Hartnett: Lafreniere is Next Piece to Rangers' Stanley Cup Dreams

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By WFAN Sports Radio 101.9 FM/66AM New York

Even before the ping pong balls bounced their way, the Rangers already possessed an exciting and offensively-gifted roster. With the first overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft in hand, there isn’t any doubt over the Blueshirts’ selection.

On Oct. 9, Alexis Lafreniere will officially become a Ranger. How talented is this 18-year-old left wing? Well, Lafreniere has earned rave reviews from those who’ve watched his progress closely in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and in international competitions. He is ranked first overall among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting ahead of the 2020 draft.

“Lafreniere has exceptional skills and attributes which make him a scoring threat every time he steps onto the ice,” NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr said in a press release. “Whether it’s with Rimouski in the QMJHL or on the world stage he has continually shown that he is a force that can impact and be a difference maker in games. What sets him above in this draft class is the natural compete and battle traits that are ingrained in his game, allowing Alexis to lead the way and make others around him better.”

Lafreniere recorded 112 points (35 goals, 77 assists) in 52 games for Rimouski Oceanic during the shortened 2019-20 QMJHL season. His electrifying play at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship helped Canada win gold. Lafreniere’s 10 points (four goals, six assists) in five tournament games earned him the nod as MVP and he was selected to the tournament All-Star team.

Though 17-year-old center Quinton Byfield would fill a more pressing need for the Rangers, it’s highly unlikely that the Blueshirts will pass up the opportunity to draft Lafreniere. For the Rangers, it’s as simple as taking the best available talent. There’s no reason to complicate a straightforward decision.

Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton spoke glowingly of Lafreniere’s approach and skill level during his appearance on NHL Network.

“I think along with the skill, it's his competitiveness,” Gorton said. “I think if you go back to the World Junior and before in Rimouski – right away, you could see that he has the kind of talent that we’re all looking for. But he also always drags everybody in the battle with him. We’re all looking for a player like that.”

Standing 6-foot-1 and 193 pounds, Lafreniere has received praise for his remarkable puck skills, scoring touch, advanced playmaking ability and character. He followed Sidney Crosby by becoming the second back-to-back Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year in league history. His 42 goals as a 16-year-old rookie during the 2017-18 season was the most by a player in his age bracket since Crosby.

Undoubtedly, the transition from playing against teenagers to suddenly being pitted against NHL veterans isn’t always seamless. Last summer’s second overall pick Kaapo Kakko managed 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists) across 66 regular season games in his rookie campaign. So, it wouldn’t exactly be fair to burden Lafreniere with unrealistic expectations.

The Rangers have high-performing, experienced pros in Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and others. Rookies Igor Shesterkin, Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren and Kakko will be asked to shoulder added responsibilities in season two.

Since announcing a rebuild in Feb. 2018, the Blueshirts have assembled their long-term vision piece-by-piece. Lafreniere has fallen into their lap through the luck of the lottery. For a team that’s loaded with promising youth, Lafreniere fits into the Rangers’ eventual goal of developing into a Stanley Cup-chasing powerhouse.

At some point, all the parts will click and fire in unison. When that happens, the Rangers will be a dangerous team and a staying power.

Follow Sean on Twitter -- @HartnettHockey.