How Alexis Lafrenière exemplifies everything you want in a playmaker

An elite playmaker offers a versatility in lineup construction like no other archetype of player— it sometimes seems as though Sidney Crosby has a new no-name brand winger making only a million or two a year riding the coattails of his elite vision every year. You could pick a stranger out of the free skate at your local rink and he’d pop twenty on Connor McDavid’s wing— as long as his name isn’t Milan Lucic of course, but you’ll find guys with quicker feet than Lucic at ‘Learn To Skate’ sessions. The ability to make your linemates look better than they really are is a hallmark of an elite playmaker. Alexis Lafrenière, the projected first overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft and household name after his MVP-calibre performance at January’s World Juniors, has the tools to be one of those players. Lafrenière’s game has actually transformed to take on more of a playmaking element over his three QMJHL career– tallying 42 goals and 38 assists in his rookie Q campaign, dropping to 37 goals but increasing his assist total to 68 the year after, and then culminating in a 35 goal, 77 assist performance in 51 games here in 2019-20. With experience against QMJHL competition, the winger gradually became better and better at sharing the puck and making his teammates better and it paid off, with his overall impact increasing each year and culminating in a dominant 2.15 point per game draft year season.

If you’re familiar with my work, you’ll recognize that this article will feel a little different from my typical breakdown. Instead of taking a broad lens to the entirety of Lafrenière’s game (something I did a while back), we’ll be focusing on his playmaking game. And the topic of this piece isn’t so much Lafrenière– it’s the characteristics of high-level playmakers as a whole, using clips of Lafrenière, a noted elite junior playmaker, to illustrate those keys.

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Assessment — The ability to play a heads-up style and be in a constant state of assessment– always ready to move the puck and constantly evaluating whether a pass is the best option.

Put simply, this is just knowing when to pass and when to hang onto the puck. Overpassing doesn’t help anybody; a good player needs defences to respect them as a shooting and carrying threat to maintain the multidimensionality to their offence that makes them difficult to defend. On a basic level, this is what hockey IQ is: knowing what do with the puck when.

This is an area where Lafrenière excels. He’s a very well-rounded forward, popping 35+ goals every year since he entered the league as a 16 year old in addition to his playmaking prowess. He knows when to shoot and when to dish the puck– you’re more likely to see Tyler Kleven and his two goals in 45 games for the USNTDP go end-to-end for a beauty than watch Lafrenière make an ill-advised decision with the puck in the offensive zone. I like this play from the World Juniors as a clear example of this element– Lafrenière is under pressure at his blueline with the Americans playing highly aggressive with their net empty but he’s still able to recognize the pass option and make the play.

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The low awareness play here would be to chip the puck up the boards and look to skate onto it– it’s harder than it might look to spot that teammate ahead through those USA bodies closing in on him– but Lafrenière is capable of advanced plays that a lot of players would miss.

For the record, this next play is an absolute masterpiece that you’ll see several times throughout this piece because it checks off all five of our boxes here. Seriously, I’m one lapse of judgement away from picking up a flatscreen so I can frame this play in its animated form like the absolute artwork it is. Give me one opportunity with a time machine and I’m going to 1400s Italy to commission Michelangelo to preserve this beauty on a painting to hang over my bed. Every morning for the rest of my life, I want to open my eyes and be immediately reminded of how badly Lafrenière clowned the USA on December 26, 2019.

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Lafrenière finds himself in the immediate slot with traffic in front of the net with the opportunity to unleash a backhand from point blank range– you won’t find many players that will pass up that chance. That’s a high percentage play. but Lafrenière finds an even better backdoor option with the pass. That’s incredible processing ability that you don’t see from many players.

Here’s another similar play.

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Lafrenière has a point blank opportunity in front with defence taking away the middle on the odd-man rush but he’s conscious enough to outwait the defence and play the puck across for an even better chance.

The winger almost always makes the correct play regardless of situation or the degree of pressure on him. I think it stems from a consistent pass-first mentality– his first instinct tends to be to look for the pass– but he rarely forces unrealistic plays as a distributor and doesn’t hesitate to shoot when that’s the better choice (his 5.04 shots/game is plenty evidence of that).

