The New York Rangers are thrilled to have won the first-overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. Right?
Well, yes. Barring unforeseen circumstances (though this year is certainly the one for those), the Rangers won’t hesitate at all to select left wing Alexis Lafreniere, the consensus best prospect in the draft whose game has been compared to that of Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby.
While Lafreniere might be the top talent available, he’s not exactly the top fit positionally for the Rangers — and that could present some issues in the not-too-distant future.
Make no mistake, the Rangers aren’t planning on overthinking this and passing on the player deemed to be the no-doubt top pick for the league’s first remotely held draft — despite the fact that general manager Jeff Gorton and team president John Davidson haven’t tipped their hand on who they’ll choose. While Lafreniere perhaps substantially raises the ceiling on the Blueshirts’ already impressive rebuilding project, he doesn’t solve a critical area of need up front.
That would be at center, where the Rangers have rising star Mika Zibanejad and not too much else to evoke confidence at this point. Veteran Ryan Strome had an excellent 2019-20, but his career best point total of 59 (achieved in a shortened season) likely has plenty to do with him playing on the line of free-agent prize Artemi Panarin. Strome is also viewed as more of a stopgap by the organization than a long-term keeper.
Youngster Filip Chytil has a ton of potential, but he has yet to prove that he can handle the responsibilities of a second-line center in the NHL and the Rangers might see him as a better fit on the wing anyway. Meanwhile, Brett Howden has shown little to suggest he belongs at the NHL level either.
Despite Gorton’s strong work procuring young talent over the past two and a half years, the Rangers still have plenty of holes that need filling — with the exception of left wing, where Panarin enjoyed a career-best 95-point season and is signed through 2025-26, and power forward Chris Kreider, who already re-upped with the team for seven years.
What position does Lafreniere play? Left wing, of course.
Is Byfield the Better Fit Than Lafreniere?
It’s why, despite their great fortune to be picking first, Gorton and the front office might not have shed a tear had they ended up in the second spot, where 6-foot-4, 214-pound center Quinton Byfield is expected to be snapped up by the Los Angeles Kings.
With a game that has been compared to that of Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon, Byfield, from a positional standpoint, would look awfully good on the Rangers’ roster as the soon-to-be second centerman behind Zibanejad. Byfield, in theory, would solidify that position and allow Chytil to man the third line, vastly improving the depth down the middle. With Panarin, Kreider, 2019 second-overall pick Kappo Kaako and Pavel Buchnevich, there would be strength on the wings to complement a suddenly strong situation at center — a premium position that Lafreniere, despite his talents, can’t fill.
The chances of that scenario coming to pass are (pun intended) remote. The Rangers would be taking a great risk in passing on the consensus best player available in the draft, not to mention greatly increasing the pressure on Byfield — who had 82 points in 45 games for Sudbury of the Ontario Hockey League last season — to meet or exceed Lafreniere’s career.
Still, what does that mean for lineup balance? Well, with the big caveat that ice time almost always works itself out, taking Lafreniere could create something of a logjam — as pleasant as such a logjam could be.
Let’s say Panarin continues to put up 80-plus point performances for the foreseeable future, having done so for the last three seasons (he’s never recorded fewer than 74 in his five-season career). And Kreider — with his sought-after combination of power and speed that led to the Rangers finally committing to him long-term — keeps delivering 20-plus goals each season while providing the club with a desperately needed net-front presence. Where does that leave Lafreniere?
If he’s an instant superstar or becomes one in short order, who plays where? Panarin and Kreider are left wings and have been their entire careers. Though he’s younger, the same is true for the kid from Saint-Eustache, Quebec, who recorded 112 points in 52 games last season for Rimouski Oceanic — also Crosby’s junior team.
“Artemi makes his teammates better from the wing and so does Alexis,” former Calgary Flames general manager Craig Button said. “Usually the center makes his wingers better. Alexis is one of those unique left wings — and he is a left wing, he has played there his entire life — who makes his center better.
