KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Gerard Gallant didn’t personally know Alexis Lafreniere until roughly two weeks ago, but the Rangers head coach has noticed the former No. 1 overall pick has a newfound swagger.
“What I see, I like,” Gallant said Tuesday after the team practiced at Boss Ice Arena on the campus of the University of Rhode Island. “He’s a little overconfident. He comes in and he’s — not cocky — but he’s loose and that’s a good thing.
“As long as you can handle it the right way and be ready for the game. He’s still a kid, so we got to bring him along and make sure he’s doing the right things.”
There are several outside factors that explain why the 19-year-old Lafreniere is feeling more comfortable entering his sophomore season. Not only is he reaping the benefits of a full-fledged training camp – as opposed to last year’s quick start with zero preseason games – but Lafreniere also knows he won’t have to go the entire season without seeing his family.
The Rangers are scheduled to play 10 games in Canada this season, which Lafreniere — a Saint-Eustache, Quebec native — said he’s looking forward to. Plus, Lafreniere is much more familiar with the team and said he’s enjoyed the current bonding trip he never got to experience last season.
Gallant and Rangers management haven’t been afraid to experiment with Lafreniere throughout training camp. They’ve started him on the top line next to Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, asked him to play on his off-side on the right wing and have had him take reps on the penalty kill, where he didn’t see any time in his first season on Broadway.
The right-wing trial didn’t last very long. Gallant said Lafreniere is more comfortable on the left, so Kreider is now on his off-side on the right.
“I’m ready to play everywhere,” Lafreniere said. “Me and Chris talked about it, we’re still trying to figure out some things. He’s good at right wing, he’s really fast and he has a good shot. We’ll keep working together and keep trying to get better as a line.”
Lafreniere added that Kreider has been “like a big brother for me,” noting that playing next to No. 20 has made it easier for him to pick his brain. As for his line as a whole, Lafreniere said he’s learned a lot from playing with Kreider and Zibanejad, but he is looking to continue developing chemistry with them.
“Just playing every day with them, you’ll learn a little bit from them,” he said. “They’re two unreal players, so it’s really fun for me to have the chance to play with them. We played maybe one game, two games together, so we will still play a couple games and figure it out.”
When asked to evaluate his rookie season, Lafreniere said that he got off to a “tough” start. Between not playing for a while and how odd last season was amid the coronavirus pandemic, it was evidently difficult for Lafreniere to get acclimated. He said it was no excuse.
Now, Lafreniere has a new presence about him — and it’s safe to say it has everything to do with the prospect of getting top-line minutes for the Rangers.
“Yeah, I feel ready,” he said. “I had a big summer, I got leaner, a little bit faster. I feel ready to have big minutes. But I have to play [well] for that [to be] so.”