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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