Lafreniere benching the latest in a puzzling season, A look at Rangers history of drafting and developing players, Vasilevskiy outduels Shesterkin as Lightning take shootout 2-1

Leading up to what turned out to be a playoff caliber rematch in the second season meeting with the Lightning, there was plenty to unpack for the Rangers. An organization that’s clearly at a crossroads even as they end the calendar year sitting just outside the second wildcard behind the resurgent Islanders.

If you thought they’d finally figured it out after winning eight of nine prior to the holiday break, you were wrong. The first two games indicate otherwise. A bigger issue that’s been plaguing the organization for years.

Of course, I’m referring directly to Alexis Lafreniere becoming a healthy scratch in the 37th game of a puzzling season. The former 2020 number one overall pick had a bad game in Wednesday’s 4-0 loss to the Caps. However, he wasn’t alone. But even in Year Three where he has only score five goals yet still has 17 points in 36 games, its the 21-year old who’s been singled out after a disappointing loss.

At least he now knows how Vitaly Kravtsov feels. In and out of the lineup whether it was due to injuries or second-year coach Gerard Gallant opting to keep another former first round pick up in the press box, it’s clearly a trust issue when it comes to the handling of the recently turned 23-year old Russian.

In similar fashion, Lafreniere has not been given a clearly defined role in his three years as a Ranger. An indictment on the organization who still can’t seem to figure it out. When it comes to the younger players, they have to put more trust in them. They’ve always given Kaapo Kakko more rope than Lafreniere, who’s been forced to play the off wing in a failed experiment that hurt his overall game.

When you luck into a consensus number one pick, you do everything possible to give them the best chance to succeed. For some reason, the Rangers have done the opposite. It’s resulted in Lafreniere losing his confidence. A mature player who always says the right thing in interviews even if it’s not going well, he remains a question mark at this point in his young career.

What is he? That’s something the Rangers need to find out. It wasn’t that long ago that Lafreniere showed improvement at the end of his second season finishing with 19 even strength goals and totaling 31 points. It was also while teaming with Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko that he performed well contributing two goals and seven assists during the 2022 Playoffs. A surprising run that saw the team come within two games of playing for the Stanley Cup.

Lafreniere has played in 171 career games. He has yet to score a power play goal. A fact that’s shocked other team’s fans who are quite familiar with the success he had winning two MVP’s in the QMJHL and producing 10 points (4-6-10) for Canada in the 2020 U20 World Junior Championships. Great things were expected for him.

It hasn’t happened yet. Before anyone makes the ridiculous observation that he can’t play in New York City, that’s not it. He has the high character and maturity to handle the pressure packed environment in the Big Apple.

This is more about how the Rangers have gone about it. The process isn’t working. Not after Garden CEO James Dolan made an abrupt change by replacing John Davidson and Jeff Gorton with Chris Drury and basically snake Glen Sather, who still is lurking in the background. They also made the necessary move to bring in Gallant to replace David Quinn, who lacked experience to steer the group where they wanted to go.

While I respect Gallant, whose experience certainly has helped, there are more questions than answers in Year Two. There’s no doubt that last season, things went extremely well. Carried by Vezina winner Igor Shesterkin, who stole many games in the first half to provide the Rangers with an impressive record, they went onto post a 52-24-6 mark with 110 points to finish second in the Metro Division.

It really helped to have Shesterkin standing on his head most nights en route to a 36-13-4 record in 53 games (52 starts) with a 2.07 GAA, .935 save percentage and six shutouts. He was remarkable. Having Alexandar Georgiev as a steady backup post 15 wins in 33 appearances also allowed Gallant to give his ace netminder enough rest. He doesn’t have that luxury in Year Two. Georgiev became a cap casualty and now stars for the Avalanche. Jaroslav Halak can’t play as many games.

In his first year as Team President and GM, Drury did an outstanding job. He made a good hire in Gallant who guided the Panthers to the playoffs and took the Golden Knights all the way to a Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. He also made key additions by signing Barclay Goodrow and dealing for Ryan Reaves. Even Dryden Hunt worked out well in the Gallant system.

Adding key pieces Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, Tyler Motte and Justin Braun really solidified the Blueshirts. They provided secondary scoring and depth that proved crucial last Spring. With the Big Four of Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin and Adam Fox performing at a high level along with Jacob Trouba, Ryan Lindgren, K’Andre Miller, Ryan Strome and underrated checking pivot Kevin Rooney, it all came together.

