Alexis Lafreniere

Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere are hot topics. Slow development, an inability to put it all together, and perhaps a missed off-ice dedication problem are things often cited when discussing the 2019 second overall pick and 2020 first overall pick. While many point to these as being more Rangers draft mistakes, it’s hard to fault the Rangers for both of these picks. Development aside, they were the right picks at their position in the draft.

Alexis Lafreniere was the consensus #1 overall pick

In the 2020 draft, Alexis Lafreniere was the consensus #1 pick. There were no draft rankings that had either Tim Stutzle or Quinton Byfield ahead of him. Sure, there were nice players taken in the 7-15 range, but the Rangers were never going to go way off the board at the #1 overall pick. They also were never going to trade their first ever #1 overall pick.

Once reality sets in that going off the board and trading down weren’t actual options, then the only pick to make was Alexis Lafreniere. This wasn’t a Rangers draft mistake at all. And while many factors play into his development path, both on Lafreniere and on the Rangers, perhaps the most glaring variable isn’t being evaluated properly: Covid.

With Covid, scouting essentially stopped in February. There were no CHL playoffs. There was no end of the season push. There were no Euro playoffs. Perhaps some of these problem areas were flushed out if scouting continued. Perhaps not. But it is hard to discount the Covid impact, both on scouting and on development.

For the “what if” crowd that loves to use hindsight to point out the Rangers draft mistakes, it is highly unlikely, unless Stutzle became the true consensus #1 overall pick, that the Rangers would have selected him in a non-Covid universe. Leading up to the draft, Lafreniere was still the #1 overall pick. Stutzle jumped to #2, but it was a back-and-forth between him and Byfield. I can’t see Chris Drury passing on a 6’4, 215 lb center, a big team need, for a European winger.

That’s a what-if for a different day.

Kaapo Kakko was again the clear cut #2 pick in 2019

Much like the 2020 draft, there were many great picks in the 7-15 range in the 2019 draft. Dylan Cozens and Trevor Zegras are the kids armchair GMs point to when looking at Kakko’s inability to secure a top line spot. Yet again, leading up to the draft, it was Kakko or Jack Hughes as the top-two picks.

Naturally, the Devils took Hughes, so the Rangers had the other of the top two picks in Kakko. There again was very little chance of the Rangers going off the board for Cozens or Zegras, with Kirby Dach being the only possible player to go off the board. He and Kakko have similar production numbers, for what it’s worth.

Like in 2020, it’s easy to look at how each player has progressed since the draft and call the slow development another Rangers draft mistake.

These aren’t Rangers draft mistakes

But drafting and development are not actually connected. A team puts itself in a better position with a great draft strategy and great scouting, for sure. But developing that talent is the next step. Drafting should be graded at a moment in time. The Rangers did what they should have done. They drafted the consensus best players available.

Instead of trying to find blame, be it on the developmental staff, the scouts, Covid, or whatever issue you may use to vent your frustration, perhaps we should take a step back. The draft is a crap shoot and not all top picks become elite players in the NHL. Not all draft picks come in and dominate right away either. Some need years to develop.

Nico Hischier didn’t crack 60 points until his 5th year. Rasmus Dahlin didn’t become a bonafide top pair defenseman until his 4th year. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was all over the place. Nathan MacKinnon took a step back after his rookie season and didn’t crack 90 points until his 5th season. Steven Stamkos was almost traded to the Rangers.

Development is not linear, and while the Rangers haven’t helped themselves in this regard, to call Kakko or Lafreniere Rangers draft mistakes isn’t a fair evaluation of the situation. They were the consensus picks at the time. Had they gone off the board or traded down, there would have been outrage about passing on these guys, especially Kakko.

If they don’t pan out into top line players, such is the luck of the draw. They are both useful NHLers, likely with a floor in the middle-six. If, in 2-3 years, that’s what the Rangers have, then so be it. It’s tough to fault them for taking the consensus best players available though. At least for me.


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