No athlete wants their career to be compared to another player’s unless maybe it’s Sidney Crosby. New York Rangers rookie Alexis Lafrenière has it pretty good drawing comparison’s to the Pittsburgh Penguins captain.
Both forwards skated for the Rimouski Océanic of the Québec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), where they exploded before they broke into the NHL. Crosby spent two seasons with the Océanic and collected 303 points in 121 games. Lafrenière spent three seasons with the organization and tallied 297 points in 173 matches. The two were both selected first overall in the NHL Entry Draft — Crosby in 2005 by Pittsburgh and Lafreniere in 2020 by New York. They may have followed a similar path and accomplished similar feats, but how alike were their rookie seasons, and can we gauge Lafreniere’s trajectory compared to the captain’s?
Similarities During Their Leap to the NHL
Granted, the 2005-06 Penguins roster was very different from the 2020-21 Rangers, yet despite their existing talent, both organizations enthusiastically welcomed their top picks.
The Penguins drafted center Evgeni Malkin second overall in 2004, but he joined the NHL a season after Crosby in 2006-07, which was also just after Mario Lemieux’s illustrious career. Goaltender Marc-André Fleury was handling the bulk of games, and the team jumped from fifth in the division in 2005-06 to second the following campaign.
In 2020-21, Lafrenière joined Kaapo Kakko, the Rangers’ second overall selection in 2019, who got a head start before beloved goaltender Henrik Lundqvist left the organization. Like Pittsburgh, the Rangers fired up their young goalie, Igor Shesterkin, but the team didn’t make a similar jump in the standings. In a difficult 2019-20 season, the Rangers finished seventh. In the shortened and realigned 2020-21 season, the Blueshirts jumped up two spots to fifth.
In other words, both Crosby and Lafrenière joined their teams with fresh talent in net, a solid second overall pick on the roster, and the vision to take the team to the next level of competition.
However, Crosby and Lafrenière had very different rookie seasons. Despite the pandemic and the lack of a legitimate training camp, Lafrenière had a solid start to his professional career. While Crosby collected an astonishing 102 points in 81 NHL games as a rookie, Lafrenière posted 21 points in 56 games. Lafrenière’s splash may not have been as big, but his skill set is comparable to Crosby’s. What can we expect from Lafrenière in 2021-22, and what similarities to Crosby will help us account for these expectations starting in their early careers?
Crosby and Lafrenière in Rimouski
A comparison to Crosby should not be taken lightly, even if they were both selected first overall and wore the same jersey. Lafrenière, who grew up watching Crosby, was praised for his consistency in junior, and while he’s not trying to be Crosby and deserves his own distinction, the similarities persist. They are the only two skaters to win the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) Player of the Year twice and the only players to win back-to-back QMJHL Most Valuable Player awards.
“He likes to be in big games, he likes to be counted on in big moments and he’s been able to perform in big moments and I think that’s because he’s got such composure and a confidence in himself – like a quiet confidence, in a way,” said his agent, Emilie Castonguay. In fact, his first NHL goal later came from an overtime win against the Buffalo Sabres — a pretty big moment for a career first. Slightly reminiscent of the parallels of Crosby’s shootout winner in the 2008 Winter Classic against the Sabres as well.
Of course, the two players have their own set of responsibilities with limited overlap, given that Crosby’s a center and Lafrenière is a winger. However, they are both smart thinkers on the ice, looking to set up their linemates constantly. This is something that translated over the big leagues immediately, for both.
Despite their similar paths, their one-ice mannerisms are genuinely alike in some aspects. For most of Crosby’s time as the draft approached, he was undisputedly going to be selected first. With the Rangers’ logjam of wingers, there was some slight back and forth with Lafrenière being their guy. Yet, his sheer talent superseded any argument for passing on him.
Though the phrase “makes the players around him better” is thrown around a little too carelessly at times, this is a characteristic attributed to both from day one and it is genuinely true. Speed is another large part of their game, both were persistently described as strong off the rush in their draft reports from juniors.
Can We Gauge the Next Step in Lafrenière’s Career?
Lafrenière went almost even in his 21 points — 12 goals and nine assists. A bit past the halfway point of his 56-game campaign, Lafrenière picked up more assists than goals. Though this statistic proved he prioritized setting up goals for his linemates, he became a little more selfish with the puck, as needed for his own development, and found the back of the net more frequently. As the games went by, he was visually more comfortable and more involved.
Lafrenière is primed for a breakout campaign in his second season in the NHL. Crosby’s accomplishments as a rookie were remarkable, and while Lafrenière was not expected to duplicate it, he became a franchise name just as early. What he accomplished in his rookie season was elevating the game of his linemates and providing solid playmaking ability. Sounds a little like someone else.
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It will be refreshing to see what the forward can do during a more typical NHL season. Similar in size and skating talent to Crosby, Lafrenière’s lack of hesitation to be a physical presence in the corner makes him a highly effective winger. For a winger, his defensive side of the brain is well developed. Like young Crosby, the forwards display similar tenacity so early in their NHL careers, yet dissimilar from Crosby, it is less crucial of a skill for a winger to be refined in.
A peek at Crosby’s career numbers from juniors to his third season in the NHL shows steady improvement. It should be noted the centerman only played 53 games that 2007-08 season due to a major ankle sprain (he still collected 72 points). That steady production increase is exactly what is asked of 19-year-old Lafrenière. While the young skater has a proven track record of improvement in juniors, he will need to take that step in the big leagues.
Both also faced the pressure to change the team’s status upon their arrival, it is hard to ignore how much emphasis was placed on them as individual pieces of the puzzle. Both Canadians also accepted the challenge to excel in arguably the toughest division. Though it took the Blueshirt a little to get started, it was all about subtle improvement and cultivated comfortability for the rest of the season. Now he can build off that as he heads into year two.
I suspect Lafrenière will have a much larger role than what he was given his rookie season. With this increased responsibility, I believe his point production will increase alone from sheer opportunity, but also his confidence will play a role. New head coach Gerard Gallant will likely place a lot of trust in the young star and Lafrenière will likely embrace it.
I see it within the realm of possibility that the Canadian could reach the 50-point mark this upcoming season, and obviously, any total above that would be welcomed. Yet, I also see that within reach as well. With a more typical season in the near future, an introductory season under his belt, and the shakeup with the coaching staff, I think it creates a perfect storm for the young talent.
In their first seasons, the pair exhibited the skills that distinguished them from the rest. Both players’ well-deserved praise followed through, however, Crosby soared. A player like that does not come around frequently, to say the least. However, there is no doubt the 19-year-old will have the chance to take his game to the next level and continue to trend upwards.
The fellow divisional players enter an important season this upcoming 2021-22 year with the Penguins trying to remain a force and the young Rangers aim for a shot at securing a postseason spot.