Alexis Lafrenière could be major X-factor for Rangers

Alexis Lafrenière New York Rangers
Brad Penner, Getty Images

The New York Rangers were in a prime position at the NHL Trade Deadline with an already good team that had mountains of unused salary cap space to work with to improve their roster. They did not waste that opportunity, acquiring Frank Vatrano, Andrew Copp, and Tyler Motte in a series of trades.

All three are strong additions that should help add some much-needed depth to their forward lineup. But for as good as those pickups are, it might be a player that was already on the roster that holds one of the keys to their potential playoff success.

That player: 2020 No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafrenière. He is also starting to play some of the best hockey of his young career for the Rangers right now. That is important.

The Rangers’ rebuild has been a combination of aggressive spending in free agency (Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Barclay Goodrow), some good luck (Adam Fox only wanting to play for them, and him also being an instant impact player), finding another franchise goalie (Igor Shesterkin), and some really, really, really good draft lottery luck that saw them get a pair of top-two picks (Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko) without ever having to truly bottom out in the standings.

[Related: Copp, Braun make Rangers more balanced after NHL Trade Deadline]

It has produced a fascinating team. They might not be the best team in the Eastern Conference, but they are definitely one of the most intriguing.

Objectively speaking, they have had some flaws this season. They surrender more shot attempts, expected goals and scoring chances than any other playoff team, and by a fairly significant margin. They have also had some depth scoring issues beyond their top two lines. Those are two fairly significant flaws that would seem to lower their ceiling in the playoffs. Stanley Cup teams do not surrender shots and chances like this Rangers team does, and they typically go deeper than just two scoring lines.

The good news is they do have elite players at all of the right positions. Shesterkin is the runaway Vezina favorite and should be, at the very least, a top-three finisher in the Hart Trophy voting. A goalie like him, playing at the level he has played at this season, can mask an awful lot of flaws defensively. They also have elite playmakers at forward with Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, and Chris Kreider (having a career season) playing like All-Stars.

That just leaves the secondary scoring issues. Without Panarin, Zibanejad, or Kreider on the ice this season the Rangers have been absolutely crushed by every objective measure. Only 42 percent of the shot attempt share at 5-on-5, only 43 percent of the expected goal share, and outscored 41-53. Concerning numbers across the board. At first glance the additions of Vatrano and Copp would figure to be an important part of fixing that. And at some point that may happen, especially when Kakko returns to the lineup. But so far Vatrano and Copp have been playing in the Rangers’ already strong top-six. That means a lot of the bottom-six improvement under that alignment is going to have to come from players already on the roster.

That is where Lafrenière comes into play.

It would not be a stretch to say that so far his career has not been as impactful as most recent No. 1 overall picks. He has not really played a significant role, and none of his numbers have really jumped off the page.

Until recently that is.

With a goal on Sunday in the Rangers’ 5-4 overtime win against the Buffalo Sabres, Lafrenière extended his current point streak to six games, by far the longest of his career. He has also been one of the Rangers’ most productive forwards over the past month.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Competition for Avalanche in West; Bruins keep climbing]

Going back to February 24, a stretch of 21 games, Lafrenière has not only been one of the Rangers’ most productive players, he has also been one of the most efficient goal and point producers in the league during 5-on-5 play.

During that stretch there have been 356 forwards that have played at least 100 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey, with Lafrenière sitting 45th in goals per 60 minutes (1.78) and 43rd in total points per 60 minutes (2.78). He has been really, really productive. Some of it has been shooting percentage driven, but he is also getting more ice-time and has been one of the better 5-on-5 goal scorers in the league for the season as a whole.

This is an important development. Not only because the Rangers are going to want their No. 1 overall pick to succeed and become an impact player, but also because given the current makeup of their roster him doing that could help solve their depth scoring issue and give them another formidable scoring line. If they get that it could go a long way toward changing their outlook for the playoffs and raise their potential ceiling. Remember that ugly goal differential the Rangers had this season without their big three forwards on the ice? Since the start of Lafrenière’s recent hot streak that goal differential has been only a minus-1 (11-12), while there has been some improvement with their other underlying numbers.

All of this also applies to Kakko when he returns to the lineup.

As good as the trade deadline additions were, the Rangers are still going to need their recent top picks to pan out and become impact players if they are going to really be serious Stanley Cup contenders. It might finally be starting to happen for Lafrenière.

It is important to remember that not every top pick is going to come into the league and immediately be a superstar, and a player like Lafrenière was coming into a pretty unique situation where there were already a lot of established stars on the roster. Most teams picking No. 1 overall need to rely on that top pick to be the guy right away. The Rangers were not really in that position, so the development has been a little slower. Hopefully for the Rangers and Lafrenière this is the turning point for him.

[Data In This Post Via Natural Stat Trick]

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    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

    Andrei Kuzmenko
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports

    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

    Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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    DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

    Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

    Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

    Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

    The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

    Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

    Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

    Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

    Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

    In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

    Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.


    Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

    Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

    Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

    Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

    Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

    Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

    The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

    The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

    Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

    He found a little of both.

    The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

    “I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

    Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

    His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

    The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

    “It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

    The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

    Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

    Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

    “That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

    Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

    Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

    “We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

    Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

    Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

    “It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”


    Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

    Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.