“My comparable is (Avalanche winger) Mikko Rantanen, who is big and powerful and talented. He and MacKinnon make magic, so one-and-one equals three. I believe that Alexis will have that same impact.” (From ‘Alexis Lafreniere Draws Rave Reviews as Likely Rangers Pick’, New York Post, 8/15/20)
The problem with that comparison is that the only Rangers center who can come close to MacKinnon’s rarefied air is Zibanejad, who delivered 41 goals and 75 points in just 57 games this season. So, if Lafreniere eventually ends up on Zibanejad’s left flank, then what of Panarin and Kreider?
After putting them on the same line to start the season, coach David Quinn split up Zibanejad and Panarin early on, giving the Rangers more balance across the top two lines. The dynamic, puck-dominating Panarin seems to thrive with anyone on his forward unit, so that’s probably not an issue for Quinn if Lafreniere is destined to play on Zibanejad’s left.
Rangers Could Face Glut of Highly Paid Left Wings
Kreider? His situation might not be as easily resolved.
The 19th-overall pick in 2009 has thrived for several seasons with Zibanejad as his center, Kreider’s heavy game serving as a perfect complement to Zibanejad’s flash and dash. Buchnevich has often joined them to form the so-called “K-Z-B line,” which was generally viewed as the Rangers’ top forward unit last season despite Panarin’s brilliance in teaming with Strome and Jesper Fast in his first season in New York.
If Quinn chooses to break up the erstwhile K-Z-B trio to accommodate Lafreniere, putting the prized rookie with the No. 1 center, is Kreider then relegated to the third line? That certainly would give the Rangers an embarrassment of riches on the left, but it also means that a player making $6.5 million per season through 2026-27 isn’t playing consistently on his team’s top two lines. Given the money that might be needed to strengthen the team down the middle and perhaps at left defense, it’s not exactly the best allocation of resources, especially with the pandemic flattening/dragging down the salary cap for the foreseeable future.
If the Rangers now have some buyer’s remorse for giving Kreider that contract just before the trade deadline in late February, we’ll likely never hear it.
Should Lafreniere parallel Crosby’s career in having immediate success in the league, establishing himself as the real deal during the three years of his entry-level contract, the Rangers might choose to lock him up long-term rather than giving him a bridge deal. That means that by the start of the 2023-24 season — when Kreider’s contract will have four years to run and Panarin’s three — the Blueshirts could have a trio of left wings making upwards of $6 million per season for a while.
Moving Someone to Right Side Might Not Work
The familiar refrain of “Someone can just move to the right side” is sure to be thrown around, but that’s generally not a realistic fix. Many players aren’t interchangeable. In this case, Panarin and Kreider are left wings, their vastly different skill sets suited to playing on the left side. Lafreniere, who Button pointed out has also always been a left winger, might be able to transition, but there’s no way to know at this point.
It’s worth noting that Quinn tried switching Buchnevich early in the 2018-19 season, attempting to push him from his natural right-wing spot to the left with no success, as the left-handed shot struggled with positioning and exhibited little interest in the move. Like Lafreniere, Buchnevich had never played another position. (From ‘Revelations, Benchings and Surprises: Behind this Rangers Experiment’, New York Post, 10/14/18)
Again, playing time usually works itself out. Baseball fans’ yearly hand-wringing over a team having too many starting pitchers in spring training almost always ends quickly amid injuries and ineffectiveness of some of those starters. For the Rangers, there’s time to figure out how the pieces fit if Lafreniere is indeed the pick in October, and the unforeseen can always turn an area of strength into one of need suddenly.
Still … Panarin and Kreider aren’t going anywhere. Lafreniere plays the same position. Are the Rangers locked into Lafreniere, or will they seek a 1-2 punch at center so desired by pretty much every team in the league? Might Gorton take a chance and go with Byfield, using his second straight top-2 pick to select a big, skilled pivot — such the rare commodity in the NHL — rather than choosing a second straight winger with a top-2 pick?
Don’t count on it. Don’t count out some head-scratching over a glut of left wings and not enough talent in the middle in the near future, either.