Lazerus: Alexis Lafrenière’s breakout season a lesson for NHL’s Draft Lottery teams

NEW YORK — Alexis Lafrenière is 22 years old. That’s it, just 22. Seems like he’s older than that, doesn’t it? Like he’s in his mid-20s and already hurtling toward the aging curve. But he’s not. He’s 22. Not a kid, exactly, but a very young adult. In the real world, maybe he’d be just coming out of college, trying to land an internship or an entry-level job. In the NFL, maybe he’d have just been drafted last month.

In the NHL? He was a bust. Or something akin to one. That’s how it goes when you’re drafted No. 1 and you’re not quite the “generational” talent you were hyped to be at 16 and 17 years old. Life comes at you fast, and judgment comes even faster, especially when you’re playing in the nation’s biggest market. It’s not that Lafrenière was a failure or anything like that, but three seasons into his NHL career, he was a sturdy and unspectacular bottom-six winger, a depth scorer, a useful but ultimately disappointing player who’d never live up to the hype or maximize his natural gifts. Heck, for a while there, his name was tossed around as possible trade bait. Nineteen goals as a 20-year-old? Pfft. Time to move on. It’s not gonna happen for the guy.

But a funny thing happened this Rangers season. It started to happen for the guy.



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Lafrenière took a new tack in his offseason training. He got a new coach in Peter Laviolette, who put him in a new role on a line with Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck. And suddenly, Lafrenière looked the part — the top-liner, the top producer, the top pick.

“It’s always been there,” Rangers captain Jacob Trouba said after Lafrenière potted a pair of goals in the Rangers’ 4-3 double-overtime victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, giving them a 2-0 lead in the second-round series. “Coming into the league at a young age, into New York, is not the easiest of roles to be put in.”

By the standards of Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, two top picks who leaped right over the learning curve, Lafrenière’s regular-season total of 28 goals and 29 assists are modest at best. But watching Lafrenière in these playoffs, you can see the player the Rangers envisioned when they drafted him four years ago. And he might be just getting started.

Witness the way he calmly and coolly collected the puck and himself before snapping off a snipe that beat Carolina’s Frederik Andersen high on the short side midway through the first period in Game 2. And then the way he crashed the net and knocked in an Adam Fox centering pass in the second period to tie the game 2-2. That was something that made Lafrenière so appealing as a draft prospect, the way he can score on both ends of the pretty-to-gritty spectrum. He’s got that skill all the high picks have, but he has more than that. There’s some grit to his game. He skates hard, he works hard, something Trouba said is “overlooked” about Lafrenière. He now has two goals and five assists in six playoff games — all of them wins. (And he came inches away from a hat trick early in the third period when his goalmouth chip went just over the net).

Lafrenière isn’t a depth scorer, he’s a goal-scorer. He isn’t a bust, he’s busting out. And he’s only 22.

It’s a point worth hammering home on the night of the draft lottery, which put Macklin Celebrini — the next great young player in the NHL, we’ve been told for two years now — in the lap of the San Jose Sharks, and the likes of Ivan Demidov and Artyom Levshunov in talent-starved markets Chicago and Anaheim. Patience always has been a virtue when it comes to prospects, an obvious one at that, but it’s become a lost one. We’ve come to expect instant greatness from our top draft picks, and when we don’t get it, we cast instant judgment.

We should know better. As a scrawny 18-year-old, 2019 first-overall pick Jack Hughes scored seven goals in 61 games. The next season, he had 11 goals in 56 games. By the time he hit 21, he was one of the very best players in the world. Will Lafrenière, picked one year after Hughes, make that same leap? Maybe, maybe not. The leap he’s made is both significant and instructional, regardless.

“He grew up, you can see it, this year,” said Panarin, who was still eight years away from his own NHL debut when he was 18, playing in the second-tier Russian league. “He’s an unbelievable player. Hits everything and can help a lot for the team.”

Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes it takes three. But it can be well worth the wait.

There’s another lesson here, too. It’s no coincidence that Lafrenière’s breakout season came on a line with Panarin (a perennial MVP candidate) and Trocheck (a productive and savvy veteran). He’s been there pretty much all season, playing more than 85 percent of his five-on-five minutes this season on Panarin’s line. It’s the kind of opportunity he just wasn’t going to get under previous coach Gerard Gallant, who had made up his mind on Lafrenière. Laviolette came in with fresh eyes and a blank slate, and it gave Lafrenière new life. The Rangers had made some hay with their so-called “Kid Line” of Lafrenière, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko under Gallant, but great players need to play with great players to be great.

It’s why Connor Bedard “only” scored 22 goals with the Blackhawks this season. Bedard was playing with Philipp Kurashev and a rotating cast of left wings such as Nick Foligno, Anthony Beauvillier and Rem Pitlick. And on the flip side, it’s part of the reason why every youngster who walks into the Dallas Stars roster — like Wyatt Johnston and Logan Stankoven — seems to take off right away. It takes nothing away from their evident excellence to point out it’s a lot easier to realize your potential when you’re put in a position to succeed, when you start your career on a good team with good habits and good linemates. Lafrenière didn’t have that when he walked into a fifth-place team as an 18-year-old. He has that now.

Celebrini won’t. Just like Bedard didn’t in Chicago this past season, Celebrini is going to a Sharks team that openly and blatantly tanked to get him, flaying the roster down to the bone. The Sharks were abysmal this season, and won’t be much better next season. Tomáš Hertl isn’t walking back through that door. Every opponent will gameplan around stopping Celebrini, the way they did Bedard. Celebrini will be asked to elevate his linemates the way Bedard did Kurashev, instead of the other way around. It won’t be easy. There will be growing pains. There will be scoring droughts.

That’s just the reality of the modern-day NHL, where tanking is very much en vogue. It doesn’t just matter who you pick, it matters who’s making the pick. And the best prospects are consistently going to some of the worst teams we’ve ever seen, and their production — and development — inevitably will take a hit as a result. Which brings us right back to patience. To giving these kids a little grace, a little leash, a little time to find their games.

Remember, Lafrenière is just 22. And he’s just scratching the surface of what he might be.

“Honestly, he’s a kid at heart,” Trouba said.

Honestly, he’s barely more than a kid at all. Still. Remember that the next time a teenager stumbles out of the gate. Sometimes it just takes a little longer to find your footing.

(Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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