SUNRISE, Fla. — Regarding the Rangers, who open 2023 here Sunday night against the Panthers.
In other words, regarding Alexis Lafreniere.
1. The latest L’Affaire Lafreniere does not look good on anybody: not the Rangers organization, not the coaching staff and not the player. That is no small issue.
It is incumbent upon president and general manager Chris Drury to put the full weight of the organization into working with Lafreniere and his camp to determine why it reached the point that on Thursday at Tampa Bay, the 2020 first-overall pick needed to be jolted by being made a healthy scratch.
The burden of proof is on everyone, but the Rangers do go back administration after administration culpable of either mishandling or misidentifying prospects. The organization is famous for eating its young, so it is not a particular reach to wonder how much of Lafreniere’s one-step-forward, two-steps-back dance this season is on the team.
Progress in fulfilling the potential of Lafreniere, Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov and, soon enough, Brennan Othmann — all first-rounders — is paramount to the success of the franchise.
Lafreniere, who is a pending restricted free agent in need of a second contract, is represented by Momentum Hockey’s Olivier Fortier, who replaced Emilie Castonguay when she left the agency last season to become assistant GM of the Canucks. He does not have a particular public profile — Lafreniere is his most well-known client — but it is certainly in everyone’s mutual interest for the Rangers to have a good working relationship with Lafreniere’s camp.
2. If the Rangers somehow could have known that not only would they be in the 2020 lottery, but also would win it and thus claim left wing Lafreniere, yes, it is possible they might not have extended Chris Kreider just ahead of the deadline and, in fact, traded him rather than Brady Skjei. It’s possible that the tandem of president John Davidson and GM Jeff Gorton might have done that. But that is moot.
All offseason following the lottery, the question was whether the Rangers would stack their left wings in Kreider, Lafreniere and Panarin. It seemed that switching the 18-year-old would make more sense than asking NHL veterans to move to their off-side, but perhaps that assumption did not allow for the fact that the pandemic prevented Lafreniere from playing competitive hockey for nearly a full year and that No. 13’s rookie season was not preceded by a traditional training camp from which he surely would have benefited.
It is still kind of a mystery whether Lafreniere can comfortably make the switch to the right after half-measures to shift him haven’t quite taken hold. I’m not sure why this has been such a mysterious process. He insists he is comfortable but then it is suggested that he’s really more comfortable on the left side of the Kid Line.
Oh, by the way: What do the Rangers intend to do when Othmann — a left wing — is ready for Broadway?
3. Yes, this is true: a career 36-33 in 171 games that includes 36-30 at even-strength and 0-3 on the power play.
And here is what I do not understand, and this directly has a dramatic impact on Lafreniere:
When lines struggle at five-on-five, coach Gerard Gallant will not hesitate to change them. A couple of bad periods is often enough to create an upheaval.
But when the first power-play unit struggles for games at a time, the coach not only will not change the personnel, but also would consider it blasphemy to break up the four-righty unit even under the current 1-for-16 quagmire in which they are stuck. I know — missed open nets and posts.
That is where the team and Lafreniere could benefit if Gallant would make that kind of move and elevate an athlete who is supposed to possess great vision and creativity into a spot where he may be able to show his stuff. Lafreniere should be an effective puck retriever, too.
4. I cannot imagine what equal value in a trade for Lafreniere would possibly resemble. Dealing Lafreniere and having him flourish somewhere else would represent the ultimate organizational nightmare.
Who would they be able to get, a first-rounder who may or may not ever play? Another project who plays a different position? Where is the GM who will deal a known, young, cap-controllable center or defenseman for Lafreniere … if, again, the Rangers would ever even consider making that move?
If you’re bringing in a center, you’ve decided to move on from Chytil, isn’t that correct? Unless, that is, that you’re going to ask Vincent Trocheck to waive his no-move clause one season into a seven-year agreement?
Do you think Drury wants to risk a trade that becomes Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi?
5. It is time to get Lafreniere back in on Sunday.
The remade lines worked against the Lightning on Thursday to the degree the Rangers produced 46 shots and double-digits of glorious chances, but still scored just once in the 2-1 shootout defeat.
There is no reason to break up the Kravtsov-Chytil-Julien Gauthier third line that played dynamic hockey against the Lightning. Kreider, Zibanejad and Kakko are remaining intact.
Lafreniere should slide in on the right (Is he comfortable on the right?) with Panarin and Trocheck reforming the unit that was together for 12 games in the early weeks while Barclay Goodrow shifts into the middle of the fourth line between Sammy Blais and Jimmy Vesey while Jonny Brodzinski sits.
Brodzinski has been fine in his role, and Gallant had him on late in the third period in place of Kravtsov on Thursday. But in the big picture, and that is surely as important a part of it as the narrower one, playing Brodzinksi ahead of Lafreniere is a little bit nutty.