Can the New York Rangers pass up on Alexis Lafreniere?
By Brian Attard
It still doesn’t feel real. It really doesn’t.
I know that I lost my voice for 4 days after watching it live. I know that I’ve seen the video of that ping pong ball bouncing around and finding its way up the chute at least 100 times by now. Still, the fact that the New York Rangers really do have the top pick in October’s NHL Draft still doesn’t feel real.
Historically, this sort of unlikely good fortune just doesn’t find a way to benefit this franchise. When you consider that they will have won the draft lottery in two consecutive seasons, it’s that much more mind-blowing.
Think back to the letter in February of 2018. Think back to when this fanbase embraced a tear down with open arms. A fanbase with an unquenchable thirst to prove 1994 wasn’t just a blind squirrel finding a nut, coming out of a championship window which left them ring-less, was all-in on blowing it up and starting over. And just like that, good things started to happen. Ping pong balls can make excellent general managers.
The Rangers rebuild, even to this currently incomplete point, is likely to be the new gold-standard model for how it’s done. Hugely beneficial trades. Shrewd draft picks. Smart free agent signings. Teams will follow this blueprint looking to build their own version of what the Rangers have done. It hasn’t been perfect, but what it has been beyond any reasonable expectation, both in terms of speed and success. After all, Corey Pronman of The Athletic just named the Rangers 22-and-under group the best in hockey, for the 2nd consecutive year.
Just in this barely-drinking-age or younger group: Kaapo Kakko, Adam Fox, Filip Chytil, Nils Lundkvist, Vitaly Kravtsov, K’Andre Miller, Matthew Robertson, Morgan Barron, Zac Jones, Ryan Lindgren, Brett Howden, Julien Gauthier.
That doesn’t even count the first overall pick in a few weeks. But, I digress. Enough about where we’ve been. Let’s talk about where we’re going.
I’m going to make this very clear.
The New York Rangers cannot pass up on Alexis Lafreniere.
There is no question, at all, that Jeff Gorton will sit on the Zoom call and calmly say:
“With the 1st pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, the Rangers select, from the Rimouski Oceanic in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Alexis Lafreniere.”
These players who go first overall in the NHL Draft are pre-ordained to do so years in advance. There are no surprises. Sidney Crosby. John Tavares. Taylor Hall. Connor McDavid. Auston Matthews. Jack Hughes. The hockey world knew these players would go with the top pick well ahead of when their names were called. Alexis Lafreniere is the next in the line. And, through uncharacteristic pure luck, the Rangers are in a position to bring him to Broadway and make him a foundational piece for the next 15 years.
It just doesn’t feel real.
Alexis Lafreniere is an elite hockey player. He is more than deserving of the hype that has followed him over the last few seasons. He’s only the 2nd player ever to win the CHL Player Of The Year twice. The other is Sidney Crosby. Good company, I’d say. He’s got the skill, and the moxie, to be an instant impact player and grow into a superstar over the years to come. These types of players just do not grow on trees.
So, let’s put the proverbial hammer down on all these “reasons” why the Rangers should do something other than take this franchise winger.
“But, Brian, the Rangers really need a center!”
You’re absolutely right. They do.
Quinton Byfield, the consensus top center in this draft class, brings the complete package that any team could want in a legitimate franchise center. He’s 6’4’’ and 215 pounds as an 18-year-old, with a set of skills to die for. He’s going to make an exceptional consolation prize for the Los Angeles Kings at the #2 pick. And, to be clear, if the Rangers held that #2 pick, I’d be over the moon to get Byfield. Lafreniere is on another level.
You don’t draft for need in the NHL Draft, because by the time most of these kids play, your team will look very different. Rangers fans above all should know this. Think back to the “safe” Lias Andersson pick 7th overall in 2017. The Rangers took a kid they thought could step into their lineup as their third-line-center with a premium pick because they “needed” one. This wasn’t a player with a high ceiling. He had “middle six” written all over him from the jump, yet he was taken 7th overall. Talk about a missed opportunity. The Rangers are sure not to make this mistake again. Lesson learned.
Behind Mika Zibanejad, the hope is that 2017 21st overall pick Filip Chytil, part of the 22-and-under group, grows into the role. Morgan Barron, the diamond-in-the-rough 6th rounder of the same draft class, profiles better as a 3rd line center. Brett Howden is a bit of a wild-card here as well. Maybe they use the 22nd overall pick this year, obtained from Carolina for Brady Skjei at the deadline, for another high upside center. But, they’re not taking a center at 1.
“But, Brian, the Rangers don’t need a left wing!”
You’re absolutely right. They don’t.
They have Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider on the left side, both under contract for a very long time. But, it is what it is. You don’t take a lesser player because you have an abundance currently. If you remember my piece on Kreider and the deadline, I advocated very strongly for Kreider to be traded, due to the fact that I felt his next contract would be an abject disaster and the return in any trade would have been immense in a seller’s market. The Rangers clearly felt differently, and to be fair, Kreider did sign for less per year than I thought he would. Jeff Gorton said, paraphrasing, that you can’t have a roster full of kids and that you need some veterans to lead the way. I can buy that, but I still think moving him was best. Water under the bridge now, however.
Are the Rangers likely to have a $6.5M 3rd line left wing in the near future? Probably. Will the Rangers regret handing out another no-movement-clause to a player soon to be on the wrong side of 30? Certainly. Neither of these represents a rational reason to bypass Lafreniere. Having too much talent is a good problem to have.
What will be interesting is if either Panarin or Kreider could switch to the right side, where there are still high ceiling names, but less in veteran presence. Kaapo Kakko will improve on his rookie season, and he’ll be the top-line right winger for a decade to come. Behind him, Vitaly Kravtsov has had a bit of a rocky start but has played well since being loaned back to the KHL. His ceiling is still immense. The odd man out may be Pavel Buchnevich, who has one more year left on his deal, and could be used in a deal to secure that 2nd line center.
“Brian. Listen to me. They could get a huge haul by trading down!”
You’re absolutely right. They could.
They would absolutely make out like bandits if they decided to trade down. They’d end up with picks, high-end prospects, probably roster players too. I just don’t care.
The Rangers system is not in need of quantity at this point. It’s all about quality. I’m not going to move out of Lafreniere for a collection of hopes and dreams where the ceiling of any individual is well below where Lafreniere will be. You don’t pass up on elite talent to hope you’ll hit on something later. Not in hockey.
Look at the Blackhawks, Kings, and Penguins. Multiple high picks have resulted in multiple Stanley Cups for all 3 of these teams. That’s where the Rangers could find themselves in the not-too-distant future.
Is it a guarantee? Of course not. Could Lafreniere be a bust? It’s not impossible. It’s not likely, but the chance is always there. But, in creating the blueprint for a rebuild, the Rangers find themselves in the very fortunate position, thanks to ping pong balls, to follow in the blueprint of modern-day dynasties.
Should the Rangers pass up on Alexis Lafrienere?
I’m Brian Attard (Twitter @SportsBox_BA). Catch me every Tuesday night at 8:30 pm EST on The Highly Opinionated Show on The Sports Box (Facebook @sportsboxshow).