The New York Rangers have no choice but to hit the gas pedal now, right?
Monday’s stunning news that the Rangers had converted their uncommon 12.5% chance of earning the top pick in the NHL Entry Draft, quite a bit more than just a consolation prize for the club’s sweep at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Qualifying Round, extended the winning streak of the front office’s 2 1/2-year-old rebuilding project. The tantalizing thought of the near-certain addition of top overall prospect Alexis Lafreniere to a reconstruction project that was already ahead of schedule was even enough to mostly satisfy a notoriously demanding fan base – if only temporarily.
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So keeping the faithful happy now means going for it. Expect playoffs next season, a deep postseason run the year after that, Stanley Cup contention the following season at a minimum. Add complementary veterans to support the burgeoning young talent base. Do it now. Right?
Well … actually, no. In fact, Lafreniere’s pending arrival means general manager Jeff Gorton should proceed as normal, or even slow things down.
Why? Because the addition of such a promising talent to so many other promising talents means the Rangers need to do this right. Because rushing things based on hype and excitement is likely to lead to major regret.
Front Office Needs to Temper Euphoria Over Lafreniere
There’s no reason for fans not to be thrilled. A year after securing the No. 2 pick and selecting rising Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko, the ping pong ball “fell” the right way for the Rangers again (and no, the lottery wasn’t fixed, unless you also believe the NHL conspired to deliver four No. 1 overall picks in six years – including three in a row – and Connor McDavid to the Edmonton Oilers from 2010-15. Did the league also intentionally drop the Rangers to the 16th spot in 2005, the year in which they were among the teams with the best chance to win the Sidney Crosby sweepstakes? But we digress).
“Really good news; the Rangers are an unreal team with really good players,” Lafreniere, the 18-year-old left wing, said. “Really nice city, so for sure, it’s really good news and I’m really happy.”
The fact is that the Rangers have had very little good luck in the lottery. Fortunes finally moving in their favor has yielded Kakko and now (probably) Lafreniere, who has been compared to Crosby in skillset and potential. Crosby recorded 102 points in his first season of 2005-06. Could Lafreniere, who like Crosby will be expected to make the team out of training camp, deliver a similar rookie performance? If so, does that put this improving team into the playoff conversation for 2020-21?
If that occurs, it needs to be in the vein of 2019-20: If playoff contention happens, great, if not, that’s fine too. The point is to build correctly, to allow the considerable potential of one of the youngest teams in the league to blossom without the issue being forced. That was the plan before the shot at Lafreniere fell into the Blueshirts’ laps, and his expected drafting should only reinforce the need to stick to that blueprint.
Luckily for the Rangers, they’re led by management that won’t listen to outside voices sure to clamor for a deviation from the route.
“I think we’re in a good spot, I really do,” team president John Davidson said. “I think when you really stop and think about building a franchise to try to win a championship, you’ve got to have the understanding that it’s a slow-moving, mostly, type of process. You can get lucky like we did, getting the No. 1 pick. That might expedite it, without question. But at the same time, you can’t get ahead of yourself, it just doesn’t work that way.
“You start getting ahead of yourself, you’re going to make some mistakes and then you’re going to go backwards, and then you’re going to have to start over.” (From ‘Rangers Won’t Take Any Shortcuts After Winning NHL Lottery’, New York Post, 8/11/20)
Time for Rangers’ Youth to Be Fully Served
Maybe, though, there is an argument to go backward – strictly for the purposes of moving forward. Maybe it’s time to worry less about short-term stability at center – still a problem area for this team despite the influx of young talent – and cut ties with Ryan Strome, allowing Filip Chytil a chance to show if he can handle second-line pivot duties behind Mika Zibanejad.
Strome functioned wonderfully playing alongside Artemi Panarin in Panarin’s spectacular first season on Broadway, but it’s likely that management doesn’t see Strome, a restricted free agent, as a part of the future. It’s Chytil’s time to sink or swim, and management won’t really know whether he can swim in the middle playing on the third line.
Maybe the club needs to make sure veteran defensemen Brendan Smith and Marc Staal, both of whom have one year remaining on their contracts and played a valuable role in steadying a young defense corps this season, re-earn their spots before next season. If they falter at all, the impressive K’Andre Miller along with Libor Hajek should be ready to step in and start their development, ups and downs and all, with Smith and Staal then serving as backup. Putting the two veterans in the lineup nightly gives the Rangers a better chance to win now, but again – that’s not the point.
Do fans really want talents like Lafreniere, Kakko, Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, Vitali Kravtsov and maybe Morgan Barron pressured to compete immediately because the lineup looks great on paper? Doing so could forever negatively alter their growth, and the Rangers certainly should learn from their own history when it comes to handling promising youngsters.
The exhilarating opportunity to add Lafreniere won’t change a hard fact – there are still growing pains in the not-too-distant future. The Rangers are loaded with talented young players, but they’re still young, trying to make their way in the world as early 20-somethings and teenagers, not to mention in the most difficult hockey league in the world.
“We’re trying to do things the right way right – trying to solidify the goaltending, trying to get some good young defense pieces, and now, we’ve been lucky in the last couple of years to do what we’ve done with the lottery,” general manager Jeff Gorton said. “I feel like things are coming together.”
Multiple High Draft Picks Often Mean Sustained Success
Gorton and Davidson have earned a rare opening here: The chance to make multiple high draft picks which can set a team up for long-term championship contention. Being blessed with the rare access to the top of the draft and the elite prospects available there, especially more than once in a short period, generally leads to good times.
Most recently, the Chicago Blackhawks (Jonathan Toews, third overall in 2006; Patrick Kane, first in 2007) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (Marc-Andre Fleury, 1st in 2003; Evgeni Malkin, 2nd in 2004; Crosby, 1st in 2005; Jordan Staal, 2nd in 2006) won three Stanley Cups apiece in the past 11 years after maximizing the bounty of high selections in the draft.
The expectations will naturally rise for this Rangers club that unexpectedly contended in 2019-20, especially with Lafreniere likely on the way. That comes with the territory. It’s up to the front office to ignore all of that, ignore those demanding immediate Stanley Cups while criticizing every move they make – or don’t make – on social media and the like.
Judging by the comments from Davidson and Gorton, fans needn’t worry about the Rangers’ promising future that grew all the more so Monday. It appears to be in good hands – along with feet that won’t step on the gas until it’s time.
I’m a resident of the Chicago suburbs by way of White Plains, NY. I worked for the Associated Press sports department in New York City for 10 years before moving to Chicago in 2005, when the AP’s then-internet division entered into a joint venture with STATS LLC. I worked for STATS for 11 years, until 2016. Since then I’ve covered the Rangers for Elite Sports NY, a hyper-local website, writing long form features and news stories. I’m very excited to be a part of The Hockey Writers.