Rangers’ patience with Alexis Lafreniere may be paying off

Do you want to know what I had intended to write before this Rangers’ 4-3 shootout victory over the Devils unfolded at the Garden on Sunday?

While I didn’t know the answer to the question, I knew the question. It was about whether sending No. 13 to AHL Wolf Pack in a spell that could allow 2020’s first-overall, Alexis Lafreniere to assert his game again and gain confidence.

But then came this wild and crazy game that was capped by a most entertaining seven-round skills competition decided by the first shootout goal of Chris Kreider’s career on just his second attempt (and first since his 2012-13 rookie season).

Lafreniere then scored his seventh goal and played with authority in this game.

Unknown if the hierarchy ever thought about what could be an important international move. This would need to be done with great care. Chris Drury as general manager would have had to show the 20-year old that this would not have been punishment, but an opportunity for him to start over after his second year.

The thing is, and this must always be uppermost in the organization’s eyes as well as Lafreniere’s, they are in this together. Rangers are in the same boat as Lafreniere if he fails. Lafreniere will surely succeed, as will his team.

Alexis Lafreniere
Alexis Lafreniere’s first goal for the Rangers this season was scored by the Rangers on Sunday.
Corey Sipkin

Kaapo Kakko also scored a score of Lafreniere, his first for the year. He recorded a highlight power play to the net after a stunning two-on-1 with Ryan Strome. This was triggered by Ryan Strome’s neutral takeaway. After scoring the beauty in the shootout, the 2019 second-overall selection finished his night.

That night was when pingpong ball came to life. Kakko, Lafreniere; Kakko, Lafreniere. This was their second season together, and this was the second time they scored. The first came on April 6, when the Penguins won 8-4.

The Rangers’ 9-3-3 record is a testament to their ability to handle all warts. This record allows the Rangers to handle the children with compassion and avoid overreacting like a columnist. It is much easier to be patient when looking at the whole league than looking up.

When asked if he had to work on keeping his confidence up or whether it was naturally high through this stretch in which he spent one game on the fourth line, has settled on the third line, and has played reduced minutes, Lafreniere said, “A little bit of both.”

“For sure you have to work a little bit on it, when you go a few games without scoring you think about it a little bit. But if you work hard and every day you give it your best, you’ll have no regrets, for sure.”

None of this has been easy for Lafreniere, who has produced very few “wow moments” through his tenure. It was a difficult rookie season due to pandemic protocols. There wasn’t much to go on. His expectation was to fill a top six role. He couldn’t. There were many questions.

However, Lafreniere is the NHL’s most active draftee. He has played 71% more games than anyone else and has scored 16 more goals. He and Ottawa’s third-overall Tim Stutzle are the only two players that were in the league for the entirety of 2020-21. And while Stutzle did provide highlight moments a year ago, it took until Saturday and the Senators’ 14th game for him to score his first goal of this season.

Sammy Blais (91) jumps into the arms of Kaapo Kakko after Alexis Lafreniere’s goal.

So, patience. So, understanding. So, nurturing.

“Confidence level, with those young kids you worry about that,” said head coach Gerard Gallant. “There’s three or four of them … [Filip] Chytil, K’Andre Miller. Those kids are young kids. But you’ve just got to keep playing them.

“They pay big dividends for us, big goal by Lafreniere, Kakko with a goal and the shootout. That’s huge for those kids.”

Every time Lafreniere scores — four times this year — there is a rush to stamp the event as a coming out party. We know better. This is about a young man — a personable and engaging sort — who is a work in progress.

Progress was made at the very least that night. Lafreniere was also involved. Lafreniere was involved. He went to the net and blasted in the free puck that lay just outside of the net. He engaged in fights. He was an essential part of the equation.

Ask questions about Hartford.

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