Understanding Space — Maximizing and pursuing space is the backbone of successful offence. Strong playmakers understand the importance of identifying and moving the puck to space.

Space is the fundamental element of every offence. The more space a player has with the puck, the more time they have to make a play and the higher the probability of that play being the best one. This is nothing more than passing to open teammates, right? It seems rather straightforward, but instances of players failing to recognize pockets of space or trying to force the play into crowded areas are quite common.

Lafrenière is excellent at this. He’s able to read defences from the perimeter and identify areas of low pressure; he’ll track those areas while handling the puck and has the patience and timing to hit teammates as they pop into those areas and become momentarily open. Again, this seems like a relatively basic concept but the way that Lafrenière is able to track and be constantly conscious of pockets of space in the offensive zone as they change every second is far from basic.

This idea can take the form of basic plays like this one, where Lafrenière hits a linemate leaking out into space in the high slot for a one-time goal.

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As well as assists like this one, where he pulls the defender towards him and creates space for his teammate to rip a one-timer on the two-on-one.

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This concept also manifests itself in more advanced situations. As promised, we’re going to return to that absolute masterpiece of an assist from earlier.

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All four American defenders collapse on Lafrenière in the slot. Plenty of players would look to get a shot off in the traffic there, but Lafrenière recognizes that heavy traffic around him means open teammates elsewhere and is able to distribute to the wing for an easy finish. Again, just terrific cognitive abilities as a playmaker.

Passing Vision — When a player opts to make a pass, their playmaking vision defines how effectively they can see the play developing and spot open teammates in open spots.

Probably the most frequently referenced element of playmaking, I don’t think much detail is needed for this one. Vision is absolutely crucial to being an elite distributor– without it a player won’t even recognize opportunities for advanced passes, nevertheless attempt them with consistent results. A player can function as a decent playmaker only recognizing the passes that are right in front of their eyes, but no player will record assists on a top level without the ability to spot teammates through opposing bodies, at angles beyond their straightaway field of view, and as those teammates cut into open areas for momentary chances.

Lafrenière is capable of making all of those plays that define a player with elite vision. He always seems to know exactly where his teammates are and can seemingly continue to track their location even while handling the puck and challenging defenders, allowing him to string together moves before deftly moving the puck off to a teammate like he does in the absolute clinic right here:

That’s another absolute beauty for my wall. Here’s another– splits the two defenders, has both of them on the back, and is in the midst of falling, but Lafrenière still has the vsision and presence of mind to go cross-crease for an easy tally. The mental capacity required to not only recognize that option but to put the pass right on the tape too is just out of this world.

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And then there’s this “eyes in the back of the head” pass on the rush. Eyes forward and he still knows exactly where Veleno is with the backhand chop pass.

One more. Look at the instant awareness right off the steal on the forecheck.

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Lane Manipulation — Elite passers don’t just hit open teammates– they’re able to create open teammates by manipulating defenders, spreading defences, and opening passing lanes.

Hockey’s best playmakers don’t only take the lanes that a defence gives them; they’re able to create their own as well. Just look at Connor McDavid, arguably hockey’s best facilitator. He’s the primary focus of the defence every time he steps on the ice, with defences looking to take away his options every time he has the puck. And even facing those circumstances, McDavid created goals at an 80-assist pace and posted the second highest rate of primary assists per sixty of NHL forwards with more than 250 minutes played this season. That’s because he’s more than just a pure distributor– all good playmakers are. McDavid’s skating and hands are arguably just as important drivers of his playmaking success; those are that tools that get him in the spots and create the lanes for him to rack up his assists.

Lafrenière isn’t going to absolutely terrify with his ability to handle the puck at speeds never seen before in the NHL like McDavid. He creates through his intelligence and incredibly well-rounded offensive profile rather than world-class quickness and having several more gears than every defender in the league. That doesn’t mean Lafrenière isn’t effective as a playmaker– I think we’ve established several times over already in this piece that he’s an excellent one– he just creates in different ways. Lafrenière largely relies on discrete puck moves to find passing lanes– toe drags, stop ups, pull backs, anything to throw a defender off and get them out of a passing lane– rather than blow-by speed and exceptional four-way quickness like some of the NHL’s distributors.

