Without Panarin, now is the time to find out about Lafreniere

When the Rangers skate against the Bruins tonight at MSG for the second time in three days, they’ll be without star forward Artemi Panarin. The left wing suffered a lower-body injury when he got tangled up with Chris Wagner in the second period. It’s uncertain how long the team’s leading scorer will be out.

Being that they won’t play Sunday versus the Flyers due to COVID-19 hitting another American team, the Blueshirts don’t play again until next Tuesday when the Devils should finally be cleared to play games following a two week hiatus. The way the schedule is set up, it’s hard to say how many games Panarin will miss. Especially if Rangers at Flyers comes off next Thursday. The rest of the month has them facing the upper echelon of the revamped Patrick Division. That includes two against the Flyers, two versus the Capitals and two more against the Bruins at the end of February.

Right now, they’re about to find out where they are in this shortened season. At 4-5-3, the Rangers have played every game so far. They only have three regulation wins. The lone overtime victory coming in Buffalo when top pick Alexis Lafreniere scored his first NHL goal on Jan. 28. It’s the only point so far for the 19-year old rookie.

It isn’t so much that Lafreniere has struggled. This isn’t the same case as Kaapo Kakko last year. The first pick is a superb skater who gets his nose dirty. He puts himself in position to score goals. He could have a few more which would calm down Rangerstown. A place where our fans are always thinking the worst. They finally hit the lottery and Lafreniere has one point in a dozen games. His career is just beginning. Some people need to relax.

With David Quinn playing roulette with the lines, that hasn’t helped Lafreniere. He’s been moved around quite a bit in the top nine. He even got a look with snake bit Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich, who has cooled off considerably since his good start. His turnover proving costly on Brad Marchand’s overtime winner on Wednesday. Lafreniere even shifted to the right wing to play with Panarin and Ryan Strome. It probably didn’t make sense. His natural position is left wing and he’s in Year One.

More recently, he’s been playing on the third line with Phil Di Giuseppe and Brett Howden. Let’s just say it’s not working out. They certainly work hard enough. It’s actually been the more consistent play from the bottom six forwards that have outplayed the top six. That won’t work. But it’s nice to see an actual fourth line contributing on the score sheet. The addition of Kevin Rooney has added something this team didn’t have. Brendan Lemieux has been good lately and Julien Gauthier scored his first NHL goal.

However, it has to be the play of the top two lines that improves. As good as Zibanejad looked the other day, he didn’t score. The encouraging part is he admitted that he felt more like himself. With him stuck on three points and Kreider at four goals, that isn’t enough production. Despite improvement, Buchnevich remains at 3-5-8. Strome has played better since his slow start. However, even his production is down.

Maybe Lafreniere can help out Strome and the improved Kakko, who despite doing a lot right has two goals and an assist. This is an opportunity for Laffy13 to show what he’s got. He has shown flashes of what made him the top pick in last Fall’s Draft.

If Panarin does miss more time, Lafreniere will get more shifts. That includes the dreadful power play which has been all too predictable. If Zibanejad isn’t finishing from the left circle, it’s either Adam Fox shooting with Kreider in front or nothing. Buchnevich rarely shoots the puck from the right dot. Maybe having Lafreniere in Panarin’s spot on the number one power play unit could provide a spark. They won’t throw their eggs all in one basket.

I still believe Kakko should replace Buchnevich because he has more of a shoot first mentality. Something that’s needed to keep opponents honest from only guarding the off side. It would provide better balance. However, perhaps Buchnevich won’t defer as much with Lafreniere on the left side. We’ll see. It can’t be any worse than it’s looked.

For now, the second unit consists of Strome, Lemieux, Kakko with Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller on the points. How much time they get remains to be seen. But it’s probably good to stick Miller on the left point. He possesses enough skill to contribute, boasting an accurate shot and good instincts.

Ideally, it would be great if Lafreniere records his first assist. He’s a playmaker who makes teammates better. Maybe getting the chance to play with more talent will help. For the long-term, this is an important stretch for the future of the team. It’s better to see Lafreniere and Kakko involved in the offense. They’re the keys.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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