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 when his name was announced, handed 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.”
Lafreniere joins a young, developing Rangers team that features one of his favorite players, Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin. The Rangers also have up-and-coming youngsters such as Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft, and defenseman Adam Fox, who finished fourth in the rookie of the year voting this season.
Lafreniere scored 35 goals and led the QMJHL with 77 assists and 112 points last season. He became the first Quebec-born player to be selected first since Pittsburgh chose goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in 2003, and the first skater from the province to go first since 1998, when Tampa Bay drafted Vincent Lecavalier.
New York landed the No. 1 pick for the first time since the NHL established the universal draft in 1969. The Rangers bucked the odds by jumping ahead of the NHL’s seven non-playoff teams to win the draft lottery after being swept in three games 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, drafted 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.
Jake Sanderson, son of former NHL forward Geoff Sanderson, was the first American and defenseman selected, going to Ottawa with the fifth pick.
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 was drafted ninth overall by Minnesota.
The draft was held remotely, with teams making selections from their home cities. Commissioner Gary Bettman introduced each team making a first-round selection from a podium at the NHL Network studios in New Jersey.
The Senators provided some color by having “Jeopardy” game-show host Alex Trebek announce their first selection in the form of a question. “And the answer is, Tim Stuetzle,” Trebek said.
Sanderson, a freshman at North Dakota, watched the draft with his family sitting in the stands of the Fighting Hawks arena.
The two-day event was originally scheduled to be held in Montreal in June, but it was pushed back like the rest of the NHL calendar due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The league paused its season in mid-March before resuming in August by going directly to the postseason, which ended last week with the Tampa Bay Lightning winning their second Stanley Cup title by defeating the Dallas Stars in six games.
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.
Teams already have been active in reshaping their rosters and freeing space under the $81.5 million salary cap, which is unchanged from last season and expected to stay fixed for at least another year due to the financial losses resulting from coronavirus.
Detroit forward Justin Abdelkader and Montreal defenseman Karl Alzner were placed on unconditional waivers for the purpose of buying out the remainder of their contracts earlier in the day. The Canadiens also traded center Max Domi and a third-round draft pick to Columbus for forward Josh Anderson.