Alexis Lafreniere is proving doubters wrong

Alexis Lafreniere is a polarizing topic for Rangers fans. His effort over the weekend was poor at best, which is ironic because he looked good in the Rangers first preseason game of the year. Ups and downs are expected, especially with rust to shake off. However this felt different, so much so that Peter Laviolette had to call out the team, indirectly referencing Lafreniere’s effort in the process.

There were some wild opinions out there. Most seem to be frustration with Lafreniere, as those rumors about his work ethic are starting to prove true. On the other side of the spectrum is another (needed) call for patience and to let this play out. Naturally the truth is in the middle, with required patience running thin because of effort and work ethic concerns.

There is fair reason to be frustrated with Lafreniere. It seems his spot in the lineup is all of a sudden on the hot seat. He’s being outplayed and outworked by Will Cuylle and Brennan Othmann, the latter of which represents Laf’s greatest roster challenge. If Laf is supposed to be competing for a top-six spot with a coach finally willing to give him a look, then why is his effort not matching that opportunity?

An odd comparison to how Rangers fans reacted to Pavel Buchnevich made waves yesterday. While that comparison did preach patience, which I agree with, the comparison is shaky at best. The Lafreniere discussion is not the same as the Buchnevich discussion. It’s apples and oranges starting with their draft position, and continuing through their first three years as NHL pros.

Let’s be very clear, both Lafreniere and Buchnevich were productive NHLers through their first three seasons. Both showed improvement in their stat lines in their first three seasons as well. In his first three seasons, Buchnevich put up lines of 8-12-20 (41 games), 14-29-43 (74 games), and 21-17-38 (64 games). Lafreniere’s first three seasons have resulted in lines of 12-9-21 (56 games), 19-12-31 (79 games), and 16-23-39 (81 games).

Both were productive NHLers in middle six roles with similar stat lines and both improved year over year on the score sheet. It’s also true that both were somewhat yo-yo’d in the lineup in their first year or two. However that is where the similarities end.

Lafreniere’s struggles are based on real hockey issues

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Lafreniere’s skating and play away from the puck has been called out multiple times. It’s tangible, with video and statistical evidence to support it.

Taking into consideration that the stat lines have a negligible difference, it’s clear that Buchnevich was the far better offensive play driver in his first three season. In all three seasons, Buchnevich was miles ahead of Lafreniere in terms of driving play. Buchnevich did a lot of little things on the ice without the major questions about his skating.

Were either perfect? Absolutely not. But it’s clear just from the above that Buchnevich was already doing the little things right. This is where he and Lafreniere differ. Effort was never in question for Buchnevich. We saw the soft skills improve with the scoring line.

Aside from his first season (thanks David Quinn), Lafreniere does have the better defensive numbers, for what it’s worth. There are some external factors at play, mostly quality of team, but the numbers are the numbers. It’s not to say Lafreniere is better defensively now than Buchnevich was then, it’s that Lafreniere has had mildly better defensive results.

For all intents and purposes, team quality, coaches, and linemates are essentially the same. There are minor differences we can nitpick, but both were in somewhat similar situations.

Biases matter

The tangible on-ice results and skills are the true difference, and that leads to very targeted and heated discussions. Regarding Lafreniere, no one is questioning the talent. They are questioning the effort and the growth. Those were never true questions for Buchnevich, where most of the vocal haters were citing “lazy Russian.”

The Russian bias did matter for Buchnevich, but again he quickly rose past it by improving. We ignored the Buchnevich chatter because it was baseless. We can’t ignore the Lafreniere discussion because it has roots in actual, tangible results.

The only bias that comes off as lazy, at least as he enters his 4th season, is that Lafreniere was the #1 overall pick. It doesn’t matter anymore, we are too far removed from it. Consider that to be similar to listing your college degree/education on your professional resume once you hit 30 years old. It’s nice to see, but no one really cares about it at that point.

These are not the same situation

The Lafreniere/Buchnevich comparison was pretty lazy, as it only factored in fan reactions to Buchnevich from a small subset of the fanbase. Whereas with Lafreniere, even the MSG broadcast mentioned he needed to change his tune. These are wildly different situations, and it is comparing apples to oranges.

We like to see growth. We like to see effort. Lafreniere hasn’t given us the former, and while the latter may be a bit overblown today due to recency bias, it has been a discussion point for a year now. Add in actual on-ice issues that other teams exploit, and you have a real worry about Lafreniere. The worry wasn’t there for Buchnevich, just lazy anti-Russian bias.

Lafreniere still has time to figure it out, and overreacting to one preseason game doesn’t help anyone. But with Brennan Othmann and Will Cuylle breathing down his neck, Laf needs to flip the switch.