Just days after getting bounced from the bubble by Carolina, the Blueshirts get some excellent luck in the lottery. Now New York can add a powerful, high-end talent to an ever-growing cadre of elite youngsters and established vets.
Alexis Lafreniere|Vincent Ethier/CHL
Rangers fans, get ready to fall in love.
New York won Phase 2 of the draft lottery, giving the Rangers the right to select left winger Alexis Lafreniere from the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic. For a team that is already coming on strong in a rebuild initiated by GM Jeff Gorton and senior advisor Glen Sather, New York now gets a potent weapon on the wing to add to an already-impressive crew.
Lafreniere is a powerful and competitive talent who won MVP honors with Canada at the 2020 world juniors, despite missing time during the tournament due to injury. While playing for the Oceanic, he has been a buzzsaw for the past two seasons, winning CHL player of the year both times – and CHL rookie of the year before that.
The key to Lafreniere’s game is his drive. This is a kid who likes to open games by throwing a big hit and setting the tempo for his team. He’s going to win you battles, he’s going to inspire his teammates and he’s definitely going to put up points thanks to his skill level. But what strengths does the kid himself think he brings to the table?
“I’d say my vision offensively, the way I can create chances for me and my teammates,” Lafreniere said. “My leadership is big and all my offensive abilities – playing with the puck is when I’m at my best.”
Since Lafreniere was born in October, he missed the Sept. 15 eligibility cut-off for the 2019 draft, meaning he will already be 19 years old when the 2020-21 NHL season begins. That extra time in junior only cemented his high-octane game, as evidenced by the 112 points he put up in just 52 games with Rimouski.
And yes, I fully expect him to make his presence felt in New York sooner than later. While other highly-touted prospect wingers such as Vitaly Kravtsov and Kaapo Kakko had up-and-down rookie seasons in North America, it’s only fair to remember that both of them had to get used to the culture and hockey style over here after spending their entire lives in Europe. Lafreniere has no barrier there; he plays as North American a game as you can possibly get.
What will really be interesting is whether Lafreniere makes one more pitstop in Rimouski before he takes Manhattan. Because of the pandemic, the 2020-21 NHL season won’t start until December, but the QMJHL is aiming for an Oct. 1 kickoff. Lafreniere says he is open to the idea of returning to the Oceanic for a period before NHL training camps open next season, but he has to mull the idea over with his agents and his family first.
And while teams that are usually in the running for the first pick overall tend to need centers more than wingers, this of course was no usual year. The Rangers were a decent team already and have a top center now in Mika Zibanejad, who is signed through the summer of 2022. Winning the lottery simply adds another great weapon in an organization flush with players like Kakko, Kravtsov, Adam Fox, K’Andre Miller and Igor Shesterkin.
“You’re trying to gather as much talent as you can,” Gorton said. “Some of the best players in the league, it’s not a huge secret where teams are getting them – it’s the lottery picks, the players at the high end of the draft. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but it’s a good night for the Rangers.”
In terms of the future, New York also recently signed draft pick Morgan Barron, who had been playing at Cornell. Barron is a big, talented pivot himself and while I’m doing a lot of forecasting here, I could definitely picture a nasty line involving Barron, Lafreniere and perhaps Kakko in the future – but I’ll leave that up to coach David Quinn.
While Lafreniere said he has never been to New York, his favorite NHL player this year was Rangers star (and fellow left winger) Artemi Panarin. And Lafreniere knows how passionate Rangers fans are, an obvious draw for him.
“The city really loves hockey,” he said. “And as a player, that’s what you want.”
Was this whole lottery process a little convoluted? Sure. But most of the hockey world was holding its breath that Toronto, Edmonton or Pittsburgh wouldn’t win the first pick overall, so New York is pretty agreeable – unless you cheer for the Islanders or Devils, of course. Lafreniere goes to a team on the rise that can give him opportunities without having to rely on him as he begins his NHL experience. It’s a win-win situation and some nice news for a kid who has been wondering extra-long which team would win the right to draft him.
“It was a pretty long process and I’ve been waiting for this day for a couple weeks now,” Lafreniere said. “For sure it’s a relief knowing who is picking first and we’ll see what happens next.”