Lafrenière on the left wing works

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 18: Alexis Lafreniere #13 of the New York Rangers skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on October 18, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Rangers defeated the Maple Leafs 2-1 in overtime. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 18: Alexis Lafreniere #13 of the New York Rangers skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on October 18, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Rangers defeated the Maple Leafs 2-1 in overtime. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) /

When the New York Rangers lucked into the first overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, the only negative was that they had to draft Alexis Lafrenière, the consensus top pick, despite the fact that he was a left winger.  As everyone knows, the Rangers were set on the left side with Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider under long term contracts.

Lafrenière’s arrival started months of experimentation, questions, line juggling and overall angst.  Now, it looks like they have figured out where Lafrenière should play.  Yup, the left wing.

With the arrival of Chris Drury’s reinforcements at the trade deadline, it has forced the Rangers’ vaunted draft pick back to the third line and guess what?  He is excelling.  Returned to his natural position, Lafrenière is in the best offensive stretch of his career while continuing to show his natural ability to make plays and an overall improvement in his defensive game.

He has scored important goals in the last two games while on a six-game point scoring streak, the best of his career. He has 15 goals this season and when he scores, it’s timely. He’s third on the team with four game-winning goals and was second last season.

What it means is that with Panarin under an ironclad contract through 2025-26 and Kreider also similarly locked in through 2026-27, the top pick in the 2020 draft is facing a future as a third line left winger.

After the win in Pittsburgh, Coach Gerard Gallant talked about Lafrenière’s reaction to the move. “Good for Laffy…he’s got no issue where he’s playing. He’s happy, he just wants to go out and play.”

Is that a bad thing?

Gallant believes Lafrenière is more comfortable on the left side, saying  “We asked Laffy to be a 200-foot player. It’s a little tougher on the right wing. Sometimes he loses where he’s at at times, but on the left wing, he feels more comfortable, that’s where he played all his career.  I thought he was excellent tonight, he’s played hard, he finishes his checks, he plays the game.”

Lafrenière spoke about playing his natural side. “I feel like it’s just coming back in your zone. It’s more natural for me to go on the left side, it’s little things like that. You’re a always a little late sometimes when you’re not used to it.  It’s an adjustment…

It’s pretty unheard of for a top overall pick to be relegated to third line duty, especially if he has not done anything to deserve the “demotion.”  For the Rangers, the best news is using Lafrenière on the third line means the team is deep.

That’s been the case since the trade deadline.  Frank Vatrano has found a home on the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Kreider.  Andrew Copp has played well on the right side of Ryan Strome and Panarin, at least until Kaapo Kakko is ready to return from injury.

That leaves Lafrenière on the left side of Filip Chytil and Barclay Goodrow.   Chytiil’s play has improved considerably over the last few weeks while Goodrow brings experience and versatility to the line.   When Kakko returns, it means Copp could move to the right wing on the third line and Goodrow will make a solid fourth line even better.

A clear indication of the Rangers’ depth is reflected in ice time.  Mika Zibanejad routinely played over 20 minutes per game this season. After the deadline here’s his ice time in regulation in three games:  16:15, 16:31, 17:13.   Same for Panarin who played just over 16 minutes in the first two games and maxed out at 20 minutes on Sunday.

With three talented offensive lines, Gerard Gallant can spread the ice time throughout the lineup.  For the first time this season, the Rangers don’t have to lean on the top six.

Lafrenière is clearly the most talented player on the third line and his offense confirms it.  But the difference of playing with Goodrow or Copp along with Chytil as opposed to playing with Dryden Hunt or Julien Gauthier is an eye opener.

The bottom line is in the playoffs, the teams that go far are the teams that can roll four lines.  Until Monday, that was a challenge for the Rangers.

Lafrenière’s future

Does the long term contractual status of Panarin and Kreider mean that Lafrenière  will be a third liner until 2026-27, the first year after Panarin’s contract ends?  Ranger fans can only wish for that because it would mean that the team is three lines deep.

With their top pick on the third line his numbers will never be what everyone expected, but one way Lafrenière can make more of an impact is if he finally gets to play on the first power play unit.  That could come as soon as next season if Ryan Strome leaves via free agency.

It’s worth reminding the world that in 120 NHL games Alexis Lafrenière has exactly one assist on the power play.  Yup, not a single goal and only one assist.  If he ever ends up on the top power play unit, you have to believe that he could really pad his numbers.  Chris Kreider leads the Rangers this season with 19 even strength goals.  Guess who is second?  Alexis Lafrenière with 15.

It’s worth noting who was on the ice for overtime winning goal on Sunday.  Lafrenière, Copp and K’Andre Miller.  Not Zibanejad, Kreider, Panarin, Fox or Trouba.

When Gallant talks about lines, he is careful to say that calling lines the first, second or third line is nonsensical.  He has made it clear that he will play the lines the most that are working the best. He doesn’t just say it, he does it.

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