How Alexis Lafreniere could be solution to Rangers biggest issue

NHL: New York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers enter this offseason with a noticeable hole on the right wing. After trade deadline acquisition Jack Roslovic largely failed to impress, tallying five goals and 16 points in his 35 regular-season and postseason games, the Blueshirts will once again search for a top-six right wing since Roslovic becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and is not expected to be re-signed.

But perhaps that solution is already on the team. Alexis Lafreniere made the switch to right wing this past season and flourished, tallying an NHL career-high 28 goals and 57 points next to Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck. Perhaps he could provide a similar spark playing to the right of Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.

It’s been a revolving door for Zibanejad and Kreider, who’ve seen plenty of right wing partners come and go since Pavel Buchnevich was traded to the St. Louis Blues in July of 2021. This season began with Kaapo Kakko, but the 23-year-old was quickly replaced by Blake Wheeler and Jimmy Vesey after some early ineffectiveness. After the deadline, Roslovic manned that spot into the playoffs, when he eventually was bumped down in favor of Filip Chytil and Alex Wennberg as the postseason progressed.

Past seasons have seen the likes of Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrick Kane, Frank Vatrano, Julien Gauthier, Sammy Blais, and Dryden Hunt all get run in that slot, with no one really seizing the role outside of Vatrano, who helped the line generate a 56.1 expected goals for percentage after the 2022 trade deadline.

Tarasenko, Kane, and Vatrano all left in free agency after being acquired via trade midseason, allowing the carousel to continue. The Rangers simply haven’t had a consistent, effective presence to put next to Kreider and Zibanejad since Buchnevich.

Related: Alexis Lafreniere is candidate for contract extension

How Alexis Lafreniere could help solve Rangers top-line issue

The play of Zibanejad and Kreider has been inconsistent ever since, and the pair particularly struggled this postseason, generating a lowly 39.7 xGF% in over 150 minutes at five-on-five with their right wing counterparts.

Their best metrics have come next to Panarin, which should come as no surprise given his exceptional play. The trio generated an astonishing 68.6 xGF% in 62.1 minutes this season and a 65.5 percentage since Panarin’s signing four seasons ago.

Unfortunately, Panarin is a natural left winger, largely preferring to play that side, and stacking Panarin next to Zibanejad and Kreider leaves the Blueshirts with a far less balanced offensive attack.

Lafreniere, however, is an interesting prospect. It’s a grouping that was experimented with under coach Gerard Gallant, logging 282 minutes between 2020 and 2022 when that trio scored 16 goals.

Granted, it’s undoubtedly a risky endeavor to break up the Blueshirts’ most effective offensive line. Panarin, Trocheck, and Lafreniere were far and away the Rangers’ best grouping 5v5, posting a 55.6 xGF% that led the team (minimum 150 minutes).

The trio scored 56 goals, 39 more than any other line combination. The next closest was Kreider, Zibanejad, and Wheeler with 17.

If you believe in the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” then you likely don’t want to even think about touching this line. However, Zibanejad and Kreider need a boost at even strength, something Lafreniere excelled at resoundingly.

Unable to crack the top power-play unit, Lafreniere was forced to do most of his offensive production at even strength. Scoring 26 of his 28 goals at equal strength, Lafreniere finished 15th in the NHL and ranked second on the team, trailing only Panarin’s 39.

He scored eight even-strength goals in the postseason, doubling the next closest teammate, and seven 5v5. His eight even-strength goals are the most in a Rangers postseason run behind only Mark Messier, who had nine in 1994.

Even as the Stanley Cup Final continues without the Rangers, Zach Hyman is the only skater this postseason with more even-strenth goals (9) than Lafreniere.

Zibanejad had 12 even-strength goals and eight at five-on-five across 81 regular season games, his lowest five-on-five mark since his first year in New York when he scored only 14 goals as a 23-year-old. Having a physical presence like Lafreniere, who’s proven his effectiveness without the benefit of the man-advantage, could boost both Zibanejad’s play and the line’s production as a whole.

There may be concerns about Lafreniere’s ability to perform at the same level without playing next to the Rangers’ top two point producers (Panarin – 120, Trocheck – 77). However, his loud performance in the postseason should ease some of those worries.

Lafreniere tied the team lead with eight goals in the playoffs and was a bright spot in a six-game series loss to the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Final, netting a team-high four goals with some highlight-reel moves.

The 22-year-old did all that despite the fact that Florida was able to smother Panarin for large stretches, holding him to a goal and four points. While Lafreniere likely benefitted from playing next to two of the best playmakers on the squad, this postseason cemented that the former No. 1 overall pick is a playmaker in his own right and has the talent to drive offensive play.

While Kakko, Wheeler, Roslovic, and Chytil all brought positive elements to the table, Zibanejad and Kreider never played alongside someone this season who is quite as dynamic and offensively well-rounded as Lafreniere, outside of Panarin for brief stretches.

Related: What’s next for Rangers, Kaapo Kakko after 1-year contract agreement

How would Rangers fill hole next to Artemi Panarin, Vincent Trocheck?

Putting Lafreniere on that wing gives a big offensive boost while the Panarin and Trocheck line remains dangerous as they still boast two excellent playmakers. Now, it shifts the opening in right wing over to their line, but perhaps that can be used as a way to spark someone else on the roster.

Despite flashes of quality play and a 40-point season in 2022-23 Kakko’s been plagued with inconsistency and has underperformed his No. 2 overall draft spot. He now faces similar conversations to what Lafreniere faced last offseason when his future with the Blueshirts was in doubt.

We’ve seen Kakko get run next to Zibanejad and Kreider, but we’ve rarely seen him paired with Panarin and Trocheck. The trio generated a 69.6 xGF% in 25 minutes in 2022-23 but did not play together this season. Perhaps Kakko’s puck possession would translate better to creating scoring chances on that line and maybe even boost his scoring touch, not unlike what happened with Lafreniere this year.

If Kakko gets traded or is relegated to a bottom-six role, it could be an opening for one of the Rangers young wingers in the AHL like Brennan Othmann or Brett Berard. Placing them into a top-six role would be a gutsy play for a Stanley Cup contender, but skating alongside a 120-point scorer could also make the transition to the NHL easier.

Either way, there’s a world in which moving Lafreniere away from Panarin and Trocheck becomes doubly beneficial, sparking both Zibanejad and Kreider as well as another winger.

There’s still plenty of time before coach Peter Laviolette will have to make these difficult decisions as free agency is still two weeks away. Nonetheless, finding a way to get the most out of Kreider and Zibanejad should be priority No. 1 this offseason.

As the postseason showed, it will be difficult for the Rangers to have meaningful playoff success if their stars aren’t clicking.

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

Mentioned in this article:

More About: