Over the past few games, there’s been no doubt that Alexis Lafrenière, the New York Rangers prized 2020 No. 1 overall selection, has started to show glimpses of his potential offensive ceiling.
After getting promoted to a first line that sees the forward playing alongside two of the most dynamic offensive players on the Rangers, Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, the young winger has learned to play on his off-wing and has started to thrive.
Lafrenière has already matched his first season’s goal total of 12, along with four assists to bring him to a total of 16 points through 51 games. Last season, the winger tallied 12 goals and nine assists in 56 games, but contrary to how many critics called out the 20-year-old for not living up to the hefty expectations that former # 1 picks accomplished before him, there’s much more to these numbers.
Before his current role on the first line, Lafrenière played a decent portion of the season on the third line alongside players like Filip Chytil and Julien Gauthier, who have a combined eight goals and 18 points. While both of these players, who also seem to be on the trade block heading into March’s deadline, showed some flashes with Lafrenière, many Rangers fans and media alike could agree that their lottery pick needed to get more ice time with more skilled forwards.
The big experiment of playing Lafrenière at right wing instead of his usual left wing spot certainly had a learning curve at first, but lately, the results have started to show both with the eye test and on the stat sheet.
His playmaking ability is a major bonus playing alongside two gifted goal-scorers, and the duo has already have had long-term chemistry dating back to the KZB line with Pavel Buchnevich, and Lafrenière has started to fill this role and show lottery pick-caliber flashes whenever he gets rushes and offensive zone time with two all-stars.
Despite not securing any points in this game, one of Lafrenière’s best performances of the year was during the Rangers’ 3-2 shootout loss vs. the Detroit Red Wings back on Feb. 17. The points for the young winger came soon after during New York’s 4-1 victory over the Washington Capitals, when Lafrenière scored one goal and one assist, alongside Kreider and Zibanejad (one assist), who each had a goal. On Kreider’s goal, he didn’t get a point, but it was hit work on the boards that led the the score.
After an absolute laser of a goal from Lafrenière during last Sunday’s 5-2 loss to Vancouver, the points are starting to come, and now leads to a very interesting question that has been around since the start of the season.
Could Lafrenière’s production reach a new level with increased power play time?
Current power play success
The common storyline of the season has been the Rangers struggles in normal five-on-five scoring, but their power play has become such a force and has made up for the lack of offense.
New York currently sits fourth in the NHL with a 25.3% power play percentage, and the first unit consisting of Kreider, Zibanejad, Ryan Strome, Artemi Panarin, and Adam Fox, has been a major catalyst for numerous Blueshirts victories.
The roles have been set for a while, which includes Kreider’s net front presence, Zibanejad’s wicked one-timer, Panarin’s playmaking ability and shot, and Fox’s quarterbacking of the entire unit.
The last spot in the group, one that Strome currently possesses, has been up in the air dating back to the days of former head coach David Quinn, as this top group transferred over from one coaching system to the next.
Strome currently has two goals and eight assists on the man advantage this year, while also maintaining a 51.4% faceoff win percentage. Lafrenière’s second unit, which typically consists of players like Gauthier, Barclay Goodrow, K’Andre Miller, Jacob Trouba, and swap in Kaapo Kakko/Chytil when they’re healthy, gets very limited action on the power play.
Both Quinn and Gallant have made sure the top unit takes up the majority of the time on the ice, and to put this into perspective, Lafrenière averages around 13:52 TOI for his career (13:51 this season). He currently has zero (you read that right) career power play points, averaging a little over one minute of PP time a game.
The second unit typically doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to set up in the offensive zone, and rely on rushes that mostly end up with penalties expiring by the time the group can begin their actual strategy.
Why a power play promotion makes sense
Now, you may be thinking, why would the Rangers want to even tinker with the idea of changing that first unit that gets most of the opportunities and has put the Rangers into a potential playoff spot?
The common consensus has always been that Strome would be the player to get demoted if a change was ever made, since the other four are virtually untouchable and essential for the Blueshirts offense.
As the set-up man of the unit, Strome currently has eight power play assists compared to the 15 he secured last season, so this lack of playmaking has been a driving force for any potential Strome-Lafrenière swap. Arguably, Lafrenière’s strongest part of his game is finding the open man and facilitating offense, so this certainly could be an upgrade.
To also answer a counter-point of who would take the majority of the faceoffs if the unit was down a center, Zibanejad currently has a 57.6% faceoff win percentage, and has taken 151 power play faceoffs compared to only 35 for Strome.
If Strome isn’t setting up goals like he used to, scoring goals himself (only three goals last year, two this season), or taking the majority of the faceoffs, this begs the question of why he is still with the top group.
With Strome only having five points (two on the power play) in his last 10 games, and the power play being held scoreless in the Rangers last three games (including the Rangers getting stopped three times by the worst penalty kill squad of the NHL in the Canucks), now could be an opportunity for the first unit to try out another left-handed shot outside of Kreider.
This would bring another dangerous element to the special teams unit that New York relies heavily on for scoring, plus Lafrenière has already shown he can now consistently work with at least two of the players on the unit.
A change like this does not have to be permanent. If the power play continues its recent struggles (key word being recent), maybe a change is needed to spark the group, and potentially kick-start Strome who has struggled as of late.
But by adding Lafrenière, who now has three points in his past three games, would finally see his point total begin to steadily improve as he would get more opportunities similar to his young forward comparisons (Jack Hughes, Lucas Raymond, etc.) who have all been getting more special teams chances on weaker teams.
If the Rangers want to continue their push for the postseason, the top unit with Strome has undoubtedly provided the results, so experimenting with Lafrenière has an easy fall back plan if things go awry.
Nonetheless, now is one of the best times since Lafrenière entered the league to get more power play time, and only time will tell if it could happen.