Making sense of Alexis Lafrenière’s slow start to his NHL career

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Alexis Lafrenière was hyped as a superstar ahead of the 2020 NHL Draft. He was the clear-cut number one pick and was supposed to be an instant impact player for the Rangers. I may have been the biggest proponent of Lafrenière, claiming that he was going to be a near point-per-game player in his first year and that Rangers’ fans would be ecstatic with him.

That was in October 2020. Fast forward just over a year later and 76 games into his NHL career, Lafrenière has not been the player we all expected. He has not even been anywhere close to where I expected. So, what went wrong? How is this happening? I’ve been asking myself these questions since he began his career with one point in his first fifteen games. Let’s dig deeper into Lafrenière’s slow start in terms of both the eye test and the numbers perspectives. Then we can develop a good understanding of what to expect from Lafrenière moving forward.

The Eye Test

The overarching observation I’ve had of Lafrenière since he started his NHL career is that he does not look anything like his QMJHL self. That sounds obvious given the uptick in talent from the QMJHL to the NHL, but it’s more than that. It’s the lack of pace, lack of confidence, and lack of tenacity he has played with in the NHL that has me underwhelmed in his career so far. It’s gotten better since the first fifteen games, but there is still a lot to be desired.

The good news is that this has happened before with Alexis and it didn’t slow him down in the long run. Where it happened before was also a situation where he was being underutilized; the 2019 World Juniors. In the midst of his D-1 season, it was becoming increasingly obvious that Lafrenière was the best player in the entire CHL. Despite this, he made Team Canada only as the 13th forward and ended up playing somewhere between five and ten minutes a night. Here, I noticed he didn’t resemble his QMJHL self, much like his current predicament with the Rangers. He looked slow and did not seem to have any of his usual confidence or swagger. However, Lafrenière came back the following season in a first-line, top PP role and dominated the tournament. It was a complete turn around from the previous season.

No. 1 Draft Prospect Alexis Lafreniere Headlines Top Prospects Game
Alexis Lafreniere in the QMJHL

The similarities between the 2019 World Juniors and Lafrenière’s time in New York are evident. Lafrenière has averaged 13:24 of ice time this year for the Rangers. Perhaps he needs more opportunity to gain confidence and get himself fully engaged in the pace of the game. One could make the argument that he needs to earn it, which he has not yet fully done.

However, it seems to me that in the instances where he does get more ice time and opportunity, he gets unfortunate and pucks don’t find the back of the net. Then he gets demoted down the lineup and begins to produce at an impressive rate. If only he could continue that impressive rate with the increased even strength ice time. Sprinkle in some powerplay production in there and I think we’d see the true Lafrenière arrive. We’d be looking at more of a 60 point pace player rather than a 30 point pace player.

Lafrenière could stand to improve by increasing the pace he plays at and trying to find a way to bring his confidence up. I recall in junior he would try all sorts of no-look, fun passes that would frequently work. He had layers of deception in his playmaking game. I’m just not seeing this from Lafrenière yet in the NHL. His playmaking game was his strongest asset in junior and here we are 76 games into his career and he has 10 assists. I think it will come eventually. Playing 13 minutes a game does not help but I’m just surprised he hasn’t been able to overcome his lack of ice time with his QMJHL style of play that resulted in an abundance of high-danger scoring chances. It hasn’t been there yet at the NHL level.

The Numbers

The numbers paint a more optimistic picture of Lafrenière’s outlook in New York. Well, not if you just take the raw numbers:

76 GP

17 G

10 A

27 P

The raw numbers say that Alexis Lafrenière has scored around a 30-point pace, a very underwhelming number for a first overall pick.

However, as with any data analysis, context is key. Look at the tweet below. Lafrenière has more even strength points through 76 games than Stamkos and Tavares did, and I’m absolutely sure he is playing less than those guys did.

Right now, Lafrenière’s career even strength points/60 sits at 1.76 (via EvolvingHockey), a number that indicates top-six player at even strength.

This is the example I like to resort to when considering players who are producing effectively rate-wise but aren’t receiving high-quality minutes.

Player A:

2.00 even strength points/60

5.00 powerplay points/60

16:00 even strength toi/GP

3:00 powerplay toi/GP

This player will produce 64 points in an 82 game season.

Player B:

2.00 even strength points/60

5.00 powerplay points/60

12:00 even strength toi/gp

1:00 powerplay toi/GP

This player will produce 40 points in an 82 game season.

You see, despite producing at the exact same rate, player A will produce 24 more points from being the beneficiary of more ice time. Right now, Lafrenière is player B in his NHL career. Although, he needs to start actually producing on the PP (more on this in the conclusion). The question is, how can he earn the trust of Gerard Gallant and consistently get the ice time of player A? Maybe by correcting some of the eye-test shortcomings I mentioned above. Or maybe in due time, after continuously producing efficiently at even strength, he will get a promotion and properly replicate his efficiency in a bigger role.

So, now we know that when context is taken into account, Lafrenière’s production isn’t near as bad as it seems, especially when you consider that he had one point in fifteen games to begin his career. That’s 26 even strength points in 61 games since. In third line minutes. That’s very efficient production.

Looking at the underlying numbers, Lafrenière looks solid.

He has clearly demonstrated the ability to drive offense at the NHL level, despite not looking like an elite player. This is a skill I’ve always admired in players. It’s safe to say that when Lafrenière does get more opportunity and starts to produce, his play-driving ability will make him a valuable commodity.

Conclusion

The key conclusion I have reached from looking into Lafrenière’s slow start to his career is simply don’t worry. Rangers fans, relax, because Lafrenière is going to be an elite player for a long time.

He hasn’t played all that well through 76 games. We know that. We also know he has played better than his raw numbers would suggest. We also know that he can be better than how he has played.

One more thing to consider; Lafrenière was amongst the upper echelon of powerplay talents I have seen come through the draft. So, how the hell does he have zero powerplay points through 76 career games? Yes, he hasn’t had top minutes but he’s played 97 minutes on the powerplay now with nothing to show for it. Nada. Zip. It’s almost so fantastically implausible that I cannot even wrap my head around it. The only thing I can gain from this, is that it simply must turn around. It has to.

Looking towards the future, I suspect Lafrenière will figure something out by the end of the 2021-22 campaign. Whether that’s confidence, pace of play, his playmaking ability or powerplay production, I don’t know. But he will figure something out, and that will earn him more ice time. With more ice time, I think we will see him truly break out in the 2022-23 season, to the tune of around 60 points.

I imagine we will have more of this magic to look forward to in the future.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter @BBMHockey

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