The New York Rangers will live or die on their bottom-six scoring. This is broadly true of roughly every playoff team in NHL history, so perhaps I could have picked a more bespoke lede to this blog. But I’m going somewhere with it, I swear.
The Rangers, justly maligned for so much of the season as little more than elite goaltending and an absurdly skilled power play, have begun to look since the trade deadline like real contenders. They’re driving possession and winning with sustainably normal levels of puck luck, and while their recent schedule has been a bit soft, they’ve finally managed to solidify their top two lines. Frank Vatrano, a spare part in Florida who was moved for cap space, has been a revelation on the top line alongside career-year guys Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, putting up 7-4-11 in 16 games in New York. Andrew Copp, obtained from Winnipeg, has bolstered a second line centered by Ryan Strome, bringing a two-way strength to complement Artemi Panarin’s playmaking on the other wing.
That’s it: Barring injury, those are the six guys. There’s no room for, say, a former high draft pick (or two) who could benefit from skating next to playmakers. The Rangers’ third and fourth lines, however, have plenty of room for improvement. Maybe the bottom six wouldn’t be so devoid of production if the front office hadn’t shed Pavel Buchnevich, or if Vitali Kravtsov had been fine reporting to an AHL assignment instead of bolting back to Russia, or if Sammy Blais or Tyler Motte hadn’t been injured. But no one’s going to feel bad for the Rangers’ roster, especially not when, out of the many names I’ve mentioned so far, two that I have not were recent first and second overall draft picks.
The latter is Kaapo Kakko, the consensus 1B of the 2019 draft, who was supposed to be an offensive wizard but has struggled to stay healthy in his three NHL seasons. The 21-year-old returned last week from a 31-game absence after wrist surgery, and on Wednesday scored a pair of goals in Philadelphia. (Frustratingly, Kakko left Saturday’s game against Detroit with a lower-body injury, though head coach Gerard Gallant described it as not too serious.) Wednesday’s game was also notable for the absence of another would-be/might-be/hasn’t-been wunderkind, Alexis Lafreniere, a healthy scratch for the first time in his career.
Gallant said Lafreniere’s benching was just a matter of giving him some rest and not a reflection of his play, though it needn’t be an either-or thing. Lafreniere hadn’t recorded a point in his last eight games, and has fallen down the lineup as trade reinforcement arrived—from the top line as recently as March, all the way down to the fourth line alongside an ever-changing grab bag of bruisers and plodders and Hartford bric-a-brac. Lafreniere was sanguine about the scratch. “It was fine,” he said. “[Gallant] just told me that he wanted to rest me. I wasn’t playing my best hockey, too, the last couple games before today. It was fine, I got to rest a little bit and feel good.”
The season hasn’t been what the Rangers hoped for from Lafreniere, the can’t-miss top pick of the 2020 draft—17 goals and 27 points in 73 games—though it certainly hasn’t been enough of a disaster to starting bandying about the “B” word either. He’s been streaky, one month looking like he’s getting the hang of things (probably not coincidentally, that month was mostly spent skating alongside the Rangers’ top facilitators), the next month looking like, well, a 20-year-old still trying to adjust to NHL speed and figure out his place in a lineup. His scuffles may well be the product of a not-terrible team like the Rangers winning the draft lottery: the rest of the roster is too talented to let him work out his growing pains in anonymity, or get the top minutes he needs for his development. It’s a good problem for the Rangers to have; less good for Lafreniere, perhaps.
So there he was Saturday against the Red Wings, back from the bench and starting on the fourth line, where he absolutely does not belong but which is the only place he can currently slot in without breaking up some good chemistry elsewhere. (The third line has benefited from Barclay Goodrow taking face-offs, and Lafreniere is naturally a left wing.) He said he had three aims his return to the ice: “Play with confidence, try to make plays and try to be responsible, too, in our zone.” New York shut out Detroit 4-0, so I guess he accomplished that last one, but it’s the first one that was the most noticeable. Sliding up in the lineup after Kakko exited, Lafreniere found himself in a 2-on-1 situation and elected to shoot, which, per morning-after experts like me is either a sign of confidence or a sign a player is trying to force things, depending on whether he scores or not. He scored, his first goal and first point since March 27.
But that was just the appetizer. Late in the game Lafreniere took a long pass from Goodrow, brought the puck into the zone, and absolutely undressed both Dylan Larkin and goalie Thomas Greiss by going between the legs to his backhand. It was a corker:
“One of those where you kind of just tip your hat, what a goal,” said Vatrano. “I kind of had a front-row seat to it, so it was pretty special. Special goal. Great player, huge game from him.”
What we’re not going to do, here, is read too much into one dazzling period in one April game against the Detroit damn Red Wings. Just like we’re not going to give outsized importance to Kakko’s brace against the Flyers earlier in the week. But if indeed the kids are all right, they’re going to have to prove it in the postseason from the bottom six, by necessity. That’s not how the Rangers drew it up, but they’ll take it, because if Kakko and especially Lafreniere are producing down there, New York suddenly looks dangerously deep.