Sometimes, things fall into place. That superior depth post trade deadline kept the pressure off Chytil, Kakko and Lafreniere. The former Kid Line built momentum late in the season and rode it during the playoffs to help make key contributions in all three rounds. They were an effective third unit who got pucks in behind opponents and created offense off the forecheck.

Up until recently, Gallant had reunited that line and played them more. They were instrumental during the season high seven-game win streak. But following the shutout loss to the Capitals which he termed, “We were garbage,” during a candid postgame, Gallant broke up that line and benched Lafreniere in favor of Sammy Blais. The less said about Blais, the better.

Whether you agreed with the lineup changes, it felt like desperation from an experienced bench boss who’s tinkered with his lines all season. There’s no consistency. That can’t be good for team chemistry. It’s one thing to adjust in game depending on the situation. But quite another to panic the way he’s done.

It has to be confusing for some players. Maybe not the established stars and key veterans I cited. But for younger kids like Lafreniere who’s been moved around like a nomad, and Kravtsov who can go from sitting out to playing his way from the checking line into a top nine role, there has to be frustration. They haven’t gained the trust of the coaching staff.

It’s easy for some to point to the numbers. Kravtsov has two goals with an assist in 17 games despite standing out on Thursday night by being involved in a breakaway that Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped and beating Victor Hedman on a great move to get in and just miss on another chance.

He also led Julien Gauthier for an early opportunity that he missed wide on. Gauthier was also denied on a breakaway by Vasilevskiy (45 saves) later in a great game the Lightning won 2-1 over the Rangers in a six round shootout.

While Kravtsov showed a lot more confidence with the puck in 15 shifts including 11:58 at even strength and another 47 seconds on the struggling power play (1 for its last 17 including an epic failure on a four-on-three in overtime), all Lafreniere could do was watch from the press box.

What did he learn exactly? His next game won’t be until 2023. That was the final game of the calendar year. The Rangers next play the Panthers on New Year’s Day this Sunday. Hopefully, Lafreniere will return to the lineup and respond well.

Why is it okay for Gallant to play Kravtsov on the fourth line, but not Lafreniere? He did it last year. Lafreniere played through his struggles and worked his way back up with Chytil and Kakko. He will go to the corners and compete for pucks while taking the body. He’s also stronger on the wall and adept at takeaways to keep plays alive. The problem is he’s not finding enough room or shooting enough.

There’s been all kinds of reaction about not just Lafreniere. But about how the Rangers have handled young players who were selected high. Development again has come to the forefront. While they have done a good job with goalies (Lundqvist, Georgiev, Shesterkin) and defensemen (Fox, Lindgren, Miller, Schneider), developing their forwards who were selected high remains a problem.

I feel like both Jeff who celebrated a birthday, and Jared are onto something. Jared responded to an original post from Alex (FutureCanes), who I think nailed it about the way this team drafts and develops players. Don’t forget. Fox and Lindgren were trades. Fox played collegiate at Harvard and never played in the AHL. Lindgren did before finally earning his keep after Libor Hajek failed to establish himself during ’19-20.

It’s important to note Benoit Allaire. His influence on the successful Hall Of Fame career of Henrik Lundqvist, who was very driven, certainly helped him become one of the game’s best goalies. What he did with Georgiev was impressive. He signed as a free agent. After spending time in Hartford, he became a part-time starter before Igor Shesterkin was called up and eventually supplanted him.

You have to wonder why they rushed Kakko in that rookie year. He struggled mightily. I understood the rationale behind the rebuild after the letter. But given how lost Kakko was, why didn’t they send him down? They had that option due to him being European. It probably would’ve been better for his development. Look how long it’s took for the 2019 number two pick to improve.

They also could’ve optioned Lafreniere due to the abbreviated 56-game schedule in his rookie season (’21). But after spending some time on the fourth line, he finished with a dozen goals and showed signs under Quinn before he was fired. All due to what happened against the Islanders and then the Tom Wilson incident involving both Pavel Buchnevich and Panarin. Sather and Mark Messier got in Dolan’s ear about allowing that to happen to their star player.

