spinal injury before being cleared to play in April.
“Right now I don’t believe it’s a risk any more, but I had a really tough season last year with the injuries,” Lapierre said. “I feel like it’s the cherry on the sundae.”
The draft concludes Wednesday with rounds second through seven, before teams turn their attention to the NHL’s free agency signing period, which opens Friday.
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.
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