Lack of opportunities separates Alexis Lafrenière from other first-overall picks
The New York Rangers re-signed former first-overall pick Alexis Lafrenière to a two-year extension worth $4.6 million on August 23, 2023. Interestingly, the negotiations went deep into the summer since the Rangers’ season ended on May 1, 2023.
Of course, free agency didn’t begin until July 1, 2023, but it’s worth noting that Lafrenière was available for an offer sheet for 53 days. Now, as a former first-overall pick, he became just the third skater in the last ten seasons to head into the summer as a restricted free agency.
Historically, after his entry-level deal expired at the end of the 2015-16 season, Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado Avalanche) signed a new agreement on July 8, 2016, seven days after free agency opened. Meanwhile, Rasmus Dahlin (Buffalo Sabres) lasted an entire summer and most of training camp (84 days) without a contract, eventually signing on Sept. 22, 2021.
Although these three players are all extremely talented, various factors led them to skate out their entry deals and wait before signing on the dotted line. Ultimately, the remaining seven players on this list, Jack Hughes (New Jersey Devils), Nico Hischier (Devils), Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs), Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers), Aaron Ekblad (Florida Panthers), Nail Yakupov (Oilers), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Oilers), and Taylor Hall (Oilers) all signed extensions with time left on their original NHL contracts.
When news broke of Lafrenière finally inking this bridge deal, the fanbase continued to feel split regarding his first three seasons in the league and whether he’s earned the figures and length of this new agreement. So, that led us to look into the statistics to see how the 21-year-old from St-Eustache, Quebec, stacks up against former first-overall picks from the last decade.
Alexis Lafrenière hasn’t caught a break
Between 2010 and 2020, the top spot in the NHL Entry Draft belonged to eight forwards and two defensemen. Statistically, through the first three seasons of his NHL career, Lafrenière skated in 216 games, the third most by number-one picks, behind Ekblad (227) and MacKinnon (218).
Considering a handful of these top prospects had their entry-level years cut short by lockouts and COVID, a handful of skaters would have had higher numbers, including Lafrenière. As a 19-year-old rookie in 2020-21, he played in all 56 games under head coach David Quinn, missing out on another 26 additional games if the NHL didn’t start the season in mid-January. Thus far, he’s missed just four games in his first three seasons.
However, skating in all those contests has yet to get Lafrenière to the 100-point plateau, as he currently sits with 91 points with 47 goals and 44 assists. Unfortunately, he ranks second to last amongst his peers in this category, slightly ahead of Yakupov, who potted 88 points (42 goals and 46 assists) in 192 games. Of course, he is not McDavid (256) or Matthews (205), the only players to surpass 200 points in their first three seasons, but it is shocking to see Lafrenière ranked so low.
After reading those statistics, many fans and critics still debate whether Lafrenière is a bust or not as a top pick. However, that’s not a fair assessment because this young kid has not had the opportunities of those other first-round picks who went to bottom teams with no supporting cast.
Lafrenière fights for opportunities on a stacked Rangers team
Even though Lafrenière came to New York with the team on the cusp of contending, he had to fight for minutes against players like Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin, Pavel Buchnevich, Sammy Blais, Dryden Hunt, Frank Vatrano, and Jimmy Vesey.
Statistically, Lafrenière has averaged the least amount of ice time (14:25) by first overall picks between 2010-2020, losing out to Yakupov (14:51) and Hischier (17:23) at the bottom of the list. Considering the average ice time for these ten players is 18:17, the Rangers left winger is skating about four minutes less per game than his peers, consisting mainly of forwards.
Given that Lafrenière skates less than the average first-overall pick, his lack of ice time shows up in another category: shots on goal. After 2022-23, Lafrenière has just 312 shots, which is dead last amongst his colleagues, way behind Dahlin (382), Nugent-Hopkins (390), and Yakupov (394). Although Lafrenière sits second in shooting percentage behind Matthews (15.5%) at 15.1% showing he has the ability to score goals.
Additionally, Lafrenière currently has six career power-play points, remaining the only player in this group not yet in double digits. Even though McDavid leads the pack with 61 points, the Rangers forward gets almost no special teams time, which is why he couldn’t equal the successes of Yakupov (26), Hischier (27), Ekblad (30), and Hughes (30) on the man advantage.
Lafreinère very good at managing the puck
If anyone asked a random NHL fan who would have the most hits in the first three years of their career as first overall picks from 2010-2020, nobody would mention Lafrenière. As the numbers indicate, he’s racked up the most hits (292) amongst his peers, including the two defensemen Ekblad (284) and Dahlin (249). Interestingly, the closest forward on the list is Yakupov, with 202, the player with the least points from these draft years.
However, despite having an edge to his game, Lafrenière doesn’t put his body on the line blocking shots, with just 65, the third lowest amongst draft picks tied with Yakupov (65), but ahead of Hughes (51). Although he plays a physical game, he’s not a liability with the puck, with the second-fewest giveaways at 82 in his first three seasons.
Furthermore, Lafrenière has only 78 penalty minutes thus far, which is close to the middle of the pack, tying Yakupov (78) and slightly ahead of McDavid (70) for fifth on the list. Additionally, he’s one of only five skaters to have a positive plus/minus rating after three years, currently sitting at plus-five.
Finally, with ten game-winners on his resume already, those tallies represent 21.3% of his career goal total, which lands him with the fifth-best percentage of his fellow draft mates. Statistically, Dahlin is the leader at 27.8%, followed by Ekblad (27.0%), Hall (23.1%), and MacKinnon (22.0%).
Lafrenière needs to prove himself
Overall, when the Rangers announced that they extended Lafrenière, most of the fan base wanted to know for how much and how long. Sadly, they have based their opinions on the young kid as if he was meant to be Eric Lindros, Mats Sundin, Mario Lemieux, and Guy Lafleur, all first-overall picks in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, as the top pick in his draft class, Lafrenière has not had the same opportunities, and that is why he hasn’t won any awards or cracked 50 points in a season. Until he gets those chances, which may come under new head coach Peter Laviolette, this new bridge deal morphs into a make-it-or-break-it situation.
Unless Lafrenière can find the next level in his game, he’ll be under pressure to stay in a passionate hockey market like New York. However, the Rangers know how talented he can be, so they gave him two more years to prove himself. Even though he is not as offensively gifted as many fans had hoped for, the numbers also point out that he has made the most of his limited opportunity thus far.
Hopefully, the player and the team continue to work together to find success. Either that or Lafrenière could find a new home somewhere else, returning to haunt the Rangers someday, who have a notorious history of mishandling top draft picks.