Alexis Lafreniere has struggled to produce, but don’t lose hope yet
Let’s just start this off by saying this is not a coping piece. When the Rangers drafted Alexis Lafrenière, most expected a player who could put up ~60+ points at an 82-game pace right away and would give the Rangers a true star winger for 10+ years. He was one of the most creative passers I had seen, his hands at the junior level were quick and dynamic, he had an unparalleled ability to utilize open space, and he had the shot to be a 40 goal scorer. But the Lafreniere production hasn’t met expectations…yet.
Lafrenière will likely finish the season with ~30 points, and outside of a 15 or so game stint on the top line, he has been stapled to the 102 point Rangers’ third line with no meaningful powerplay time (no, three 30 second shifts with PP2 each game is not meaningful). Against Philadelphia, he was a healthy scratch for the first time in his career. He did, however, follow that up with a two goal night and a highlight reel goal.
He has been underwhelming relative to expectations, and it is not easy for Rangers fans to see players drafted behind him outperform him, such as Lucas Raymond and Anton Lundell. The Lafreniere production rate currently sits third in the class in points with the most games played, 30 points behind the class leader, Tim Stützle. He currently has the fewest points of any 1st overall pick in their first two seasons since Chris Phillips (although he is likely to catch Joe Thornton).
With all that said, there are genuine positives that Rangers fans can take from Lafrenière’s first two seasons in the NHL. There is also a lot of meaningful context omitted that makes many of the comparisons we see out there flat out bad.
Lafreniere production vs. Stutzle production
One player that Lafrenière will always be compared to is the aforementioned Stützle. Stützle is a great player and his skill set has shown well so far in the NHL. He is a much better skater than Lafrenière and his puck handling skills have translated better. He has also been put in a much better position to succeed than Lafrenière.
He receives much more favorable zone starts compared to Lafrenière, with 72% of his all strength and 64% of his even strength zone starts coming in the offensive zone (Laf sits at 60% and 55% respectively, per NST). He also averages 4 minutes more ice time than Laf, with 3:12 of it coming from the power play compared to Lafrenière’s 1:10 of power play ice time.
If you remove Stützle’s power play points, he sits at 47 career points, just two ahead of Lafrenière’s production at even strength. Stützle’s even strength points per 60 rate was 1.8 in his rookie season and sits at 1.5 this year. Lafrenière’s production rate is almost identical, 1.8 in his rookie season and 1.6 this year.
Lafreniere production vs. Jack Hughes production
Another player Lafrenière will always be compared to, as long as he is a Ranger, is New Jersey Devils star Jack Hughes. Hughes is an elite NHL player and there were a lot of precursors to his breakout, but a look under the hood paints a nice picture for Lafrenière.
Hughes’ production was flat-out worse than the Lafreniere production in his rookie season, and it is not a debate. He averaged almost three times as much powerplay time as Lafrenière did in his rookie season and had more favorable zone starts, yet produced an inferior all-strengths points per 60 rate to Lafrenière – 1.3 for Hughes, 1.6 for Laf despite ZERO power play points. At even strength, Lafrenière doubled Hughes’ .9 points per 60 rate.
Hughes improved a great deal in his second season, upping his points per 60 rate to 1.7 at all strengths and 1.6 at even strength, and under the hood there were micro stats indicating that he was one of the NHL’s best transition players and was suffering from sub-par finishing. This season he broke out as a star, with 56 points in 49 games and an all strengths per 60 point rate of 3.5.
Positive signs for Lafreniere
While Hughes and Stützle’s progression has been somewhat linear, both have been linked with opportunity. Both players saw their ice time rise from ~15 minutes a game in their rookie seasons to 18-19 minutes a game in their sophomore years. Lafrenière, on the other hand, has seen a rise of 2 seconds and decreased power play time – 1:17 per game in his rookie year, 1:10 per game this season.
This is by no means an indictment of Hughes and Stützle or their respective teams. The way the Senators and Devils have deployed their top prospects is how it should be done, they got it right. All I am saying is that while Lafrenière has his shortcomings, what he has lacked more than anything else at the NHL level is opportunity. When he has received big minutes, he has produced.
More than anything, the one thing that Rangers fans need to know is that while it is okay to be disappointed, Lafrenière is a player that provides value to this team. He sits third on the team in even-strength goals, and fifth at all strengths. He is eighth in points despite spending most of the season with Gauthier, who is shooting at 4.6% and is banished from the lineup, and Chytil, who is shooting at 6% and has taken a step back this year.
He draws back into the lineup today against Detroit, and he will play an important role in the playoffs, where depth is crucial. There are signs that we have a very promising player, let’s wait until he gets an extended run of opportunity before we pass judgment.