When they committed to the rebuild, it really sounded like Davidson and Gorton wanted to see it through. Despite spending a ton on both Panarin ($11.64 million) and Trouba ($8 million), they seemed to want to remain patient. Many would ask why give Panarin all that money if you’ve promised to rebuild. Ditto for Trouba, who they acquired from Winnipeg and immediately signed him long-term with a full NMC through ’23-24. It’s moderated the final two years of the contract. Panarin has a full NMC with his deal expiring in 2026.

Did they expect Lafreniere to fall into their lap following the three-game humiliation to the Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round? Of course not. They made the decision to extend Kreider on what now is a bargain with his $6.5 million cap hit which runs through 2027. His NMC becomes a moderated no-trade starting in ’24-25.

When they came so close with Panarin finishing third for the Hart and Zibanejad erupting for a career best 41 goals including a memorable five-goal game I attended with family and friends prior to COVID pausing the ’19-20 season, I think it altered the organization’s view. They believed they could return to the postseason in ’20-21. Despite Kakko not being fully developed and Lafreniere in his first season, it felt like a rush job.

That’s always been an issue with rebuilding here. Look no further than the Dark Ages when the Garden went dark between ’97-98 thru ’03-04. They took ridiculous suggestions from Larry Brooks who basically suggested Valeri Kamensky, Stephane Quintal, Sylvain Lefebvre, Brian Skrudland and Mike Keane. Aside from Lefebvre, all failed.

Theo Fleury would’ve been successful if not for all the off ice issues that plagued his career. It’s astonishing that he was leading the league in scoring and had seven shorthanded goals with what was happening away from the rink. God bless him for overcoming years of sexual abuse, depression and substance abuse to become a true survivor. One of my favorite memories was meeting Fleury at a book signing at Borders with family. He couldn’t have been nicer.

In all of that time during that Error, it was first Neil Smith who kept making the mistake of overpaying players who either were close to done or didn’t want to be here (Quintal). Hockey is different here. Who could forget that? Ask Bobby Holik. There was no structure or consistency.

Even bringing in Eric Lindros backfired due to getting his bell rung after looking like the dominant force who terrorized opponents in the 90’s. They traded for an injury prone Pavel Bure. He looked great, but didn’t last long.

There was also Alexei Kovalev II. That didn’t work. Instead of logic prevailing, they played him out of position on left wing and never had him play the point on the power play. He was gone quickly to Montreal for the forgettable Jozef Balej (hype machine) and draft pick failures. Of course, Kovalev produced as a Canadien.

This was already after Trader Neil was gone for Sather. Smith’s great work was taking Pavel Brendl and then giving away Marc Savard to Calgary and moving up to grab Jamie Lundmark. A player who did well with the Wolf Pack when I was up in Bristol at ESPN. But after a good camp, he was blocked by Messier II. One of the worst moves of the Slats Error. As much as I love Messier, he played too many minutes and didn’t take a backseat.

It’s hard to believe this all happened. I left out the Czech Mates. That was short-lived. Petr Nedved, Jan Hlavac and Radek Dvorak were fun to watch. But as good as they were offensively, they didn’t really back check.

There wasn’t much of a system either in those days. They truly wasted the remaining prime years of Rangers legends Brian Leetch and Mike Richter. It was sad. Too many poor choices whether it be coach (Muckler, Low, Trottier) or players (Malakhov, Dunham, Karpa, Ulanov, Fraser). Not much luck either with injuries to key young players like Stefan Cherneski, Dan Blackburn, Tomas Kloucek and Hugh Jessiman.

Manny Malhotra was butchered as well. Even though John Muckler was proven correctly on the kind of player he became, they definitely didn’t help him develop. I’m glad he had success in Columbus and Vancouver where he was a trusted checking center who could win draws and kill penalties. He’s now a Leafs assistant coach. Good for him.

You also had the nightmare of Slats not bothering to ask Leetch if he would be open to a trade at the ’04 deadline. He instead dealt the greatest defenseman the franchise ever had on his birthday without communicating to the Maple Leafs. That went over well. The return was Maxim Kondratiev, Jarkko Immonen, a first round pick that became Lauri Korpikoski and an ’05 second.

They then mishandled both Korpikoski and Immonen. The latter eventually returned home before having a successful career in the KHL. Korpikoski was barely a blip on the radar when they foolishly dumped him to Rangers West the Coyotes for Enver Lisin. Korpedo had some decent seasons in the NHL while Lisin lasted 57 games and totaled six goals and 14 points. He went back home.

