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Alexis Lafreniere Is Already Changing Things

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2020 NHL Draft Lottery Phase 2 Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

Alexis Lafreniere is going to be a New York Ranger.

Let’s be honest, this whole thing has been weird. As a quick recap: The Rangers made the “bubble” as a “playoff team” before getting bounced by Carolina in three games during the play-in round. That loss earned them a 12.5% shot at landing the first overall pick with the seven other play-in losers — Pittsburgh, Nashville, Toronto, Minnesota, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Florida — because a play-in team won the original lottery for the 1st overall pick, but no one knew who that team was yet.

Does it makes sense? No? It doesn’t have to. Alexis Lafreniere is going to be a New York Ranger.

This victory does so many things organically for Jeff Gorton, John Davidson, and the organization as a whole. When the Rangers announced their rebuild two and a half years ago, Kakko and Lafreniere weren’t part of the plan. They couldn’t have been, since the Hockey Gods needed to smile on the organization twice to get them into the fold. That accelerates things dramatically, even beyond the acceleration from signing Panarin and trading for Adam Fox and Jacob Trouba.

The best thing about this for the Rangers is it makes them better right away. This isn’t K’Andre Miller, Nils Lundkvist, or Vitali Kravtsov — who are all great prospects in their own rights, but weren’t able to make the jump instantly. Lafreniere should challenge for the Calder Trophy next season, and he’ll only be 19 when the season ends. Sprinkle in the names above, Kaapo Kakko, Pavel Buchnevich, Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, Tony DeAngelo, Alexandar Georgiev, and Igor Shesterkin (all of whom are 25 or younger) the Rangers have a young and potentially dynamic core.

The problem is not to mess this up.

In hindsight, I do wonder if Gorton is kicking himself for Chris Kreider’s seven-year, $6.5-million per year contract extension that includes a modified no trade clause and begins next year. Panarin and Kreider make up the one-two punch down the left side, but Lafreniere is going to challenge that makeup immediately. You could easily fit the three of them down the left side — remember, Lafreniere is cheap for three years — and roll Pavel Buchnevich and Kaapo Kakko down the right side. Wait a year and then figure things out.

What that doesn’t fix is the Rangers’ issue down the middle. Ryan Strome was a fine stopgap for the Rangers at center, but that’s not a long term solution. I know I was on the “there’s no way Strome can repeat this offensive output” train last year, but I’ve hopped off that. I didn’t expect him to play all year with Panarin, but still, hand up, I got that one wrong. The good news is the Rangers can trade Strome at the literal height of his value, and save what’s likely to be a nice fat raise for the RFA who is in the last year of restricted status.

The return could allow the Rangers to scope out a legit second line center who can shore up the top six and allow the organization to put Chytil down the middle on the third line. I have no idea how long it will take Lafreniere to break into the top six, but putting Kreider as a safety net with Chytil on the third line is certainly not the worst plan in the world. I would hope all of last year and especially the four-day play-in round removed David Quinn’s enamored position on Brett Howden.

DeAngelo is another likely candidate to be shopped, although he’s infinitely more complicated than Strome. I worried about DeAngelo’s bridge when it happened because bridging talented players often kicks the can down the road and makes it worse when it’s time to pay the piper. That said, no one could have seen DeAngelo putting up a 15-38-53 stat line in 68 games and become one of the focal points of the offense out of the back. DeAngelo made $925K last year. Based on last year, and the fact that he’s only 24, DeAngelo should be looking for an extension upwards of $5.5-million long term. The Rangers don’t have the ability to shell those dollars out for both DeAngelo and Strome — or really either if they want to fix the center problem — so DeAngelo is an easy trade candidate here as well.

The problem is I don’t know who might be interested in him. DeAngelo’s off-ice persona has sort of taken on a life of its own — fueled by himself at this point as he’s recognized he can play the role. DeAngelo’s act might play fine somewhere else — for the most part it did in New York because he put up 53 points — but there are plenty of general managers who wouldn’t touch the talented defenseman with a ten-foot pole. That could leave Gorton in a bit of an awkward situation

I speculated on Twitter that Georgiev and DeAngelo would make a fine trade pairing that helps a team add some offensive punch, injects potency to their power play, and shores up their goaltending situation. Igor Shesterkin is the starter as of today, and he’s not splitting time with Georgiev. That doesn’t make sense. Georgiev packaged with DeAngelo might increase the overall value and fix a few problems at one. Backup goalies are cheap — and the Rangers still have a few names in the pipeline that could find their way onto the roster anyway.

If the returns from Stome and DeAngelo don’t bring in a young talented center on their own, the Rangers could go after, say, Anthony Cirelli who is due a large raise on a team that has little to no room as it is. And if the team has to use their other first round pick, or move a few names out of the pipeline to do so, then so be it.

With all that said, Jeff Gorton has some thinking to do. The Rangers can’t be stupid, but they also can’t just sit around and hope for growth again next year. He needs to weigh whether players on the roster are more valuable to the 2020-21, 2021-22 and beyond Rangers as players, or as assets to help bring the team closer to contention. The good news is that he has until the draft in October, but as more teams are eliminated from contention, he should start thinking more critically so that he’s in a position to make the decisions needed when the time is right. The Rangers had a lot of work to do this offseason anyway, but now it is going to be a little more fun and interesting.