Heading into the season, New York Rangers General Manager and President Chris Drury was banking on his young forwards taking strides. By moving Pavel Buchnevich to the St. Louis Blues, they opted not to contract one of their better forwards. This opened the door for Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko to have more prominent roles, with the hopes that they would live up to their top-prospect statuses.
13-games in, the Rangers sit at 7-3-3, a record that has only come to fruition due to spectacular goaltending, and the brilliance of Adam Fox. But for those who have watched this season unfold, that record is misleading. The Rangers have yet to gel for a complete 60 minutes, in large part to the lack of contributions of their former first and second overall selections.
Both Kakko and Lafreniere are 20 years old, and still have tons of upside. By no means is anyone saying that all hope is lost, but it is disconcerting that the Finnish winger has yet to tally a point this season. To be fair, he did get an assist stolen from him in a 4-3 win over the Florida Panthers due to a goaltender interference challenge.
But the onus doesn’t solely fall on these two highly touted youngsters. K’Andre Miller had struggled both offensively and defensively before his highlight-reel goal against the Panthers. Filip Chytil, who is now injured, has amassed just three points through 12 games. The Rangers’ youth has yet to prove that they can be consistently dangerous, a puzzling trend considering the talent level of these players.
Kakko and Lafreniere By The Numbers
If you are not playing, you cannot be effective. Based on how the Rangers have handled situations with some of their prospects, one cannot take much stock in bringing along their young players justly. Very rarely do you see the top picks playing as little as Kakko and Lafreniere have. The former averages 14:31 time on ice (TOI), while the latter averages 14:01 TOI.
Ten skaters average more ice time than Kakko, and 12 average more than Lafreniere. Not to mention Lafreniere’s 2:05 of power-play time ranks sixth on the Blueshirts, while Kakko’s 0:58 of time ranks 11th. So no, these two top draft picks are not getting their fair share of opportunities to start to flourish.
But when they are on the ice, the two tend to go unnoticed, failing to create many chances. Kakko has managed just 13 shots on goal through nine games. He has been unable to create dangerous scoring situations, registering just five high-danger chances this season. According to Natural Stat Trick, he has yet to have an attempt off the rush and has only generated four rebounds. The second selection in 2019 is not creating offense and is merely not a threat right now on the attack.
Similarly, Lafreniere has struggled to create offensively but has played a more significant role in the offense. In addition to his three goals on the year, the Quebec-native has registered nine high danger chances 24 scoring chances. He has 22 shots on goal and has been better in the offensive zone than his 20-year old counterpart, but defensively he has been much more of a liability.
Yes, he has had the chances, but according to Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement chart, Lafreniere is the only Ranger with over 100 minutes of TOI to be negative in all categories. Not too far in front of him is Kakko, whose only positive aspect has been his ability to take the puck away.
This trend has been noticeable via both the eye test and the analytical side of the game. When Kakko is on the ice, the Rangers score 30% of the goals (GF%), generate 32.56% of the high danger chances (HDCF%), have 41.79% of the scoring chances (SCF)%, and have yet to score a high danger goal (HDGF). Lafreniere’s numbers are a tad better, with a GF% of 42.86% and a 43.06% share of the HDCF%. The Rangers have managed four HDGF with him on the ice and get 45.26% of the SCF%.
How Lafreniere and Kakko Can Improve?
Whether it was the World Junior Championships or in their respective leagues, both Kakko and Lafreniere were all-world before being drafted. They had confidence, showed no fear, and created plays in front of and around the goal. That same drive has been missing from their games since putting on the Rangers sweater, though. Neither has taken the puck and cut to the net or used their frame to drive on a defender and set up a teammate in front.
The skill and decision-making that made them so highly touted have been missing all season long, and for most of their young NHL careers. But how can they correct this? Shooting the puck is an excellent place to start. Per Evolving Hockey’s shot maps, Kakko has one shot on goal from above the circles all season. As someone who handles the puck along the boards often, he has to be willing to throw the puck on net from anywhere, especially if his first read is not available.
Lafreniere has taken more shots to the net, but is still far too reliant on the tap-in or in tight chances. We all saw what his shot is capable of in a 2021 win against the New Jersey Devils when he ripped a late goal past Aaron Dell.
But that may have been the last time we saw Lafreniere step into a wrist shot. His three goals this season have all been off backdoor passes. His ability to create offense for himself has been minimal at best, and starting to release shots from everywhere will open up the ice for himself and his linemates.
The second thing both players need is something that cannot be taught or changed on the fly. It’s confidence. Both players need to realize their immense ability and play as if they are back in juniors or Liiga. Confidence breeds success, and the jump to the NHL is not an easy one. But these two 20-year old forwards can make that jump and thrive.
For the Rangers to have success, they need these two young wingers to live up to the hype. For the young wingers to live up to the hype, they need to see more ice. The underlying numbers are not pretty, nor are the stat lines, and if Gerard Gallant cannot find the time on ice for them with the big club, maybe a trip to Hartford will serve both well.
Am I saying they should be sent down? No. I am saying that the minutes in Hartford and the confidence they could gain in the American Hockey League (AHL) would be invaluable. The goal is to keep these two with the Rangers for now and the foreseeable future. But their two prized possessions need to become more impactful if the Blueshirts stand a chance in a crowded Metropolitan Division.
Brendan Azoff is a THW contributor and podcast host dedicated to covering the New York Rangers. His passion for hockey started when he first laced up the skates at three, growing into his love for writing and talking about the greatest sport in the world. His podcast, The Backcheck, breaks down the Rangers, Islanders, and NHL news and can be found on The Hockey Writers Podcast Network and Belly Up Sports. Brendan has been writing about the Rangers and the NHL for over two years, with his content also found on Puck Prose, Blue Line Station, and E2G Sports. If you want to connect with Brendan and stay up-to-date on his posts, follow him on Twitter. He is always available for content ideas and interviews, don’t be afraid to ask!