Ever since that New York Rangers ping-pong ball jumped up from the NHL’s lottery machine, people have been waiting for Alexis Lafreniere to show the hockey skills that an overall number one pick should show.
On Thursday night, head coach David Quinn shuffled his lines and put the overall number one pick on the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. On Friday, that move paid off big dividends as all three players on the line had two points in the 4-1 win over the Flyers. Lafreniere had a goal and an assist for his two points.
After Friday’s game, Quinn talked about the move and Lafreniere’s development. “One of the things I think has happened to him is he understands how to create offense at this level right now better than he did maybe a month ago,”
So what took so long?
The pandemic hindered the young New York Rangers’ development.
Lafreniere got off to a little bit of a slow start to the season, something that is not really anyone’s fault. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic threw a huge monkey wrench into the plans, including the New York Rangers.
Before Lafreniere hit the ice for training camp in January, the last time he skated in a meaningful game was in March of 2020. Those games came in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Good hockey of course, but it is a league for players under 20 years old. It is not the NHL.
The Rangers could have decided to let Lafreniere play in the World Junior Championships in December. Much to the dismay of some Ranger fans and the entire country of Canada, the Rangers decided to have their top draft pick sit the tournament out. It was a move that looked a lot better after the Chicago Blackhawks lost one of their top young players in Kirby Dach before the tournament even started.
All of this meant that Lafreniere had to acclimate himself to the NHL with an abbreviated training camp that included no exhibition games.
Of course, it should have taken him a little longer to get up to speed.
Lafreniere’s progress will more than likely carry over to next season
Lafreniere talked about his progression and development in his post-game Zoom conference Friday night. “I’m making a lot more plays, I think, and I kind of found my game a little bit but still need to get better. That’s what I’ll try to do for the rest of the season.”
Part of the reason that very few think that he will continue to improve quite a bit is that Lafreniere has an excellent work ethic, something that his coach has definitely noticed. “I think his effort has been elevated to an NHL level'” Quinn said Friday night. “I think that’s the biggest thing players have to learn when they get to this level. There’s a whole new definition of hard work, and I think that’s something that he’s embraced and he realizes it, and it’s allowed him to have a lot more success here over the last few weeks.”
After that slow start, Lafreniere now has nine goals and seven assists on the season. As much as playing with Zibanejad and Buchnevich can help development, it will also mean that he should see more ice time. Before the promotion, Lafreniere was on the third line, a line that did not see as much recently as Quinn leaned on his first two lines in an attempt to keep the Rangers firmly in the playoff hunt.
But as the season winds down, the New York Rangers will look for ways to continue to develop Lafreniere and all of their young players so that they will all hit the 2021-22 season in full stride.