NHL Draft Lottery: Alexis Lafreniere Will Take Rangers' Rebuild into Overdrive

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistAugust 11, 2020

Canada's Alexis Lafreniere kisses the trophy after winning the U20 Ice Hockey Worlds gold medal match between Canada and Russia in Ostrava, Czech Republic, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
Petr David Josek/Associated Press

The New York Rangers lost the playoff-qualifying battle.

But they won the future-securing war.

When a pingpong ball with the team's classic red, white and blue logo was pulled to the top of a vacuum tube in the NHL's draft lottery headquarters on Monday evening, the sports needle in Midtown Manhattan and elsewhere in the Big Apple leaned a little bit closer to hockey.

The fortuitous bounce in the Rangers' direction means they have a first crack in October at teen sensation Alexis Lafreniere, a 6'1", 193-pound winger who has lit up junior-level scoreboards with a skill set on a plane most recently occupied by the likes of Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid.

For those unaware, Crosby has won three Stanley Cups, two scoring titles and two MVPs in an NHL career that began at age 18 in 2005, while McDavid has been a four-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champ and won the Hart Trophy as MVP in 2017, two years after debuting as an 18-year-old in 2015.

Also 18, Lafreniere was the most valuable player and won gold with Canada at the World Junior Championships in January after registering 10 points—four goals, six assists—in five games.

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His third season with Rimouski Oceanic in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League ended in March with 35 goals and 112 points in 52 games.

The 2.15 point-per-game average was the highest in Canadian junior hockey since McDavid's 2.55 in 2014-15 and the best for the Rimouski Oceanic franchise since Crosby's 2.71 clip in 2004-05.

And while Lafreniere's mere arrival sends New York's hockey population into a banner-craving frenzy, the fact he's coming to a Rangers team already chock-full of blue-chip players and prospects fast-forwards anticipation for a title to follow the one memorably delivered by Mark Messier in 1994.

A respectable points percentage (.564) in a pandemic-snuffed season yielded the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference qualifying tournament, but the stay was brief thanks to a three-game sweep by Carolina.

Nevertheless, the Rangers were already considered ahead of the rebuilding curve, especially on offense, after selecting Finnish right winger Kaapo Kakko with last year's No. 2 overall pick and signing free-agent left winger Artemi Panarin last summer.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Panarin posted 95 points in 69 games in his first season with New York, while Kakko scored 10 times and had 23 points in 66 games. Also in the pipeline on the right wing is Vitali Kravtsov, who was selected ninth overall in 2018 and played 39 games with the Rangers' American Hockey League affiliate this season.

And don't forget veteran left winger Chris Kreider, a Ranger since he was drafted in 2009, who's scored 20 or more goals in five of the last six seasons. Any or all could be part of the starting lineup next season or packaged in a deal to bring in reinforcements elsewhere.

As is, the Rangers scored more goals—233—than all but four teams this season.

A lucky break in Phase 1 of the draft process ensured a qualifying-round team, rather than one of the league's seven bottom-feeders, would wind up with the first selection.

So instead of it going to a 39-point Detroit team, for example, Lafreniere was guaranteed to be there for a team with at least 38 more points.

The Rangers have picked in the top 10 in the last three drafts, netting Kakko, Kravtsov and center Lias Andersson, though the latter's days may be numbered after a midseason loan to a team in Sweden.

Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

Still in the mix at center, though, is Mika Zibanejad, who was acquired by trade in 2016 and has scored 112 goals since arriving, including 41 in 57 games this season. New York is also solid in goal with the presence of 2012 Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist as well as 24-year-old Igor Shesterkin, who went 10-2 with a .932 save percentage in 2019-20.

Add Lafreniere, likely the best Rangers pick since Brian Leetch in 1986, and it's cue the parade routes.

"In a couple years they're going to be contenders, and for a long time," said analyst Mike Rupp, a Ranger himself for 68 games from 2011 to '13, on NBC Sports Network. "The Rangers have an abundance of talent from these players coming in. They're getting a lot of offensive flair up front. They're going to be very happy with Alexis Lafreniere, he'll be an impact player on this team.

"This is going to drive this team and these players to compete for these spots."

No wonder coach David Quinn is smiling, and GM Jeff Gorton will sleep well tonight.

"Anytime you can pick first, especially this year, it's a special year," Gorton said. "It's surely exciting to have this happen to us. Right away you can see he has the talent we're all looking for, and he drags everybody into the battle with him. It's just what we were looking to have happen today."