All signs point to the New York Rangers promoting the 2020 first overall selection, Alexis Lafreniere, to the right-wing spot on the top line. For the 20-year-old forward, this would require a move from the left wing, his strong side, and his primary position. For coach Gerard Gallant, having the young forward in a more prominent role seems like the likely answer to replacing production lost by the departures of Andrew Copp, Ryan Strome, and Frank Vatrano. He previously occupied the top-line right-wing spot.
The question on everyone’s mind is will Lafreniere be able to make that transition? I had the pleasure of speaking to the Cape Breton Eagles’ head coach in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), Jon Goyens, on my podcast, ‘The Backcheck.’ Goyens was the coach of Baie-Comeau Drakkar during the 2019-20 season, where they opened up with a two-game set with Rimouski Oceanic.
The 2019-20 season was Lafreniere’s last in the QMJHL. Playing for Rimouski, he finished that season with 112 points in 52 games, a whopping total that led to his number one selection in the 2020 draft. Having a front-row seat to Lafreniere’s play three times in 2019-20, Coach Goyens was able to give an inside look at the 20-year-old’s skill set.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OemgeBuxvr4[/embedyt]
During his first two seasons in the NHL, Lafreniere has 52 points, nearly registering his first 20-goal season in 2021-22, finishing with 19 goals. He started to find his game more under Gallant but looks poised to take a massive step in a more prominent role. Transitioning at the highest level is no easy feat, but Lafreniere has the skillset and frame to do it.
Goyens on Lafreniere’s Ability to Switch Wings
When asked about Lafreniere’s ability to switch wings, Goyens immediately reflected on his time with Baie-Comeau with a smile. “I had the [let’s call it] the privilege, and not so privilege, of coaching against him at times,” Goyens said. “We always kind of bragged that in Baie-Comeau – and Rimouski is a big rival for us – so we started the year with back-to-back home games against them. If it weren’t for one silly little mistake, he would have been shutout in points for those first two games of the year, except for a shootout goal.”
Lafreniere wound up tallying assists on the fourth and fifth goals in a 5-3 Rimouski win against Baie-Comeau in the second game of 2019-20. Goyens’ squad was able to secure the victory in the season opener, 2-1, despite Lafreniere’s shootout tally.
After briefly reflecting on his time opposing the future first pick, Goyens, the newly anointed head coach of Cape Breton, paused to gather his thoughts. He then praised Lafreniere’s game and ability to play all around the ice.
“Lafreniere is a guy that’s more adaptable from what I’ve seen. I’ve seen him on the power play – literally on the same power play – go from the off-wing, to up near the blue line, to his strong side on the downhill, rolling around behind the net to the goal line. Any player that can do that [on the power play], at five-on-five, can handle playing either way.”– Jon Goyens on ‘The Backcheck,’ Islanders & Kadri, Rangers & Five on Five, Ft. Jon Goyens, Time: 58:00
From having a front-row seat coaching against him, Goyens saw the adaptability Lafreniere possesses. His comfort level with puck does not hinge on him playing on his strong side. The Quebec native can see the ice and create from a multitude of spots.
Goyens did not stop there. He believes the switch to his off-wing could help Lafreniere find more room to shoot the puck. “If Lafreniere goes to his off-wing, for example, and depending on the type of breakouts, he might be catching pucks on his off-wing, which means when he cuts inside, his shot is to the middle.”
“He’s got that big, wide, lower body. For him, I think his hockey awareness is real sharp. He is more adaptable than I think people even realize,” Goyens said. “We started seeing even more edge from him recently in those playoffs. I don’t think [the change to right-wing] will hurt his game. There have been too many players that get pigeon-holed and end up pigeon-holing themselves. I don’t think you will get that with Lafreniere.”
That’s some high praise from an opposing coach. Goyens’ belief in Lafreniere’s ability to switch sides should instill hope in Rangers fans. If tasked with the change, the 20-year-old should be able to transition with flying colors.
Lafreniere, Kreider, and Zibanejad Thrived Together
Gallant can feel comfortable moving Lafreniere to the top line alongside Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, as the trio had a mini-run together last year. According to Natural Stat Trick, the three forwards played 259:43 together at five-on-five, scoring 14 times while yielding 11 goals. Their goals for percentage of 56 percent, coupled with their expected goals for percentage of 53.86 percent, made the grouping an effective one.
Although their time together was limited, we saw how effective Lafreniere could be on the first line. With the first overall pick on their wing, the first line had a Corsi-for percentage (CF%) of 50.76 percent and a high danger chances for percentage (HDCF%) of 52.13 percent. Without Lafreniere, Kreider and Zibanejad only managed a 49.92 CF% and a 48.09 HCDF%.
We know the duo of Kreider and Zibanejad spent more time without Lafreniere, but the sample size dictates that over 82 games, that line could control play at five-on-five, an area the Rangers lacked last season. Eleven of the trio’s 14 goals were of the high danger variety, while they yielded just five. They created together and were able to get to the high-danger areas effectively.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZISqpwS55k[/embedyt]
Kreider is an elite net-front presence, and with both Zibanejad and Lafreniere’s ability to create, this threesome will carry success into next season. Coach Goyens explained why the former QMJHL standout would be able to make the jump to his off wing, and positioning Lafreniere to shoot and pass through the slot will only increase production.
A lot can happen between now and opening night, and several line combinations that Gallant could roll out. It is time to give the young players a bigger role, and Lafreniere will be able to transition to the right side to mesh nicely on the first line.