After making the Eastern Conference Final in 2022, the New York Rangers are now battling for a playoff spot. Meanwhile, the Montreal Canadiens, after a far better start than expected, continue to slide down the standings to where most pundits believed they belong.
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Their struggles should make the Rangers buyers at the deadline, looking for established NHL talent to help them take the next step. There have been some whispers on social media that Alexis Lafrenière is no longer a fit in New York, especially after recently being a healthy scratch.
There are so many questions to explore. Is he available? What do the Rangers want and/or need to help their team and make it worthwhile? Also, is he a fit for the Canadiens, and, more importantly, is he worth the cost?
Rangers Open to Trade
The major question is, is Lafrenière available? The answer is maybe. The Rangers are fighting for a playoff berth, and at this stage of their rebuild, the assumption has to be that they are entering their window as Stanley Cup contenders. Their 2022 Playoff record points to that fact, and they are just above average in goals for, goals against, the power play (PP), and penalty kill (PK) this season. All areas that proven NHL talent can improve upon.
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As for Lafrenière, he hasn’t been able to crack the Rangers’ top six and averages about one minute of ice time on the power play. His five goals and 17 points in 36 games haven’t really moved the needle but put him on pace for a 38-point season, which would be a career-high. However, his goal total would drop from 19 goals last season to only 11 this season if the pace is maintained over 82 games.
Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant has also started to show a lack of confidence in the young forward, citing inconsistent play as his major problem. All of this points to a player who is still searching for his identity in the league. So, Lafrenière could be considered available for a return that would fill an immediate need, but there are long-term considerations as well.
Salary Cap Crunch
The Rangers’ salary cap is a concern. It may seem as though New York has plenty of cap space next season, with over $17 million and an expected $1 million increase to the cap limit. However, as Arthur Staples of The Athletic notes, that may not be enough to keep all their young talent.
General Manager (GM) Chris Drury has a team good enough to make the playoffs. He has big contract decisions with K’Andre Miller and Chytil this offseason. There could be a decision on Lafrenière, but if things continue along the current path, it may be a decision of whether or not to keep the former No. 1 pick or trade him for other help rather than trying to decide what kind of contract Lafrenière is worth.-Arthur Staple (from ‘Alexis Lafrenière and the Rangers reach a critical point,’ The Athletic, Dec 29, 2022)
Beyond the players mentioned, restricted free agents (RFA) Vitali Kravtsov and Julien Gauthier will also need new contracts and will be looking for a raise. Drury may decide that now is the time to make his move.
Cost to Canadiens
Even if Drury decides he is open to a trade, the price will be high. He would likely be in search of a top-six capable winger with term on a reasonable contract, as well as some veteran defensive help on the left side to stabilize their pairings and eat up time on the PK. Any trade with Canadiens GM Kent Hughes would likely involve him retaining salary as well.
While Lafrenière could be called a “reclamation project”, he isn’t. His point production has been progressing, and at only 21 years old, consistency will remain an issue, even if he was a former first-overall draft pick. Even though New York currently holds two 2023 first-round picks, a package deal would begin with, at least, the Florida Panthers’ 2023 first-round pick now owned by the Canadiens. The Rangers may also have an eye on Josh Anderson as he plays a style that fits Gallant’s system. Is that enough? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s a logical starting point.
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Instead, sitting Lafrenière could just be a way to ensure the Rangers give Kravtsov ice time to showcase him for Drury to use him as trade bait to add the piece they need for the playoffs. After all, Kravtsov was the one who had been asking to be traded out of New York to a team that can provide him with a significant role, which he has yet to fill.
Canadiens executive vice-president Jeff Gorton drafted Lafrenière while he was still GM of the Rangers, so he would likely be interested and Lafrenère would instantly become a fan favorite and the next big-name local francophone player for fans to focus on. After all, not long after the Canadiens acquired a former third-overall pick in Jonathan Drouin from the Tampa Bay Lightning, immense pressure was heaped onto his shoulders to be the next local star. However, because of this, management will need to tread carefully when they bring in a well-known francophone player.
With a log jam of struggling veteran forwards, the Canadiens have difficult choices ahead. Head coach Martin St. Louis may need to play the veterans instead of their youth to showcase them for Hughes before the trade deadline. If Lafrenière or any other young left winger were to be added, there is also the issue of balancing roles, situations, and ice time to support and develop another young left winger already on the roster selected first overall, Juraj Slafkovsky. However, with the team in a rebuild, gambling to bring in a young skilled player is always worthwhile, and Hughes should roll the dice while he’s on a hot streak.