Yesterday’s news that both Alexis Lafreniere and Brennan Othmann were going to be given time at right wing at training camp was met with the expected divisiveness that we’ve seen over where each kid should play. It’s been a sensitive topic throughout the summer, as the reactions to the Rangers RW hole on the 2nd line has generated many different “passionate” preferences and venting.
There are two certainties though. The first is that the Rangers RW hole will be addressed by someone currently in the lineup. The second is that this isn’t really a “hole” so to speak. It’s more of an opportunity for someone to step up and take that spot.
Some myths about the Rangers RW hole
1. Let’s be very clear about the Rangers RW hole on the second line. There are three options right now: Lafreniere, Othmann, and Blake Wheeler. Since we know that Othmann will be starting in Hartford –barring an exceptional camp where he forces the Rangers to keep him– it’s essentially Lafreniere and Wheeler.
This was all expected. If you were paying attention to the offseason, none of this should be a surprise. It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees with each individual offseason move. When you take a step back and look at everything through the eyes of roles, team needs, and development, this was always the plan.
2. No, Filip Chytil is not going to shift to RW. He’s a center. Center is more than faceoffs. The center position is the most important position on the ice. Remember when Martin St. Louis shifted to center briefly? All of his on-ice responsibilities, both with and without the puck, changed from that move.
*Aside: The specifics change based on system, but all centers have more defensive zone responsibility than wingers. Mostly positioning is what changes a bit, but not overall responsibilities without the puck.
Defensive zone responsibilities are the biggest impacted area, with wingers primarily in charge of the points/high zone coverage, looking to transition to offense quickly, perhaps catching the defense napping on a quick turnover and outlet. Centers are much more engaged lower in the zone in the high slot and preventing the cross-ice pass. This explanation is a bit oversimplified, but as we learn more about Peter Laviolette’s system with the Rangers, we can provide more insight here.
Would it be nice if he improved in the dot? Of course. But if he’s that bad, then a winger can always take the faceoff. We saw this a lot with Derek Stepan’s time with the Rangers. We also see this a lot on powerplays.
3. Shifting from LW to RW or RW to LW really isn’t a difficult change for an NHL player. It may be tough for you and me, but we aren’t NHL players, last I checked. As mentioned above, the defensive positioning doesn’t really change much. There’s an adjustment for sure, but it’s minor.
The benefit for Lafreniere and Othmann is that they can fill the Rangers RW hole without wholesale changes to their game. It puts both on their off-wing, giving better one-timer opportunities and gives them better vision in the offensive zone. There are few downsides outside of the adjustment period.
This is not the same as moving a defenseman to their off-side. While this too is overblown, there is a risk with zone exits since the forehand would be to the center of the ice, not along the boards.
Circling back to wingers, the shift has minimal, if any, long term impact.
4. It’s easy to blame drafting, and the Rangers have a lot of issues with their overall drafting style. However one area that is not an issue is taking the best player available in the first round. The last time the Rangers drafted for position, they took Lias Andersson. Before that it was Dylan McIlrath. Lias aside, since the Rangers were not the only team in that range to whiff in the first round, the McIlrath draft was a disaster (Cam Fowler, Vladimir Tarasenko).
Now if you want to blame their draft strategy, you have a case with the later rounds. The Rangers drafted for size in recent years, a practice that almost always fails. Size doesn’t matter anymore. Strength matters, specifically core and lower body strength. If you can’t catch someone and/or can’t move them off the puck, their height doesn’t mean anything. That’s what made St. Louis so good.
Don’t draft for position unless it is an extreme circumstance.
Lafreniere looked good at RW last year
5. Another point we’ve been beating to death here is that Lafreniere actually looked very good with Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck last season. In 157 minutes at 5v5, this trio put up an absurd 58.46% shot share with a passable 50.58% xG share. They controlled play and spent most of the time in the offensive zone, generating a lot of quality scoring chances.
They most certainly struggled defensively, as the percentage of quality shot attempts against was very high. It didn’t help that they were together when Igor Shesterkin was struggling to start the season. This line only got a .875 SV% at even strength. Even with them giving up a decent chunk of quality, Shesterkin is almost always better than a .875 SV%.
This line worked. If Laviolette wants to put them in a position to succeed, then they’d get primarily offensive zone starts too. This logic also works with Wheeler over Lafreniere in this spot. Why not play to their strengths?
6. Lafreniere will likely get the first crack to address the Rangers RW hole on the second line unless he has a miserable camp. He’s the future, Wheeler is not. But if Lafreniere falters, it will be Wheeler who steps up. The Wheeler signing both addressed the Rangers RW hole on the 3rd line and Laf insurance in case he doesn’t take the necessary steps forward this season.
Shifting Lafreniere to RW has no impact on his much needed skating improvements. It doesn’t matter where he plays, if he doesn’t address that issue and his play away from the puck, then shifting to RW won’t save him. Neither will staying at LW. He’d still be a productive player, but he would be a bust to many.
7. It’s rather amusing how some say that Lafreniere needs to improve, but then get angry at anything that could help put him in a position to succeed and increase his scoring line. This move to RW puts him in that position to win. It’s honestly not hard to see that. Yes, he has other issues to work on, but he is not supplanting Panarin or Kreider on LW.
Expecting him to put up gaudy numbers without top six time or PP1 time isn’t fair. Lafreniere hasn’t done much to endear himself to the fans, especially with these rumblings about his off-ice training issues. But using that to set unfair expectations doesn’t help either.
He’s a professional hockey player and can easily handle the LW to RW switch. Hopefully he realized that he is indeed a pro hockey player and put in the work this offseason.