Can Lafreniere rebound in the second half to save his season?

When they somehow lucked into winning the two-part 2020 NHL Lottery after getting eliminated by the Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Qualifier, the Rangers knew Alexis Lafreniere would be the number one pick in the Draft.

Even after former GM Jeff Gorton and Team President John Davidson decided to extend Chris Kreider, which meant the two top left wings would remain Kreider and $11.64 million man Artemi Panarin, there was no way the Rangers could pass up the overwhelming consensus top pick in Lafreniere.

A very talented young player who dominated the QMJHL by winning MVP twice along with helping lead Canada to gold at the 2020 IIHF U20 World Junior Championships (WJC), Lafreniere was expected to become an impact player in the NHL. Instead, it’s been a struggle for the still young 21-year old Rangers forward.

One of the issues that might’ve hurt him was the ’19-20 season concluding later due to the pandemic. Like many young players, he wasn’t able to play any competitive hockey during the Fall. That delay was probably reason enough for the Rangers to assign Lafreniere to Canada where he could’ve played in the ’21 WJC. They didn’t allow him to return.

In hindsight, that was a mistake. Having Lafreniere play against his peers in the prestigious tournament would’ve benefited him. He could’ve helped Canada defend their gold medal. It also would’ve allowed him to get into game shape in preparation for the abbreviated 56-game 2021 schedule. A big miscalculation by an organization that doesn’t always see the big picture on handling its best prospects.

At the time, David Quinn was entering his third season as coach. After taking positive steps with the key additions of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba and arrivals of Igor Shesterkin and Adam Fox, it looked like the Blueshirts were on the right path back to the playoffs.

The hope was that 2019 second pick Kaapo Kakko would improve on a tough rookie year. Lafreniere would come in and provide the scoring balance they lacked. The issue became how could he receive enough playing time behind a core that included Mika Zibanejad, Kreider, Panarin, Ryan Strome with Fox added to a top power play unit which became one of the league’s most potent.

Without ideal power play time and playing secondary minutes, Lafreniere found it tougher to break in. He even had a stint on the fourth line. A place Quinn also put Kakko when he wasn’t producing. It left fans frustrated with the process for younger players. That also included Filip Chytil, who for the most part centered a third line where both Kakko and Lafreniere wound up.

After he recorded 12 goals and nine assists for a total of 21 points all at even strength over 56 contests, Lafreniere entered Year Two with more expectations under new bench boss Gerard Gallant. A more experienced coach who tries to motivate the younger players through discipline, he’s made examples of Kakko, Lafreniere and newcomer Vitaly Kravtsov at different moments over the past year and a half. If they make mistakes that hurt the team, shifts can be missed occasionally. Or they can get dropped down.

Nobody can complain over the success the Rangers had in ’21-22. They went from no postseason four years running to surprising many by rallying from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Pens in a hotly contested first round where they eventually took advantage of their goalie edge along with Sidney Crosby missing the third period of Game Five and all of Game Six due to an upper-body injury sustained on a Jacob Trouba hit.

Although he didn’t explode in his second season due to being behind the top six, Lafreniere made strides by scoring 19 more even strength goals placing second on the team behind Kreider, who scored 23 times at even strength in a career year where he scored 52 goals including a single season franchise record 26 power play goals.

That Lafreniere had that kind of success playing mostly five-on-five on a third line with Chytil and Kakko proved that he was learning. He seemed to have a clear role on a team that won 52 games and totaled 110 points to finish second in the Metropolitan Division.

It felt like the then 20-year old left wing was on the right track. He played aggressively by using his speed and grit to get in on the forecheck and win puck battles. He definitely finished checks and went to the hard areas to score most of his goals. The chemistry Lafreniere had with Chytil and Kakko carried over into the playoffs where they contributed during series wins over Pittsburgh and Carolina. Their play was instrumental during the run to the Eastern Conference Final where they ultimately fell short against Tampa.

If there was one gripe about how he was handled by the coaching staff, it was the lack of power play time. Coach Gallant leaned heavily on his vaunted top unit that then featured Fox, Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider and Strome. The second unit was hardly used. That didn’t help Lafreniere or Kakko, who basically had to score almost every goal at even strength. That included Chytil, who wound up with 8-13-21 at full strength. He had one power play point. Kakko scored a power play goal in an injury riddled third season where he tallied 18 points (7-11-18) over 43 games.

