There is a certain level of expectation when you are hyped up as the presumptive best player in a certain draft class. Add to that a level of expectation when you put up the best seasons in the QMJHL since Sidney Crosby while playing for the same team Crosby did before he entered the NHL. Finally, the team you are about to be drafted to haven’t had a 1st overall pick in over half a century, oh, and they just so happen to play in the largest media market in the United States.
Needless to say, Alexis Lafrenière had a lot on his shoulders even before he stepped onto a sheet of NHL ice. In a normal world, that would be a lot for a teenager to handle as he enters the highest level of hockey he’s ever played but that is why training camps exist. It gives teams the opportunity to come back together after a summer off, get back into game shape, and allow any new additions to the team to get acclimated to their new surroundings. Usually, training camp and pre-season take about six weeks to complete before the regular season kicks off. However, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020-21 season started late and had a truncated training camp as teams only had roughly two weeks to rev things up and get to playing hockey.
So, with all of that in mind, how has the Rangers’ newest future of the franchise draft pick doing in his first taste of NHL action? Let’s take a look.
On the surface, Lafrenière’s start to the season seems a bit lackluster with just three goals and two assists in 20 games. With fellow rookies Tim Stutzle (3rd overall in 2020) and Kirill Kaprizov (135th overall in 2015) lighting things up in their rookie campaigns, there have been whispers of concern surrounding the 19-year-old winger. With that said, we need some context to properly evaluate the start of Lafrenière’s career.
Right off the bat, Lafrenière was never going to get the ice time opportunities that other rookies — like Stutzle and Kapriov — received to start their seasons as, coming into the season, the Rangers were loaded up at the same position that Lafrenière plays. Hammer the coaching staff for not playing the rookie all you like, but are you really going to play him above the best player on the team, in Artemiy Panarin, or the longest-tenured Ranger in Chris Kreider? Probably not.
So, Lafrenière started the season on the third line with a rotating cast of linemates including Phil Di Giuseppe, Brett Howden, and Ryan Strome. You could see flashes here and there of the tantalizing skill but the results weren’t immediately there for the former leader of Rimouski Océanic. It wasn’t until his seventh career game that Lafrenière found the scoresheet, and he did so in style.
Obviously picking up that goal was huge for Lafrenière but up to that point, he had been playing well, the goal was the result of a good, season-long process that the 19-year-old was putting together. Even though he wasn’t getting the top-line ice time of other rookie forwards, Lafrenière was able to push play in the right direction, though there were some hiccups along the way. In fact, through his first twenty games, Lafrenière has a 48.3 CF% and a 51.93 xGF% at 5-on-5 and those numbers have been the standard of how the rookie has played over the course of the season.
Given the rotation of linemates and ice time, Lafrenière being able to more or less stay above water is impressive. As the season has gone on, the Quebec native found himself pushed up the lineup, earning a spot alongside both Panarin and Ryan Strome on the second line. Lafrenière’s elevation in the lineup bore fruit as the trio dominated for the Rangers to the tune of a 63.35 CF% and a 75.27 xGF% and it led to the rookie’s second career goal in Washington.
Just as it seemed Lafrenière’s luck was about to turn around, he had an on-ice shooting percentage hovering around 2 or 3%, Panarin took a leave of absence from the Rangers to deal with the issues surrounding his speaking out against Russian leadership. Once again, Lafrenière found himself moved to a new line, this time finding himself alongside Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. Now, the rookie found himself on the Rangers’ top line and has built a nifty little point streak with five points in his last six games and points in four straight, including his first two NHL assists, one of which was a highlight feed to set up Strome.
While Lafrenière may not have the points or highlights that Stutzle or Kaprizov have picked up early in their careers, looking under the hood, you can see that Alexis Lafrenière is building the foundations of what will be a very, very good career on Broadway.