By now, you’ve seen the numbers. They don’t lie. There is no way to explain what’s happening with Alexis Lafreniere.
15 Games Played
2 Penalty Minutes
Since getting the thrilling overtime goal to defeat a bad Sabres team on Jan. 28, the 19-year old 2020 top pick has been shutout over the last eight games. Over that span, Lafreniere has totaled eight shots and 14 hits. There are shifts where you notice him around the net. But others where he isn’t as visible.
On a “rebuilding team,” in name only when you see how much ice time disappointing vets Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider get, Lafreniere still doesn’t have a defined role. They’re a quarter into the 56-game schedule and coach David Quinn doesn’t quite know what to do with the much hyped teenager from the Province of Quebec. He seems very committed to the struggling Zibanejad and Kreider playing top minutes with Pavel Buchnevich.
That leaves Ryan Strome between top scorer Artemi Panarin and emerging second-year right wing Kaapo Kakko. A player who the Blueshirts took second behind Jack Hughes in the 2019 NHL Draft. He too struggled mightily to establish himself in Year One. But for Kakko, the skating and strength along with the defensive awareness weren’t quite there. It was understandable why he only would up with 10 goals and 13 assists for 23 points with a minus-26 rating in 66 games.
Even though he only has two goals and an assist with a nice shootout goal in a badly needed win in Philly the other night, Kakko has improved his skating and overall play to generate a lot more scoring chances. The 28 shots show a player who’s still getting acquainted with his surroundings. His attention to detail has allowed Quinn to use him much more. That included a dominant shift in overtime where he used his puck possession and vision to all but set up Buchnevich, who drew a penalty.
Maybe there’s too much pressure on these kids. It isn’t easy to fit into a team that believes it can compete for a playoff spot in a tough East Division. So, what you get instead is a lack of production from the young players who aren’t quite ready for prime time. It doesn’t mean there isn’t room for growth. Both Kakko and Lafreniere are mature enough to understand that this is the NHL. The hardest league to score in.
The thing is when the Rangers hit the NHL version of the Lottery, everyone was excited to see what Lafreniere could do. They didn’t envision a tough transition for the former World Junior Championship Tournament MVP for Canada a year ago. The truth is he’s a left wing, which puts him third on the depth chart behind Panarin and Kreider. That means third line duty.
Lately, it’s been Brett Howden filling in for Filip Chytil, who’s not ready yet. So, that’s a checking center who wins draws and either the gritty Colin Blackwell or Phil Di Giuseppe. As well as Blackwell has played, it isn’t an ideal situation for Laffy13, who is on the second power play which doesn’t see enough time under Quinn. He defers too much to his top unit that for the most part has featured Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider, Adam Fox and Ryan Strome.
At least on Thursday versus the Flyers, the third-year coach realized Zibanejad needed a break and replaced him and Kreider. Ironically, it was Buchnevich and Kreider, who were involved in the second unit that saw Blackwell redirect a Buchnevich shot past Carter Hart for a power play goal. The first in an eternity. It honestly felt like they hadn’t converted one since the days of Jaromir Jagr playing with Michael Nylander, Martin Straka, Petr Prucha and Michael Rozsival.
Lafreniere was on for the power play goal. Even if he didn’t have a piece in it, at least he was out there. With the exception of one game, the former Rimouski Oceanic star has gotten double digit minutes under Quinn. Even if he shuffles lines like a deck of cards, he hasn’t forgotten to include the rookie.
I wonder if having Chytil back would help Lafreniere, who doesn’t have an offensive center to play off of. Chytil was off to a good start with two goals and an assist in five games before being sidelined by an upper-body injury. They can certainly use him. Especially with Zibanejad stuck on one goal and not quite himself. Kreider not much better either with four goals. That’s supposed to be two-thirds of the number one line.
We saw how anemic they were without Panarin, who missed two games. They scored only twice in two losses to the Bruins and Devils with the latter unacceptable. Offense wasn’t supposed to be an issue. However, stranger things have occurred in the Covid Era. See Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins for proof.
Maybe Quinn shouldn’t be as patient with the KZB Line. If they continue to struggle at even strength, break it up. Perhaps Lafreniere can earn another shot with Zibanejad and Buchnevich. Or even try the gritty Blackwell or underused Brendan Lemieux, who for whatever reason rarely cracks 10 minutes despite bringing more to the table.
At some point, Lafreniere needs a better idea of who he’s playing with. Interestingly, he took seven face-offs and won three versus the Devils earlier this week. He isn’t a center. If he were, problem solved. We know Strome isn’t the longterm solution at second center. He loses too many draws and isn’t a top six forward. But he’s been unfairly blamed for the team’s inconsistency more than the Invisible Duo. That doesn’t make sense. At least you notice him creating opportunities. I’d advise Strome to avoid the pair of bad penalties he took in the offensive zone. His first two of 2021.
On the plus-side, there’s been the more polished play of rookie K’Andre Miller. He could miss another game due to an upper-body injury on Saturday when the Rangers visit DC for an afternoon tilt. Perhaps playing college hockey at Wisconsin helped prepare him for the NHL.
Look how well Adam Fox has blossomed into the number one defenseman the Blueshirts have lacked. He spent three years at Harvard before forcing his way to the team he rooted for growing up. A great trade by GM Jeff Gorton that is a steal for the organization. Who knew he was that good? They lucked out due to Fox opting not to sign with Calgary or Carolina.
They also didn’t realize initially that Ryan Lindgren was the kind of hard-nosed defenseman Marc Staal once was. Although when you watch him battle and take his lumps, it more reminds you of a better version of Jeff Beukeboom or Dan Girardi. That’s how important the former Bruins prospect has become. Part of the Rick Nash trade that has been a real winner.
So, at least the young defensemen are getting it done under Quinn. They’ve also discovered that Libor Hajek can play solid minutes since the injuries. He definitely should stay in the top six when Miller returns. Jack Johnson should come out. A signing nobody can understand. Especially with what Bitetto and Brendan Smith have supplied.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that the development of young players is a process. Whether it’s Quinn remaining behind the bench or a different voice which might be needed to bring the team up to the level management believes, it’ll remain a balancing act.
What they need is to have more consistency. By that, I mean don’t jerk around these kids. Line consistency allows for better chemistry. Especially up front. Look how well former Rangers assistant Lindy Ruff has handled Hughes and several rookies across the Hudson. That shouldn’t be lost on anyone.
Patience is a virtue. You have to allow the young players to play through their mistakes. There’s a time for learning and a time for trust. It can’t be a two-way street.