Alexis Lafreniere shows why Rangers’ patience may prove critical

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?

I was going to write that while I did not have the answer, I did know the question and that was whether the mutual long-term interests of the Blueshirts and of Alexis Lafreniere might be better served by sending No. 13 to the AHL Wolf Pack for a spell that might allow the 2020 first-overall to reassert his game and regain confidence that seemed to be waning.

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).

Then came this game in which Lafreniere not only scored his first goal in seven games but played with authority, asserting himself with and without the puck and looked anything but a lost youngster in need of a minor league apprenticeship.

It is unknown whether the hierarchy has ever truly considered what would be an international headline move that would have to be handled with the utmost care. General manager Chris Drury would have needed to impress on the 20-year-old that would not have been a punishment but an opportunity for a reset after a difficult open to his sophomore 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. If Lafreniere somehow fails, so do the Rangers. If Lafreniere thrives, surely will his team.

Alexis Lafreniere scored his first goal of the season for the Rangers on Sunday.
Corey Sipkin

Not only did Lafreniere score, so did Kaapo Kakko record his first of the year off a highlight power move to the net off a gorgeous two-on-one with Ryan Strome triggered by a neutral takeaway by the Finn. And then the 2019 second-overall pick finished his night with a flourish by scoring a beauty in the shootout.

This was the night on which pingpong balls came to life. Lafreniere and Kakko; Kakko and Lafreniere. In their second season as teammates, this marked the second game in which both scored, the first on April 6 in an 8-4 victory over the Penguins.

For all of their warts, the Rangers are 9-3-3. The record facilitates handling the kids with care and not overreacting the way maybe a columnist would. Patience is a virtue much more easily practiced when looking down at most of the league as opposed to 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. The protocols related to the pandemic made for an extremely challenging rookie season off which there was no foothold from which to spring forward. Expected to play a top-six role, he was unable to keep it. There were questions.

But you know, Lafreniere has played more games (71) and has scored more goals (16) than any of the six members of his draft class currently in the NHL. 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.
for the NY POST

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. But we know better than that. This is about a young man — a personable and engaging sort — who is a work in progress.

For this night, at least, progress was evident. Lafreniere was involved. He went to the net, banging in a free puck resting just outside the net. He was engaged in battles. He was an important part of the equation.

Questions about Hartford can wait.

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