Once new Team President and GM Chris Drury added key secondary scorers Frank Vatrano, Andrew Copp and checking forward Tyler Motte at last year’s trade deadline, it locked the kids into their secondary scoring role. It wasn’t a bad place to be. They all were young, and there was less pressure. They were underestimated in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Chytil had a terrific postseason scoring seven goals and adding two assists for nine points in 20 games. Lafreniere did his part contributing two goals and seven assists for nine points. Kakko was strong on the forecheck, totaling two goals and three assists for five points. Although they didn’t always score, they put together strong shifts by cycling the puck and working the walls. This led to penalties drawn and more scoring chances as well as possession time.

Entering ’22-23, there was every reason to believe that Lafreniere would take the next step as a player. Many pundits including myself thought he could hit 25 to 30 goals and 50 points. I also had Kakko penciled in for 20 goals and Chytil around 25.

But in an unpredictable year where the team started poorly before picking it up over the last month to move up in the standings, there’s been little consistency. They can go from beating quality opponents to losing games to some of the league’s also rans. They’re capable of coming back to win games and also capable of imploding in mystifying losses.

It’s definitely not been easy in Year Two under Gallant. With unrealistic expectations due to the amazing run last Spring, some fans think it’s Cup or bust. I don’t. Last year, everything broke right for them to get far. Winning two series against a third string goalie and backup. They came oh so close against the championship caliber Lightning before running out of gas. Ondrej Palat be damned.

Strome left for Anaheim and was replaced by Vincent Trocheck. An upgrade due to his overall game and strength on face-offs. The issue is he doesn’t have good chemistry with Panarin, who has had a bit of an uneven season despite leading the Rangers in scoring. On the other hand, Trocheck has really come on during this stretch and proven his worth as a great team guy.

The lines have been mostly mixed up by Gallant, who has a tendency to panic when things don’t go well. It isn’t like last year where you knew he could pencil in Kreider and Zibanejad together while Panarin and Strome were on line two. Vatrano filled the right wing on the top line while the versatile Copp did the same for the second line, making the Rangers a much more balanced team. Motte was a great fit on the checking line with Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Reaves, who makes his return to MSG when the Wild visit tonight. That should be interesting.

Reaves fell out of favor under Gallant, who loved him both in Vegas and New York City. It became a numbers game with Jimmy Vesey earning his stay by solidifying himself in a checking, penalty killing role. He was extended last week for two years at a fair average cap hit of $800,000.

Drury adding Ryan Carpenter to replace Kevin Rooney never made sense. A Gallant guy who played for him in Vegas, he didn’t have the skating necessary to stick in a checking role. Sammy Blais hasn’t been the same player since tearing his ACL due to P.K. Subban. He plays hard continuing to deliver big hits and forecheck. But he has no goals and is on the fourth line.

Jonny Brodzinski temporarily replaced Carpenter due to his speed and grit. He’s been an extra lately with Blais playing alongside Goodrow and the surprising Julien Gauthier. It’s his re-emergence that allowed the organization to part ways with Reaves, who was dealt to Minnesota who wanted him. He gets regular shifts and plays the same high energy role he did last season in NYC. You know he’ll have extra juice for this game.

While they’ve settled on a fourth line, there still are questions. Lafreniere got mixed in the shuffle. He went from third line to a few games up with Zibanejad and Kreider to playing the off wing with Trocheck and Panarin. The experiment with the Bread Man messed him up. His attention to detail suffered along with his play.

Perhaps being moved around so much by Gallant didn’t help Lafreniere. His role remains undefined. The opposite of last year when he seemed to make steady progress under Turk. He’s been used primarily on the third line back at his natural position for a while. He works best with Chytil, who’s on target for over 20 goals and 40 points.

With Kakko now being featured on the top line where his strong wall play has been a good fit with the reunited Kreider and Zibanejad, it’s Chytil between Lafreniere and Vesey. A player who’s consistently worked hard for his seven goals and seven assists. Vesey knows who he is and plays the same tenacious style in his second stint as a Blueshirt. There was too much pressure the first time which he couldn’t live up to.

With Lafreniere stuck on five goals in 40 games that even included Gallant sitting him out for a game for the first time in his career, the word “bust” has been tossed around by frustrated Rangers fans. Of course, it’s been underwhelming for a good, mature kid who says all the right things even when it’s not going well. He’s handled it well despite how it’s gone.

