This rising Rangers star is candidate for contract extension

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Despite the disappointment of not making the Stanley Cup Final, the New York Rangers can feel good about how Alexis Lafreniere emerged on the big stage as a true star in the making this spring. Lafreniere’s ascension was a key storyline not only in the Stanley Cup Playoffs but throughout the 2023-24 season.

The 2020 first-overall pick shattered his previous NHL career highs, notching 28 goals and 29 assists for 57 points in 82 games. Even more impressive was that 26 of his goals came at even strength, an area of weakness for the Rangers.

The 22 year old continued his breakout season during the playoffs. He was tied for the most goals on the Blueshirts with eight, and ranked fourth in points with 14. When the Rangers’ biggest stars couldn’t get untracked in the Eastern Conference Final against the rugged Florida Panthers, it was Lafreniere who led them with four goals in six games.

His two highlight-reel goals on breakaways in Game 3 of the conference final were his signature moments during his coming-out party in the postseason.

So, with Lafreniere eligible for a contract extension July 1, will general manager Chris Drury make it a priority to lock the rising star up with a longer-term deal?

Drury’s first priority during the offseason will be to extend Igor Shesterkin, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2024-25 season and is also eligible for a contract extension beginning July 1. In arguably the most important summer of his tenure as president and general manager, Drury should also start negotiations regarding a long-term extension for Lafreniere. 

Related: Here’s what’s next for Kaapo Kakko, Rangers after one-year contract agreement

Alexis Lafreniere has proven himself to be star in making for Rangers

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Carolina Hurricanes
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The “bust” chatter around Lafreniere was in high gear following the 2022-23 season. Lafreniere finished with 39 points, which was an NHL career-high at the time, but could not secure a regular spot in the top six. He followed that up by failing to record a point in seven Stanley Cup Playoff games against the New Jersey Devils.

When Lafreniere’s entry-level contract expired, the Rangers signed him to a two-year contract worth $4.65 million last offseason. At the time it was seen as a prove-it deal. But the Rangers still believed in him, as Drury refused to entertain trade offers for Lafreniere. And then new coach Peter Laviolette committed to play him regularly in the top six.

Gerard Gallant was reluctant to switch Lafreniere to the right wing during his two-year tenure as Rangers coach, and defaulted to using him on the third line. Laviolette’s arrival provided a fresh start for Lafreniere, who seized the opportunity playing right wing in the top six.

Lafreniere was a key factor on the Rangers most consistent line with Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck. All three recorded NHL career highs in points, with Panarin totaling 120, second most in a single season for any Rangers player.

But a key was that Lafreniere proved he could play with, and thrive with, the best player on the team, and one of the best in the League. That’s no small thing.

“He was excellent, he had an excellent year. His confidence, to me, grew the entire year, ” Laviolette said on breakup day. “I thought his playoffs were excellent. He was productive. He was physical. He was noticeable. He was an impact player for us”.

Laviolette is bullish about Lafreniere playing more minutes next season, perhaps on the first power-play unit.

Lafreniere paying dividends for Rangers

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Florida Panthers at New York Rangers
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Lafreniere came into the League with lofty expectations but struggled with meager production his first three seasons, though his point total has only gone up since his rookie season in 2020-21.

However, some of the other top-five picks in the 2020 draft class had success earlier in their careers, which made Lafreniere’s slower start stand out even more.

Tim Stützle, selected third overall by the Ottawa Senators, notched 58 points in his third season, followed by a 90-point campaign. Lucas Raymond, selected fourth overall by the Detroit Red Wings, recorded 57 points in his rookie season

Stützle and Raymond entered the NHL on weaker teams that weren’t as deep as the Rangers, thus power-play time and top-six minutes were awarded in their early seasons. Despite the early disappointment for Lafreniere, his career stats rank right up there in his draft class. He ranks second in goals with 75, third in points with 148, and first in game-winning goals with 15.

Lafreniere will be due for a major raise once he becomes a restricted free agent at the end of the 2024-25 season. He can be a UFA two years later in the summer of 2027. That is, if the Rangers allow Lafreniere to reach UFA status.

That’s where a contract extension comes into play, perhaps as early as this summer with the deal commencing in 2025-26 and likely digging into his early UFA seasons.

Lafreniere and his agent could use Stützle’s contract as a benchmark. Stützle is on an eight-year contract with an annual cap hit of $8.35 million. It is not out of the question that Lafreniere could command a similar term and value on his next deal.

The Rangers are confident that Lafreniere will be a long-term fixture on Broadway. The former overall top pick has finally arrived, and it is time for the Rangers brass to lock him up.

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