Even if Korpikoski didn’t have the career of former Devil Travis Zajac (taken a pick later), he had a solid career putting up 201 points in 609 games. The team wasn’t patient. The crazy aspect is this was when they finally got good due to Lundqvist, Jagr, Martin Straka, Fedor Tyutin, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Michael Rozsival, Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Chris Drury, Scott Gomez and Sean Avery.

When it comes to most first round picks, the Rangers don’t have the best track record. They seem to do better finding players later such as Callahan, Dubinsky, Derek Stepan, Petr Prucha, Lundqvist and Shesterkin. Artem Anisimov was a good player they took in the second round. Eventually, after a good season with Dubinsky, they were packaged to Columbus for Rick Nash in a deal that also netted Pavel Buchnevich. Too bad Buchnevich couldn’t be kept and all they have left is Sammy Blais.

If you want to point to successful first round picks, Kreider tops the list. He’s one of the best power forwards and a great leader. It’s nice to have a homegrown talent blossom as he moves up the all-time franchise goal scoring list. After Kreider, there’s J.T. Miller, Marc Staal, K’Andre Miller and Braden Schneider.

They’re getting better. But there’s always an Al Montoya or Lias Andersson that is etched in the bad memories. At least they got a second round pick which turned into Will Cuylle, who’s doing well on the Wolf Pack. Montoya was a Sather Cuban cigar special. That draft kind of sucked.

We see the growth of Chytil, whose game continues to be on the upswing. That’s what remaining patient can do. Kakko no longer is lost. He has more confidence and makes plays with the puck. The nine goals might not seem like a lot. But he is on track to reach 20. That would be progress. He was effective on the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Kreider in last night’s shootout loss to the Bolts.

As for Lafreniere, who knows where his head is at. So much of the game is mental. It isn’t easy getting moved around from line to line. Or being miscast on the right side when his natural position is left wing. That set him back. He must be more noticeable during shifts.

One scout in a recent piece asked, “What kind of player does he want to be?” Is it a gritty forward who drives the net and finds rebounds and deflections. He will go to the net. We’ve seen it. Or can he improve enough with his skating to create more time and space to get off his wrist shot? It’s not like he isn’t capable of scoring in transition off odd man rushes. He has during his Rangers career.

The concern is that he is where he is currently. Not looking as confident or playing consistently enough. He shouldn’t have sat out on Thursday night. But that was the coach’s decision. To give him a chance to take in a game from above. Sometimes, that can work. It should light a fire under Lafreniere. How will he be handled when the Rangers return to the ice to take on the Panthers in two days?

Even if you still are optimistic about this team after the run they had last Spring, there’s no reinforcements coming at the moment. There’s also no guarantee that if Drury risks it all for 34-year old future Hall Of Famer Patrick Kane at the deadline, it’ll work. He has a full no-move clause in his contract which expires. Same as Blackhawks teammate Jonathan Toews.

I think you have to ask the tough question. Is this roster as constructed good enough to seriously contend? They’ve played 37 games and sit outside the top eight behind the Islanders with 44 points. Both the Isles and Caps passing them in a very tight division. Only five teams can make it from a division. So, even if Florida doesn’t turn it around or there’s no fourth team competing from the Atlantic Division, you’re looking at six Metro teams for five spots.

It isn’t going to be easy. When they put forth a good effort as they did in the tough 2-1 loss to the Lightning in a shootout where both Shesterkin and Vasilevskiy were terrific, there’s hope. That they’ve played two of their best games against the rival Bolts highlights that they’re capable. Even if Tampa isn’t quite as deep without Ondrej Palat or Ryan McDonagh.

Fact is following a fluky Zibanejad goal (5th even strength) that saw Kakko and Lindgren touch the puck before Erik Cernak accidentally had it deflect right to Zibanejad for a great one-timer, they never scored again. Even totaling 46 shots and creating a ton of quality scoring chances that included three breakaways, they couldn’t beat a superb Vasilevskiy again.

There was a sneaky Kravtsov pass off the boards that sent Gauthier in only to see him miss wide. There was a very visible Kravtsov getting behind for a breakaway only to have his shot shrugged aside by the blocker of Vasilevskiy. You had Gauthier in again on an outstanding play by Fox only to have his shot denied by the great Lightning netminder.

