‘Dynamic’ Alexis Lafreniere emerged as star for Rangers in playoffs after breakout season

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Florida Panthers at New York Rangers
Brad Penner-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

There hasn’t been a ton of praise thrown around in New York Rangers circles lately. An Eastern Conference Final exit at the hands of the Florida Panthers has many dwelling on the negative and not any positives. That’s especially true with the lack of production from the Blueshirts’ star talent.

But amidst an offense that largely faltered down the stretch of the postseason when it mattered most, one player stood out.

Alexis Lafreniere.

Lafreniere finished the postseason with eight goals, which tied Vincent Trocheck and Chris Kreider for the Rangers lead. His 14 points ranked fourth. Importantly, Lafreniere scored four of New York’s 12 goals in the six-game loss to the Panthers in the conference final.

Three of his goals were scored 5v5 and the other 6v5 with Igor Shesterkin on the bench for an extra attacker in Game 5.

Lafreniere was one of the biggest question marks entering the 2023-24 season. Entering his fourth NHL season with a third different head coach at the helm, fans and media alike pondered if first-year coach Peter Laviolette could unlock the potential that many felt Lafreniere had yet to reach.

Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko, former first and second overall picks in the NHL draft respectively, had struggled to get consistent time on the top six and power-play units in two tumultuous seasons under coach Gerard Gallant.

It was one of the first questions posed to Laviolette in his introductory press conference back in June of 2023.

“Those young players have to be given the opportunity to be counted on more,” Laviolette said carefully. “You’d like to see them take the next step, more minutes, maybe a little higher up in the lineup, a little more power play time. Those opportunities will be there for them to grab that ice time and to push.”

Laviolette stressed that they would need to earn that larger role, but that they had to be given the opportunity to earn it in the first place.

Both started the season in the top six and on the second power-play unit. And while Kakko got off to a slow start, managing just three points on a top line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider that struggled to get going as a whole, it was a match made in heaven for Lafreniere to play with Artemi Panarin — first with Filip Chytil and then Vincent Trocheck.

Lafreniere posted NHL career highs with 28 goals and 57 points in the regular season, switching over to the right wing to play up in the lineup. His line with Panarin and Trocheck, who also established career bests in scoring, led the Rangers with a 55.6 xGF% (minimum 200 minutes TOI) and was, by far, their most consistent grouping all season long.

Lafreniere then kicked it into high gear for the postseason, establishing himself as one of the Rangers most effective skaters 5v5 and earning some high praise from Kreider.

“Ulf Samuelsson told our team a while ago that you don’t raise your game in the playoffs, you lean on your habits,” the longest-tenured Ranger told reporters after a 3-2 overtime win over the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 3 of the second round. “He’s got unbelievable habits for a young guy. The way he shows up to the rink, the way he works at his craft, just wants to get better, wants to have an impact, wants to win. Unbelievable player and we’re just incredibly happy to have him.”

Alexis Lafreniere stood out for Rangers during playoff run

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Carolina Hurricanes at New York Rangers
Brad Penner-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Lafreniere had a clutch third-period goal that gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead in Game 3, drawing that response out of Kreider. It would not end up being the game-winner as Andrei Svechnikov tied it up with 96 seconds left in the third. However, it was a big tiebreaker at the time and allowed for Panarin’s winner less than two minutes into overtime.

It would be far from the only clutch goal that Lafreniere scored this postseason. After going without a goal in the first five games of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Lafreniere scored his eight goals in an 11-game stretch, including a pair of three-game goal streaks.

Lafreniere began that first streak against the Hurricanes with two goals in Game 2, opening the scoring in the first and then tying the game at 2 in the second.

Flash forward to Game 4 when he tied things up 3-3 early in the third period with a sharp snipe. Brady Skjei’s power-play goal later on would give the Hurricanes their first win of the series, but Lafreniere managed to come up big once again.

As players like Zibanejad, Kreider, and Panarin struggled to have an impact on the scoreboard against Florida, Lafreniere continued to make a loud impact.

His finest effort might’ve come in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final. Lafreniere beat Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky up high with a sweet backhander on a breakaway, tying the game 1-1.

He managed to one-up that the following period with a ridiculous toe drag move, finishing the highlight reel play to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead.

Lafreniere scored another game-tying goal in Game 4 and cut the Florida deficit to one with less than a minute to go in Game 5, scoring goals in three consecutive games for the second time this postseason.

“I can’t speak to the past, I can only speak to the last six months,” Laviolette said. “He’s been pretty much set in stone with a couple of players, and that line has been extremely productive for us. He’s a big part of that”

Lafreniere had already turned some heads with a noticeable jump in his regular-season production, so his postseason play on the national stage was the exclamation mark on a fantastic year of development for the 22-year-old.

“It’s very easy to forget that he’s such a young guy still because he’s so dynamic, he’s so competitive,” Kreider said during the conference final. “He just keeps on getting better and better.”

The potential for further growth and development only breeds more excitement. The sky is the limit for a 22-year-old who was taken No. 1 overall back in 2020 with the hope that he could become a franchise-changing talent.

“You can’t expect every first overall pick to dominate right away,” former NHL defenseman-turned-podcast host Ryan Whitney said on a recent episode of Spittin’ Chiclets. “Now it looks like this guy could be a point-per-game player in the NHL.”

The Rangers will have questions to address this offseason after failing to reach the Stanley Cup Final in a Presidents’ Trophy season. Kakko’s future will be among those after he was scratched for Game 2 against Florida.

Lafreniere, at least, has silenced the questions surrounding him and can enter next season with confidence and security for the first time in his NHL career. On a team with a largely veteran and aging core, Lafreniere’s progression into a game-changer is an invaluable asset.

Lou Orlando has spent the past two seasons as a New York Rangers beat reporter for WFUV Sports. The... More about Lou Orlando

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