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.
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.
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.