Here’s an example. Two-on-one break, Lafrenière toe-drags the sliding defender and creates the opportunity to go back door for the easy assist.

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These plays don’t always have to be flashy dangles too. Here’s a more common play that you’ll see from players without Lafrenière’s elite skill: begins to glide while coming down the wing, the defender gives up a step too much space, and the cross-ice lane opens up. Doesn’t have to be fancy, discrete changes in speed or approach can throw off a defender just enough to lose track of a lane.

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This isn’t a perfect pass, but it’s a good look at the kind of deception that can open up lanes. The defender is aware of the option behind him and initially takes away the line, but Lafrenière gets into a shooting position with his eyes on the net and manipulates that defender into lifting his stick off the ice, allowing him to thread the pass across. The pass is in the feet, but this clip would be an absolute clinic if he had managed to put it into his teammate’s wheelhouse.

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Another deceptive one. Defender is initially taking away the pass, Lafrenière telegraphs a pass towards the high slot, the defender moves his stick, and Lafrenière dishes to the net.

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Here’s one that isn’t directly on the pass. Lafrenière splits the two defenders coming down the wing, creating space for himself (this one could fit in the ‘Understanding Space’ section too, there’s plenty of overlap) as well as the lane  to drop the puck back into the slot for an opportunity.

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Going back to the masterpiece now for the third time. We all know a saying along the lines of “go to the net and good things will happen”. That’s generally used to reference rebounds and dirty goals, but it applies to playmaking as well. It’s just like in basketball with help defence– you drive to the net and the defence collapses onto you, leaving options on the perimter. As Lafrenière slashes into the slot. the penalty kill ‘box’ crumples inwards and lanes open up out to the perimeter. If Lafrenière stays out on the half wall, it’s unlikely that the cross seam ever opens up.

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Passing Execution — Of course, once a passer has identified an open teammate and has a lane to pass, they still have to transport the puck to that spot. The best passers can thread difficult passes with ease.

The four components that we’ve noted so far involve the mental aspect occurring before the pass. This final key– the actual execution– is the most important. All that prior mental work goes straight to the wastebasket if you can’t actually make the play by completing the pass.

You’ve already seen plenty of passing touch with all these clips, as well as one example (the pass into the skates in the section above this one) where slightly botched execution killed what could have been a one-time laser right into the twine. Nevertheless, I’ll gift you a few more videos of some of Lafrenière’s more difficult passes to really ingrain how gifted of a passer he is. He can make long passes spanning the offensive zone, chip pucks into space for teammates, add some lift to bypass a defender’s stick, and just generally do whatever’s required to thread a pass onto a teammate’s tape. He has elite intelligence, absolutely no doubt about that, but his passing execution is what allows him to convert ideas into assists.

Lafrenière is extremely effective as a powerplay facilitator, tallying 21 primary assists on the man advantage this year. Zane Franklin, who played with 2020 elibible Connor Zary in Kamloops, was the only CHLer to have more with 22. That’s largely in part to his ability to thread passes through tight cross-ice seams, like he does with the saucer pass here:

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Here’s Lafrenière going through traffic for an easy backdoor tap-in.

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He can slide passes right by sticks, like how Lafrenière narrowly gets the puck by the goaltender’s poke check in this clip.

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And one more– between the legs of the defender to set up his teammate right in front.

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Lafrenière is a truly exceptional playmaker, able to demonstrate all five keys that I detailed at an elite level. He should be a force in the NHL and should pile up assists season after season. And the scariest part? Everything I’ve illustrated here is just one component of his game. He’s an excellent scorer, a positive transitional player, and he can make defenders look silly with his puck skills. Whatever teams lucks into the first overall pick will be getting a superstar and franchise cornerstone to anchor their top line for years.

Video in this article from bigwhite06, Best Of Hockey, Wolf Hockey, and QMJHL.

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