The first-overall pick is bound to have high expectations and their arrival to the big stage is going to be widely anticipated. That anticipation increases when the player has as much hype and talent like Alexis Lafreniere of the New York Rangers. Playing in a big city like New York, there is going to be a very large spotlight on the Canadian winger. The Rangers have a bright future as a team and gained a star with an equally bright future. The sky is the limit for Lafreniere’s potential, but expectations should be tempered for his rookie year.
High Draft Picks Do Not Always Have Success Right Away
The Rangers know from recent experience that the top player they pick is not guaranteed to light up the league right away. Since 2017, they have had three top-10 picks: Lias Andersson, Vitali Kravtsov and Kaapo Kakko. Andersson turned out to be a bust in New York and was sent to the Los Angeles Kings, while Vitali Kravtsov is still developing in the KHL. Kakko, on the other hand, spent the first year after his draft as a full-time NHL player, while that is very impressive for an 18-year-old, his performance was far below expectations. As a former second-overall pick who made a case for being taken first, there was a high bar set for Kakko to clear, probably higher than it should realistically have been.
The young Finnish winger played 66 games and scored 10 goals with 13 assists for 23 points as a rookie. He was a liability defensively and did not seem to have the same level of confidence he showed in the World Junior Championship or even at the Traverse City Tournament where he competed with several other Rangers prospects. The production is decent for a teenager starting his NHL career, but it is well below what was expected of him.
This is different, though — Lafreniere is first-overall pick. However, Jack Hughes was the last first-overall pick and he also performed well below expectations. He also has an abundance of hockey talent and was expected to be an impact player for the New Jersey Devils. Instead, Hughes produced seven goals and 14 assists in 61 games. Hughes and Kakko are both still excellent players who will undoubtedly have successful NHL careers, but they show that just having high expectations will not guarantee top-level performance. If those expectations are too high, it will likely lead to some disappointment.
Lafreniere Will Have A Unique Situation
Now for Lafreniere, his strengths are a little bit different. In addition to elite skill, he plays a hard-nosed game and does not mind throwing the body. Assuming he stays on the left side, he will be third on the depth chart, behind superstar and Hart Trophy candidate Artemi Panarin and longtime Blueshirt Chris Kreider. There is no shot Panarin plays outside of the top six and Kreider has shown chemistry with Mika Zibanejad over the past two seasons, so the likelihood of those two being broken up are also slim.
Head coach David Quinn has also shown he does not rely much on his young players unless forced to do so. Kakko played primarily on the third line, and not many would have expected Jesper Fast to be a consistent top-six player. Filip Chytil was glued to the third line after Zibanejad’s return from injury and it took Adam Fox almost the entire season to see deployment closer to that of a top defenseman, despite being arguably the best three-zone player.
Lafreniere’s linemates are likely going to be Julien Gauthier on the opposite wing with Chytil in the middle. That is an incredibly young line with Gauthier as the eldest at only 23, but it also carries immense talent and potential. If the three can click, that can be a very dangerous line and it would make teams pick what line to try and stifle the most. The top two lines could easily both be a first line, which could give the young guns more room to flex their fire power. Lafreniere can put the puck in the net well enough on his own but he also is very capable of setting up his teammates. That is worth considering with a shot like Chytil’s or the speed of Gauthier.
As far as production goes, Lafreniere can be expected to put up points at a pace close to .6 points per game, as the length of the schedule is still unclear. In a full 82-game schedule, this would come to around 50 points. This is a special player here, his production in juniors has been compared to that of Nathan MacKinnon and was the only player not named Sidney Crosby to be named the CHL Player of the Year in two consecutive seasons. Lafreniere is also coming into the league in very unusual circumstances for a first-overall pick.
The Rangers were in competition for a Wild Card spot before the league had to shut down and they were in the expanded playoffs. The Rangers are expected to be competitive again as opposed to most teams who get first overall, where they would normally sit towards the bottom of the standings. The Rangers already have depth at left wing that is proven to perform well at the NHL level. Lafreniere could possibly overtake Kreider’s spot in the top six, but that likely would not happen until late in the season.
Lafreniere has a very bright future and there is no reason to see him being unsuccessful under the spotlight in New York City. (from ‘Alexis Lafreniere has ex-Rangers coach drooling: ‘Made for New York’,’ New York Post,’ 10/06/2020) There is no doubt that the Rangers have a special player who will be key for years to come, but for the fan’s sake, it would do well to keep realistic expectations. Not every player is going to be an all-star from day one and that is perfectly fine. Even if Lafreniere does not perform exactly how everyone expects, he will still be important for the organization.