It’s been a rough start to Alexis Lafreniere’s NHL career, and the New York Rangers’ season.
Following the conclusion of the 2019-20 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, fan and media interest soon shifted towards the offseason, more specifically, towards the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. Even prior to the start of last season, Alexis Lafreniere was, in many people’s eyes, the consensus No. 1 pick, having put up some very impressive numbers in his three seasons with the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic, posting 112 points (35 G, 77 A) over 52 games in 2019-20, prior to the CHL’s season cancellation due to the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic. Couple that with being named Captain of Canada’s 2020 World Junior team, posting 10 points over 5 games, and it is easy to see why Lafreniere has had such high expectations.
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In the league’s pre-Draft lottery, which determined who would receive the First overall pick, the Detroit Red Wings and LA Kings were expected to be the frontrunners with both having struggled mightily over the last few seasons as they refused to accept a continually closing cup window. Instead, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly announced that the First overall pick could be awarded to a team involved in the expanded postseason format, with the franchises eliminated in the Best-of-5 Play-In Round entering the NHL Draft Lottery. Say what you will about how legitimate this truly was, but either way, the New York Rangers were ultimately awarded the first overall pick.
Coming into this season, Lafreniere was expected to further bolster a Rangers team that had showed immense promise the season prior, led by former Calder Trophy winner Artemi Panarin and former Ottawa Senators prospect Mika Zibanejad. While he didn’t benefit from quite the same training opportunities as seasons prior, as the NHL scrambled to put together a plan and an announced 2020-21 start date, Lafreniere was still expected to have an easy adjustment, possessing decent size for his age at 6-foot-1 and 192 pounds. Well, in spite of some bright spots, things haven’t exactly worked out that way.
After posting a solid 37-28-3 record last season, the New York Rangers have stumbled out of the gate thus far to the tune of a 4-5-2 record. A promising showing from former KHL star Igor Shesterkin last season has led into a 3-3-1 record this season, in spite of a solid 2.31 Goals Against Average, with backup Alexandar Georgiev not faring much better with a 3.27 GAA. A solid backend that offered a mix of offense and defense last season has been plagued by inconsistent performances, a lack of discipline, and a burning bag of immaturity and ego left at someone’s doorstep in Tony DeAngelo. In spite of that mess of a situation, Lafreniere’s performance has been its own cause for concern amongst Rangers fans, with the Saint-Eustache native having posted just 1 goal over his first 11 games, with a -4 rating.
New York Rangers prospect Alexis Lafreniere’s early NHL struggles are a familiar sight for a once struggling rookie in Joe Thornton.
In an NHL season like few others, Alexis Lafreniere’s performance have caught many people off-guard, in spite of a similar trend over the last few first overall picks. The First overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft in Jack Hughes, with his lack of size at just 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, led to him posting just 21 points (7 G, 14 A) over 61 games, with a -26 rating in 2019-20. While this recent string of ineffectiveness is a cause for concern, these are still 19-year-old kids at the end of the day, as was once the case for a current NHL legend who himself had his own struggles as a rookie. Joe Thornton’s departure from the San Jose Sharks was one that didn’t surprise many, with the 41-year-old veteran having showed signs of slowing down as the Sharks looked to move on and rebuild, amidst a continuing identity crisis that led to the mess of a contract and work ethic that is modern-day Erik Karlsson.
In spite of this, Thornton saw continued interest from NHL teams, ultimately signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs in this year’s offseason, a long way away from his difficult start as an NHL rookie. The First overall pick in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft (the only First Round pick from that class still playing aside from Patrick Marleau), Thornton had similarly high expectations to Alexis Lafreniere coming out of the OHL’s Soo Greyhounds, having posted 122 points over 59 games in the 1996-97 season. In spite of this, Thornton struggled immensely in his first NHL season, with it being 22 games before he would record his first NHL point. Finishing the season with just 7 points over 55 games, it was, admittedly, a slight cause for concern, until the season after.
After posting 41 points (16 G, 25 A) over 81 games in 1998-99, Thornton would continue to improve on his point totals in subsequent seasons, eventually becoming one of the NHL’s top playmakers and one of the greatest players in modern day NHL history. Earning the Art Ross and Hart Memorial Trophy in 2005-06, Thornton has continued to play a regular shift even at his advanced age, being just two years removed from a 51-point season in 2018-19. In spite of a rough start, Thornton managed to turn things around and become one of the NHL’s elite players, yet, 24 years later, it seems as though the same judgement is still being placed upon players like Lafreniere. As difficult as it is to admit, we are a few years removed from the top-level talent of players like Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid, and, as great as those players have been early on in their careers, their success planted an expectation for just that from every First overall pick following.
The NHL Draft isn’t as sure-fire or as quick a solution as it’s believed to be and, at the end of the day, these players are still young and developing. At the moment, I’m the same age as guys like Alexis Lafreniere and Jack Hughes, who have the expectations and weight of an entire franchise on their shoulders. It’s a lot, especially in the current situation we are all facing, and with this in mind, I find Lafreniere’s start is simply growing pains, and he needs more time and exposure before things truly click.
After his rough rookie season, Hughes is playing at a point per game pace on an admittedly weak New Jersey Devils team. While Lafreniere is playing on a perennial contender in the Rangers, should they want him to fulfill expectations, he needs opportunities, even as the 2020-21 season slips away from New York just 11 games in. While it’s been a rough start to Lafreniere’s NHL career, history has shown us that it can still lead to an impressive career later on. Alexis Lafreniere is far from a bust 11 games into his career and, if you’re thinking just that, remember that at one point, Joe Thornton was receiving the exact same sentiment.