After massive expectations were placed on Alexis Lafrenière heading into his rookie season as the NHL’s incumbent No. 1 overall draft pick, things were dialed back a bit for a year two which saw the team make significant changes off the ice.
A new front office, led by Chris Drury, started to take shape, and a new coach behind the bench in Gerard Gallant brought an environment of “let’s see what you can do” for all players on the roster. That said, there was an expectation that Lafrenière would improve, and play in the manner which made him the clear and away choice to be selected first overall during his draft year.
Lafrenière took a step forward in many ways during his sophomore season, and did so while not receiving a significant minutes bump. The Rangers’ winger finished with 19 goals, 12 assists, and 31 points in 79 games while skating 13:59 a game, just six seconds more per game that he did the year prior.
He followed that up with 9 points (2 goals and 7 assists) in 20 playoff games. During the playoffs he also became a bit of a pest that played with an edge, and he was quite effective at getting under the skin of opposing players. He even ended up fighting Steven Stamkos, something you probably wouldn’t have bet on happening.
In terms of Evolving-Hockey’s Above Replacement metrics, Lafrenière was worth 4.2 goals above replacement which represents an improvement of 5.9 vs. the prior year. Notably this includes a 2.8 rating in even strength offense, a 1.4 rating in even strength defense, and a 0.2 in power play offense. The biggest improvement of note was his defensive play, which saw him finish with a rating of -3.1 during his rookie season, and 1.3 this past season.
Evolving-Hockey’s player cards are something that do a great job of showcasing how players perform in each category, and also list where they rank among their peers. This past season Lafrenière had a much better “score card”, and I think it is worth comparing his most recent one to last year’s.
The big story is his improvement defensively, something that he struggled with a bit during his rookie season while he was acclimating himself to life in the NHL. Lafrenière finished 11th among roster regulars with a Goals For Percentage of 50.37 at 5v5, 12th in Corsi For Percentage (47.49), and 6th in Expected Goals For Percentage (49.22).
It is all good and well for me to throw those numbers at you, but what do they mean? This isn’t a rhetorical or loaded question, and to be honest I have a hard time properly evaluating the context of Lafrenière in the eyes of these metrics because of the number of lines he skated on, and the different roles he played depending on who he skated with. While these numbers attempt to showcase an individual, meaning that they aren’t too influenced by linemates etc., it is hard to not be a bit cautious given his circumstance.
The line of Lafrenière, Mika Zibanejad, and Chris Kreider skated 259 minutes together at 5v5, and it was a line that was unceremoniously broken up. The same was true when Kaapo Kakko occupied the right wing on that line, but that’s a story for another day. The trio played together so frequently that they were the team’s second-most frequent forward line. The first line? That would be the tremendous trio of Artemiy Panarin, Ryan Strome... and Dryden Hunt!
Other lines for Lafrenière include 139 minutes with Filip Chytil and Julien Gauthier, 119 minutes with Chytil and Barclay Goodrow, and 70 minutes with Goodrow and Ryan Strome. Clearly he had a mixed bag of mates, and his primary goal changed based on who he was skating with.
With this in mind, a primary objective for 2022-23 should be giving Lafrenière a more consistent deployment, because I feel we will get a better sense of the player he can be if he isn’t being continually asked to shift between left and right wing and learn to play with different teammates.
With that said, here’s what I said last year when I wrote Lafrenière’s report card when it came to deployment and ice time.
This is something that should change under new head coach Gerard Gallant, and I imagine the former QMJHL Coach of the Year will better utilize the former QMJHL and two-time CHL player of the year. His work ethic and defensive acumen is something that will certainly be appreciated, and that could certainly help him take his next step as an NHL player.
I think that Lafrenière clearly took a step forward, but Gallant didn’t use him as much as he could or should have. One would think his performance in the playoffs would have earned him more trust from Gallant, but that remains to be seen.
Grade: B | Banter Consensus: B
Alexis Lafrenière is a very talented player, and this upcoming season could very well be the one in which the rest of the league takes notice of who he is, what he’s capable of, and erases doubt that he’s going to be one of the league’s better players of the upcoming decade.
Last year I mentioned how Lafrenière fared in his rookie season as compared to 2019 No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes, and I did so for the purpose of showcasing how development takes times, and how not too long ago there were people kvetching about his development.
So here’s an update, using GAR, and how each player has progressed.
Year 1 — Hughes: -3 GAR | Lafrenière: -1.7 GAR
Year 2 — Hughes: 9.6 GAR | Lafrenière: 4.2 GAR
Year 3 — Hughes: 14.5 GAR | Lafrenière: ???
These aren’t the be-all, end-all of numbers, but I think at a minimum it can be a good encapsulation of a player and their worth in context. This is a big year for the Rangers’ winger, and I think fans are hoping he can make a similar Year 2 to Year 3 jump like Hughes.
Had Hughes remained healthy last season he was in line to be a player capable of pushing 90 points. If Lafrenière gets some decent deployment in the top six, and hopefully some power play time, there is no reason why he can’t be a 60 to 65 point player. That number may seem a bit low for fans liking, but I think it is a realistic one. If Kreider regresses from the pace he was on last season, which is a possibility given his history as a player, I think Lafrenière could be the one who “steals” his points.
Lafrenière is on the right track, and this season could be a fun one. Fans should be happy with where Lafrenière is at, and have every reason to be excited about 2022-23. He said that he was taking this summer to work on his skating, and if that’s something that improves going forward, that will allow him to be an even more effective player. He certainly realizes the implications a breakout season could have on his career earnings, and that will assuredly add some extra motivation and urgency to his game which can only benefit him and the Rangers’ ultimate aspiration of trying to win a Stanley Cup.