Kaapo Kakko suffered an upper-body injury during January and he did not play for the New York Rangers before their scheduled game on Jan. 22. A recent update revealed that the 21-year-old will be out for about a month with his current ailment. He had been playing on the first line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.
Kakko’s injury has created an opportunity for Alexis Lafreniere to play on the top line. The former first-overall selection by New York in the 2020 NHL Draft has had an inconsistent year. In 2021-22, he has 10 goals and three assists in 45 games played. Here is why Lafreniere has an opportunity to seize in the Rangers’ lineup.
Lafreniere Has Had Prior Success Playing on the Top Six
The St-Eustache, Quebec native has played throughout multiple lines for New York over the first half of the season. When head coach Gerard Gallant has used Lafreniere in the top six, the 20-year-old has displayed his skill, which made him the first selection in the 2020 Draft. In early January, he filled in on the second line for Artemi Panarin, who was in COVID health and safety protocols. Lafreniere played well with the combination of Ryan Strome and Barclay Goodrow.
The young player commented on the benefit of practicing with Kreider and Zibanejad, “It’s good to have a couple practices playing right. After practices, we just work on little things with Kreids and Mika. It’s good for me because it’s not a big change, but it’s just small things that I need to do different. It’s going well and it’s only practice, so I can’t wait to play games and to get used to it” (from ‘Alexis Lafreniere’s Rangers promotion comes with a caveat,’ New York Post, 2/13/22).
Lafreniere is a left wing who has been getting used to playing at the right wing position on the top line. He commented on the differences in playing right wing, “It’s different for shooting, too. You’re always on your one-timer side, so it’s just things like that I’m working on. You got to use your backhand more, too. For sure it’s a little different, but it’s going well in practices.”
Lafreniere Has Demonstrated the Ability to Adapt
Gallant credits Lafreniere’s personality for how he has been able to adjust to whomever he has played with, “I just think Laffy is maturing no matter who he’s playing with. He’s been left wing, right wing, we know he likes left wing better. But, you know what? He’s going to play right wing a little bit. Same thing with Fil [Chytil]. Sometimes they’re going to play in a different position and I think that’ll benefit them in the long run. With Lafreniere, his game is growing, he looks confident, he’s playing with two great players that are having terrific years. Just be around the net, use your talent and skill and his game is getting better.”
He had goals in back-to-back games against the Seattle Kraken and Florida Panthers before the All-Star break. Aside from the forward group of Kreider, Panarin, Zibanejad, and Strome that plays on the first power-play unit, Lafreniere has the most minutes on the power play with a time on ice (TOI) of 62:28. He does not have any power-play points so far in 2021-22 but that may change if he earns more time on the power play.
Zibanejad said previously the more he plays with Lafreniere, their familiarity with one another will increase. “The trust is definitely there, I think just a comfort level of understanding each other’s game is coming more and more as you play. I think the more time we get together that’s going to grow as well” (from ‘Barclay Goodrow replacing Kaapo Kakko may create other Rangers issues,’ New York Post, 2/12/22).
Lafreniere Has Played Well at 5-on-5
Lafreniere has had the most success this season playing at 5-on-5. With more experience and success on the top line, he may make it more challenging for Gallant to remove him from the spot. He has a few weeks to prove to the head coach and president/general manager (GM) Chris Drury that he can be a permanent option on the line with Kreider and Zibanejad.
The head coach complimented the growth he has seen from the young player over the course of this season: “Definitely he’s getting more confidence. Again, I talked to him on the bench tonight, there were a couple of shifts he was just too casual on the puck in the neutral zone. But most parts of his game are getting real good. He’s playing good defensive hockey, he’s confident in the offensive zone with the puck. He’s just got to be strong on the puck in the neutral zone because that’s what we talk about with young players. They turn it over and it’s going the other way. He can’t do that against a great team like that. But he’s playing good and he’s working hard. I’m happy with the way he’s going” (from ‘Alexis Lafreniere’s emergence gives Rangers trade deadline flexibility, New York Post, 2/2/22).
Kreider had positive comments about the 20-year-old. “I see him learning and coming to understand the kind of player he needs to be in order to be effective at the NHL level. He’s got unbelievable vision, great hands, hockey IQ, I don’t think he’s confident enough in his shot — he’s got a great shot. He’s a very strong skater in terms of his edges and I think he’s only going to get faster. I think the sky is the limit for him. He’s a young kid learning who he is as a hockey player. It’s so cool seeing him improve week-by-week and day-by-day.”
I wrote that Lafreniere is a player for fans to keep an eye on during the second half of the season. His game will continue to grow if he can develop his ability to assist on some goals scored by Kreider or Zibanejad. If the second-year forward continues to gain trust in his shot as Kreider suggested in his comments, that would increase his scoring chances or the opportunities for offensive rebounds from his linemates if the puck remains in the offensive zone.
The former player of Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) has shown glimpses of his ability to play permanently on the Rangers’ top six during 2021-22. Switching from the left-wing to the right-wing position can present challenges but it will make him more versatile as a player for Gallant to use in a variety of line combinations. If he can get more time and be successful on the power play, that would help advance his game and give the Rangers head coach another option to consider using on the man advantage.