The New York Rangers were a very good team last year, with very obvious flaws and very few paths to improvement. The Eastern Conference finalists were cap-crunched and locked in to some big, long deals, so there weren’t many things they could do this summer to better their odds of taking the next step. Gone is Ryan Strome and a trio of useful trade-deadline acquisitions; in is Vincent Trocheck. That’s probably subtraction on the whole. Reinforcements from Hartford are not coming this year. If the Rangers are going to be real contenders, the improvement is going to have to come from within—from young dudes already on the roster. Luckily for them, they’ve got a pair of likely candidates.
Alexis Lafreniere, the 2020 first-overall pick, hasn’t exactly looked out of place in his short NHL career, but he also hasn’t forcefully made the case for where he fits in. He’s a natural left wing, but the Rangers’ top six is set at that position with Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin. (“There’s not much room on the left side, I’m still young,” joked Panarin.) So Lafreniere has spent most of his pro minutes skating with depth lines—occasionally to effect, with the “Kid Line” which inconsistently shined in the postseason, but mostly to pedestrian results. This year is different. Out of both sheer necessity (an injury to Vitali Kravtsov, who is a big question mark anyway) and what coaches and teammates have identified as a newfound confidence in preseason, the 21-year-old Lafreniere has been playing mostly on the right side, alongside Panarin and Trocheck.
Through two games—two authoritative Rangers wins over two contenders in the Lightning and the Wild—Lafreniere has looked for all the world like he belongs on an elite unit. Thursday in a 7-3 win in Minnesota, Lafreniere set up two first-period goals, first centering a puck through heavy traffic to a driving Adam Fox, and then leaving his station to go salvage a puck in the corner and find Panarin with a nifty backhand set-up.
It was Lafreniere’s first career multi-assist game, and it was hard to tell he was playing out of position. Not that he really has a choice. “We all know he prefers left wing,” said head coach Gerard Gallant, “but he’s got to go to the right side and he’ll play well there and do his job.”
Laf seems to be taking it in stride: The appeal of playing opposite Panarin, who has made a career out of elevating his linemates, is strong. “Obviously, I want to play with them,” Lafreniere said. “I think they’re real good players. I got to keep working on my game on the right side and try to get better.”
If there aren’t many questions about what Lafreniere can bring to a team, the same can’t be said of Kaapo Kakko. No one wants to throw around the B-word, but Kakko—also 21 years old—entered the season with just 59 points in 157 career games. He’s showed flashes, and has been occasionally slowed by injuries, but his output is far from what the Rangers were expecting when they drafted him second overall in 2019, coming off international tournaments where he was a one-man highlight reel. Kakko signed a bridge deal this summer, but he’s no longer considered untouchable via trade, and there are questions over Gallant’s confidence in him, after the Finn was a healthy scratch for Game 6 of the ECF last spring. This is a make-or-break year for Kakko, and he may not even get the full year, if the deadline rolls around and the Rangers want to make a run at a Patrick Kane–type of acquisition.
Kakko is going to get his chance to prove what he can do. Because of the Rangers’ lack of depth, he’s their 1RW by default, stepping onto the Krieder–Mika Zibanejad Friendship Line that has previously had a rotating cast for a right wing. It’s a good place to be for anyone, and perhaps especially for a young player who benefits from having the space to make things happen.
Look what happened last night, after Zibanejad popped loose a puck for Kakko down low. As Zibanejad and Kreider played havoc with Wild defenders with their mere presences, Kakko showed off some of the physicality and puck-handling that had the front office drooling over him three years ago. This is a grown-ass-man goal:
Kakko won’t even necessarily have to score to make this line effective, which could potentially be a weight off his shoulders. “We’re three big bodies, so there’s a type of way that we want to play in the O-zone,” Kreider said.
“The most impressive thing with [Kakko] is on the forecheck and his ability to get under hands. He’s starting to understand that, to create offense, it’s got to be off forcing turnovers, being effective on the forecheck and beating guys back to the net, which he kept on doing. He’s a guy that wants to make an impact—and he will make an impact. He’s going to impose his will on games—and it’s only going to get better.”
We shall see. Two games two games, even if they were both dominant showings against excellent teams. But if the Rangers want to be a team with a serious shot at a Cup, the maturations of Lafreniere and Kakko aren’t really optional.