Chytil had some of the best chances. He was flat out robbed by Vasilevskiy on a one-timer from a sharp angle where you couldn’t believe it. But the acrobatic former Vezina winner who’s won two Cups got over to make a great save to stone Chytil.

The power play continues to fizzle. Another 0 for 3 extending the misery to 1 for its last 17. No worse than a gifted four-on-three in overtime. There must’ve been three or four missed shots including a pair from Panarin and one from Zibanejad, who expressed his disappointment about not scoring the winner with an open net. He always gives great interviews. He wasn’t satisfied with the point they got.

High and wide or off the goalpost or crossbar could be a good title for the 2022-23 New York Rangers. They rank second in missed shots behind the Hurricanes, who always blow chances as we witnessed last Spring. But they’re winning and are in first place.

Vincent Trocheck has been good so far. But I’ve never seen a player hit as many posts or go high and over the net like him. He could have 20 goals by now. Similar to some of the opportunities he blew with Carolina. If he could hit the net more, who knows.

Of course, there were a couple of goalposts in the game. Panarin had a shot from distance beat Vasilevskiy only for it to ring off the crossbar. Then, in an entertaining six round shootout, Kakko had a chance to win it. After Panarin had evened it in the third round to reply back to Brayden Point, who also tied the contest in the third period, Kakko made his patented move. But his deke and backhand hit the post.

Of all people, Alex Killorn was able to beat Shesterkin stick side to give the Bolts the win. Fox tried to patiently out-wait Vasilevskiy. But his backhand attempt short side was foiled by the cat-like reflexes of the goaltender.

Obviously, it’s frustrating not to get two points in a game they played well enough in. Shesterkin still had to make 39 saves on 40 shots. His best work came when he denied Steven Stamkos in front and stoned Point. He also had to stop Anthony Cirelli off a face-off win point blank. The Rangers got killed in the dot losing 34 of 55 draws. They won 38 percent.

There was also some physical edge. Jacob Trouba stepped up and had an awkward hit on Vladislav Namestnikov that incensed Zach Bogosian. He took himself out of the play to go after Trouba. It led to Jimmy Vesey having Blais all set up. But he predictably missed wide. It didn’t even come close. He remains stuck on zero goals in his Rangers career.

A tough Blais hit on Cernak along the boards sent him to the locker room. He looked to be in some discomfort. He never returned. Pat Maroon went after Blais during a shift. But nothing happened between the former Blues teammates who won a Cup together in 2019.

The two teams combined for 86 shots (46-40 NYR), 160 attempts (82-78 NYR), 35 missed shots (19-16 NYR), 80 hits (40-40) and 39 blocked shots (22-17 NYR).

The game was hard fought. But the Rangers will be kicking themselves for some of the chances they didn’t cash in on. They had three power plays to the Bolts’ one. The officiating favored them with two missed calls on Rangers during the third that drew boos from Lightning fans. One a blatant trip that went undetected.

The penalty on Victor Hedman for tripping Chytil in overtime wasn’t a great call either. The Rangers had enough chances to take advantage. They couldn’t. Panarin tried a sneaky wrist shot late in the four-on-three that Vasilevskiy made a nice leg Save on. They out-shot the Lightning 5-3 in overtime.

There also were a couple of sequences during a 19 shot second period where they left you exasperated. Zibanejad passed up a wide open shot for another low percentage East/West pass for Kreider that went nowhere. It’s those kind of shooting opportunities that leave fans wanting more. It’s too predictable.

Every skater had a shot except Jonny Brodzinski, who took an undisciplined tripping minor behind the Tampa net in the first. When Lafreniere returns, maybe he comes out instead of Blais. Barclay Goodrow can slide down and center the fourth line. He didn’t exactly do much with Trocheck and Panarin.

There isn’t anything else to add. This became more a column about the past history of the Rangers organization when it comes to first round picks and personnel decisions.

Given what’s been happening, it had to be done. Now, they don’t play until the New Year. That’s a game they gotta have. Regardless if Aleksander Barkov came back and posted a hat trick with five points in a Panthers 7-2 rout of the Canadiens. They’re not good defensively and can be exploited. The goaltending isn’t great either. No excuses.

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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