Rangers’ Playoff Fate Might Hinge on Lafreniere Breakout

The New York Rangers are surging down the stretch of this stunning season, one in which they’ve forced their way into the conversation as a realistic possibility to emerge from the Eastern Conference playoffs and reach the Stanley Cup Final.

With high-end offensive options, the best goaltender in the NHL this season, a formidable defense corps and newfound depth that was procured before the trade deadline, it would seem foolish to dismiss the chances of this 108-point team to make a deep postseason run.

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Yet as impressive as their 2021-22 has been and as well as they have played against other top teams, the Blueshirts still might be a step or two below the obvious elites of the East, namely the Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes and two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. That’s not necessarily a function of those clubs having better-constructed rosters; instead, it’s probably more a case of the Rangers being behind those teams’ development arcs.

Alexis Lafreniere New York Rangers
Rangers winger Alexis Lafreniere (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

No one expected these Blueshirts, perhaps still in the final stages of shedding their “rebuilding” status, to have come this far this fast this season. At the same time last year, the Rangers were on the verge of a disastrous five-game losing streak that torpedoed their playoff chances, left them a demoralized outfit and led to a housecleaning in the front office and behind the bench.

Fast-forward to now, and the transformation has been remarkable. New leadership in the form of coach Gerard Gallant and general manager Chris Drury have yielded a grittier, deeper and more confident group. However, while some of the high-end youth brought in by the previous management team has played an integral role in the rapid rise – most notably defenseman Adam Fox and goaltender Igor Shesterkin – it’s largely been standout efforts from the club’s veterans that have powered the Rangers to a 51-21-6 record.

Lafreniere Could be Key to Getting Past Panthers, Hurricanes, Lightning

In order to overcome the Carolinas and Floridas and Tampa Bays, the Rangers will likely need all of their elite talent to perform at a high level in the postseason tournament. It’s why their hopes of a run through the East could ultimately rest on the young shoulders of Alexis Lafreniere – specifically, whether the top pick in the 2020 NHL Draft can begin to deliver consistent moments of brilliance and not just the glimpses he’s shown over his first two seasons.

Lafreniere’s second NHL season – and first full one – has resembled his rookie campaign, interspersing tantalizing glimpses of potential with sometimes-extended stretches of ineffectiveness and frustration. It’s difficult to fully evaluate why the consensus top prospect in his draft year has yet to clearly establish himself as an up-and-coming star, but the theory that the 20-year-old’s development has been stunted by beginning his career in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic is a sound one.

Alexis Lafreniere New York Rangers
Lafreniere is playing in his first full NHL season (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Lafreniere has looked good since moving back to his natural left wing spot on the third line, ending an extended run on the right side of the Rangers’ top line with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad that was characteristically marked by highs and lows. Lafreniere scored two goals in a 4-0 victory over the Detroit Red Wings last weekend – one on a breathtaking move that brought the Madison Square Garden crowd out of their seats – and set up Ryan Reaves for a goal in a 6-3 win over the New York Islanders on Thursday, giving him 17 goals and 11 assists in 75 games this season. He’s played with more jump and assuredness in recent contests.

There’s little question that Lafreniere has had it rough when it comes to the beginning of his career, as his first training camp – an invaluable experience for rookies – was canceled due to the pandemic before he got only 56 games in that abbreviated 2021 season. For the second straight season, however, he’s raised his play late – he had five goals and three assists over the final 12 games of last season – and now is as good a time as any for him to continue that trend and start to “grow up” – professionally, of course.

Related: Rangers’ Lafreniere Deserves to Stay on Top Line

The Rangers, in part by the virtue of their 2019 signing of Artemi Panarin and the extending of Kreider’s contract just before the 2020 trade deadline, have successfully shielded Lafreniere from the responsibility of carrying the team offensively as a young player. That’s been of obvious benefit to him – even more so given the global events that surrounded his entry into the NHL – but now, the Blueshirts are going to need him.

As encouraging as this season has been on Broadway, for all the hope the Rangers have given their fans that they’re a legitimate threat to win the Stanley Cup, what’s happening in points south of Manhattan has to be viewed as a set of monumental challenges. The Panthers, the league’s highest-scoring team by a large margin, have won 12 in a row to secure the top playoff seed in the East. Though tied with the Rangers with 108 points atop the Metropolitan Division, the Hurricanes have mostly outclassed the Blueshirts in head-to-head matchups this season, winning two and pouring 44 shots on Alexander Georgiev in a 2-0 loss in the other one last month.

The Lightning, seasoned masters at how to navigate through the playoffs, pounded the 108-point Toronto Maple Leafs 8-1 on Thursday.

Lafreniere Excelled in Big Spots Before Joining Rangers

In short, for the Rangers to get by any of those teams, they very well might need an unexpected source of star power to step up as an X-factor in a postseason meeting. Who better than a former No. 1 overall draft selection, whose game and confidence look to be on the rise, to provide key scoring from the third line?

There are plenty of reasons why Lafreniere might not be ready to bust out as he prepares for his first career NHL playoff appearance: his age, paltry career game total of 131 and the fact that the postseason is a wholly different experience, both in intensity and style of play, than the regular season.

Alexis Lafreniere
Lafreniere was the tournament MVP at the 2020 World Junior Championship (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

Yet that last reason might be just what Lafreniere requires to begin lifting his game further, perhaps thriving on the adrenaline boost that comes with an NHL playoff series. He did that in previous high-pressure spots, recording 30 points in 20 postseason games with Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and piling up 10 points in five games en route to tournament MVP honors as he led Canada to the World Junior Ice Hockey Championship in 2020.

That flair for the big moments came in competitions that are worlds away from the NHL postseason crucible. Yet the Rangers expected Lafreniere to grow into those moments; will the kid from Saint Eustache, Quebec begin his star turn this spring? With Panarin, Kreider, Zibanejad, Fox and Shesterkin at the height of their powers, the Blueshirts might require him to do precisely that if they want to upset some formidable foes on the way to going deep in the playoffs.