NHL on NBCSN: Rangers’ rebuild — Good, bad, and the Lafrenière

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins. Pre-game coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

It’s hard to believe it, but the Rangers signaled their rebuild with “The Letter” almost exactly three years ago. Around Feb. 8, 2018, the Rangers embraced the rebuild, but were dodgy about the future of then-coach Alain Vigneault.

If that last sentence didn’t give you a sense of how much things have changed during this rebuild, just consider all of the pieces they’ve added.

Someone who came out of a time machine would view the Rangers’ rebuild as an unqualified success. Yet, as with rebuilds for teams like the Penguins and Blackhawks, there’s definitely been a heavy element of Draft Lottery luck.

So far, reviewing the Rangers rebuild means giving out mixed grades. In a lot of ways, the franchise is in a fantastic position to succeed. Still, there are enough lingering worries, and likely mistakes, that it’s clear that breakthroughs also aren’t guaranteed.

With that, let’s review some of the good and bad of the Rangers rebuild, three years in.

Rangers rebuild: The good

Above all else, the Rangers became trendsetters in being open about their process with fans. The Athletic’s Rick Carpiniello spoke to Los Angeles Kings exec Luc Robitaille (sub. required), confirming that others followed the Rangers’ blueprint.

“I like what they did when they came out with their letter,” Robitaille said. “”For us the goal was to be transparent right from the get-go, but I’d be lying if I told you that that letter didn’t push us to write one. We saw that they were super transparent with their fans, and as a fan, that’s all you want. That’s all you care about. As long as you know the direction, then it’s a lot easier to believe in what you’re doing.”

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Again, the Rangers enjoyed some incredible bounces, including winning the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery to land Alexis Lafrenière first overall, and making a big jump in 2019 to draft Kaapo Kakko at the No. 2 spot.

But, to some extent, there’s an element of “making your own bounces.”

Rather than making a half-hearted commitment to a rebuild — thus possibly ruining lottery odds and falling short of the playoffs — the Rangers simply pulled off that Band-Aid.

A mix of luck and skill

Even with less luck, the Rangers would likely be in a better position right now than, say, the Anaheim Ducks. Consider, for instance, the extra picks the Rangers stacked up. During the past three drafts, they’ve made five first-round selections, and have also made some additional second and third-round picks. You don’t necessarily get those extra picks if you’re holding out hope to eke into the playoffs.

And, frankly, some of those extra swings provide added optimism through these bumps in the road. As one of the Rangers’ three 2018 first-rounders, K'Andre Miller (No. 22 overall) serves as one of the brightest spots of a sometimes dim-looking defense.

No doubt, there’s some luck to go with the skill that comes from the good parts of the Rangers rebuild. Beyond the lottery luck, the Rangers didn’t need to do much but be in New York and back up a truck full of money to land Artemi Panarin.

Putting together a farm system recently ranked second-best in the NHL isn’t just about landing Lafrenière. It’s also about putting together bulk picks, and the Rangers deserve credit for that.

Ultimately, the Rangers biggest bright sides remain on picturing potential, but there are some early returns. Especially as Igor Shesterkin continues to push to keep this sometimes-overmatched team in games.

Growing pains for Lafreniere and Kakko

When a team lands a high first-round pick, the instinct is to wave away any early struggles. After all, these players aren’t complete products at 18 or 19 years old, even if they’re gifted enough to make an immediate jump to the NHL.

Essentially, it’s human nature to assume that players will work out whatever issues irk them early on. Sidney Crosby went from weak at faceoffs to dominant in the dot, right?

But development isn’t always a straight upward line, and sometimes teams just misdiagnosis players altogether. *Gestures uncomfortably to the career arc of Nail Yakupov.*

As PHT’s Adam Gretz notes, Lafreniere’s off to one of the slowest starts for a top pick since Joe Thornton and Vincent Lecavalier were beginning their careers in the dark days of “The Dead Puck Era.”* Lafrenière only has one point (an overtime game-winner) so far through his first 11 NHL games.

[MORE: Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Of course, Gretz also reminds us that Lecavalier and Thornton turned out fine. It’s certainly too early to be overly concerned.

That said, it’s also not the most promising development. After all, the overarching take on Lafrenière was that he was one of the most NHL-ready prospects in recent years. The expectation was that his game would be relatively polished. Instead, Lafrenière hasn’t scored in a 5-on-5 situation, and his underlying stats aren’t so hot.

And Lafrenière isn’t alone stumbling out of the gate.

After an honestly abysmal rookie season, Kakko is off to another modest start. Through 10 games, Kakko scored two goals and one assist for three points.

It’s not all bad news for Kakko, mind you. His possession stats indicate that he’s made big strides. Nonetheless, after looking like he could take to top level play right off the bat, Kakko is instead struggling like most players about to turn 20.

To make it clear: the Rangers rebuild still looks great, with Lafrenière and Kakko ranking as leading reasons. It’s just that we’re seeing stumbles and babysteps instead of leaps.

For the Rangers, they must be careful about how they’re developing players. Getting this right could make the difference between the Rangers’ rebuild being slow, quick, or even if it succeeds or fails. Some of that comes down to mentality. It’s fair to ask if David Quinn is the right coach for the job, among other questions.

It’s too early to be too worried about those two top prospects. It’s never too early to refine your process.

* – Actually, “The Dead Puck Era” mention was mine. Let’s all shudder in disgust at those dismal times.

Trouba’s troubles and other less-good-parts of the Rangers rebuild

Speaking of Quinn, the Rangers have definitely experienced some growing pains when it comes to building structure.

Yes, this team is a work in progress. When you hand Jacob Trouba a seven-year, $56M contract, you expect more than what we saw in 2019-20. Frighteningly, Trouba looked bad by anyone’s standards in 2019-20, not just “$8M defensemen” standards. Consider this jarringly rough player card, via Evolving Hockey:

There’s some hope that Trouba might rebound — at least to some extent — but it’s not exactly as if the Rangers added him and flipped a switch. As great as Artemi Panarin has been, the Trouba investment has been shaky.

Again, setbacks like these should inspire the Rangers to ask important questions about their rebuild.

Did management overrate Trouba? Could coaches place Trouba, Lafrenière, Kakko, and others (such as a currently-ice-cold Mika Zibanejad) in better situations to succeed?

Considering how much money is slated to Trouba, Panarin, Chris Kreider, and a few others, and that rookie deal windows won’t be open much longer for Lafrenière and especially Kakko, you have to find the right balance between patience and complacency.

In the grand scheme of things, the Rangers rebuild is on the right track. It’s up to management to steer it in the right direction, however, and not every call will be as obvious as drafting Lafreniere first overall (or saying, “Yes, take our money, Mr. Panarin”).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

    Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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    DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

    The team announced the news on social media.

    MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

    The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.