It’s my belief that it’s all mental. Confidence can be so fragile for athletes when they slump. Even the best players have been through it. Clearly, Lafreniere isn’t where he wants to be. With 18 points including a new personal best 13 assists during an uneven first half, there’s still half a season remaining.

That’s enough time for him to figure it out. Lafreniere is most effective when he’s aggressive on the forecheck and finishing checks. We haven’t seen that edge as often. He is capable of getting in and winning those battles beneath the dots. Lafreniere must get back to that consistently along with driving the net for tips, deflections and rebounds. That’s a key part of his game.

Skating remains an issue. He doesn’t possess that extra gear which we see from ’20 third pick Tim Stutzle, who’s become a star on Ottawa as a center/wing. It definitely has helped Stutzle develop that he’s given top line minutes along with power play duties on a rebuilding club that also features power forward Brady Tkachuk, scoring wing Drake Batherson and injured center Josh Norris. But the Senators have underperformed after adding Claude Giroux and Cam Talbot. They don’t look playoff bound.

Can Lafreniere be better? Of course. It’ll take that extra effort for him to snap out of it. Even in a game he earned a primary assist in on a Vesey goal, he received heavy criticism due to a turnover during three-on-three in overtime that allowed Damon Severson to beat Shesterkin on a two-on-one rush in a Devils’ 4-3 come from behind victory.

It was harsh. Did he make a mistake trying to make a tough pass across for Chytil? Sure. He did. Lafreniere got blown up by Jonas Siegenthaler on an incidental hit. That led to Severson winning it. Mistakes happen during the hectic overtime format. We’ve seen more established stars mess up leading to OT losses. Hello, Panarin?

It was total overreaction due to it being Lafreniere. It’s been that kind of season for him. That doesn’t mean he can’t turn it around. He needs to show more during shifts to prove he can make a difference. The notion of giving up on a 21-year old who was hyped to the moon is ridiculous. That would be a typical Dolan move.

What Lafreniere can use is a goal. He is without one over the last 12 games. That’s after going 2-1-3 in wins over St. Louis and Vegas. With only five helpers since, that isn’t enough production for a young player who much was expected for.

Has he been jerked around? Undoubtedly. Going line to line and playing out of position because the team’s highest paid player won’t shift over to the right side isnt conducive. It’s pathetic how much they’ll bend over backwards for Panarin. A great player. But a frustrating one who can disappear in big spots. The over passing and East/West plays that cause more problems when opponents defend him well. He didn’t bury his chances along with Zibanejad on Saturday.

Would a stint in the AHL with Hartford have helped? Absolutely. The Rangers have never considered it. They should have for Kakko when he was lost in his rookie year. Lafreniere could’ve benefited from some time with the Wolf Pack. He would’ve gotten top minutes including power play.

Look how long it took Chytil to develop into a better player. Injuries aside, you see a more confident center who knows when to shoot and when to pass. He also gets his nose dirty. Something that started last postseason.

Sometimes, patience is required for young players to develop. That means putting them in the best position to succeed. They’ve done it with both Chytil and Kakko. They haven’t yet with Lafreniere. Who’s at fault? It isn’t only about the player.

Here’s a polarizing question for our fans. What exactly is going to happen when Brennan Othmann arrives? You’re talking about a logjam at wing. Are they gonna screw him up too? If you’ve seen him play for Canada who repeated at the WJC winning an exciting gold medal game over Czechia 4-3, then you know how capable he is.

What about Will Cuylle? In his first full pro season, his nine goals are tied for the team lead. On a low-scoring team, Cuylle ranks second in Wolf Pack scoring with 16 points (9-7-16). The feisty left wing also has 34 penalty minutes playing the strong game hrs known for. He’s only 20. Othmann just celebrated his 20th birthday last Jan. 5. Cuylle will turn 21 February 5.

Given the way the Rangers have handled some of their top prospects with the general exception of goalies (Lundqvist, Shesterkin) and defensemen (Staal, Del Zotto, Sauer, McDonagh via Mtl, Fox, Lindgren via Bos, Miller, Schneider), one wonders if they’ll do a better job in helping those aforementioned promising forwards make the smooth transition.

For now, we’ll continue to track the progress of Lafreniere. Hoping for better.


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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