It’s a product of the times, that recent events feel so far in the distant past. Where that universally shared experience doesn’t appear to be particularly relevant is with looking back on the New York Rangers’ open letter to fans to signal a rebuild was underway.
It’s been two-and-a-half short years, at least it’s seemed, since Glen Sather and Jeff Gorton announced intentions to do what most New York-based professional sports franchises find unpalatable, which is to execute a complete teardown in order to construct it better from scratch.
Rebuilds are supposed to take time, often border on painstaking, and in many cases fail altogether. But through intelligent decision making and an abundance of fortune, the Rangers are on the verge of emerging on the other side well ahead of schedule.
Fitting Hart Trophy nominee Artemi Panarin with a Blueshirt in free agency has been a major part of that. There has also been the emergence of a true star at center in Mika Zibanejad, and now escaping the mammoth shadow of Henrik Lundqvist is a goaltending tandem with just as much promise as any across the league in Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev.
These pieces represent the beginnings of a team ready to compete. But what’s to elevate the Rangers core beyond something encouraging to build around, and into something with extraordinary potential, is an addition the organization wasn’t planning for.
Presumably, the Rangers were finished dreaming of choosing a surefire superstar with the No. 1 overall selection at an NHL Draft the moment they signed one — Panarin — in free agency, and the extent to which they would benefit from the bounce of a lottery ball would be limited to the second prize from last year, No. 2 overall selection Kaapo Kakko.
However, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the interruption of the season, and with it the Rangers’ furious charge toward the postseason came to a standstill, it triggered a series of events that would set the team up with the catalyst of any rapid rebuild.
The Rangers were awarded the No. 1 overall draft selection and the opportunity to add Alexis Lafreniere, a legitimate future superstar, when their lottery ball was sucked up through the machine ahead of seven other teams. With it, the sting from being booted from the NHL’s return-to-play bubble during the qualification round for the Stanley Cup playoffs was all but alleviated, as the Rangers walked away with the ultimate consolation prize.
Lafreniere is the best prospect to graduate from the Canadian major junior pipeline since Connor McDavid was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers more than a half decade ago. He is the reigning two-time Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year, and the first to secure the honor in consecutive seasons since Sidney Crosby, who did so with the very same Quebec Major Junior Hockey League franchise, the Rimouski Oceanic.
Lafreniere’s resume necessitates that Crosby and McDavid are the first two names brought up when discussing his path and pedigree. And he certainly shares attributes with both as a supremely gifted offensive player and volume scorer with plus speed and incredible attacking instincts.
But there are several things that make Lafreniere different as well, none of which are more apparent than the fact that he combines superstar talent with just about every other attribute of value at the forward position.
Insanely competitive, fearless and physical, and fully engaged with every shift, there is a completeness to Lafreniere’s game. This is a player who can contribute in every which way, something he made abundantly clear while winning MVP honours for Canada at last winter’s World Junior Hockey Championship.
What also separates Lafreniere from many other prospects he’s believed to be one rung above is that he’s a winger, not a center like Crosby or McDavid.
It’s probably a far less important detail that Lafreniere doesn’t play the more intricate, and therefore more challenging, forward position. But in an ideal world, maybe Lafreniere would be the No. 1 center for the Rangers, whose two highest-paid forwards are already slotted at left wing, and who spent the second overall selection last summer on a right winger.
Nevertheless, the Rangers have something clearly special both in Lafreniere and the tiers of talent they are assembling up front in their much-publicized rebuild.
With Panarin, Zibanejad and Chris Kreider in the midst of their primes, and Lafreniere and Kakko following as an additional wave of entry-level talent, the Rangers are not just forming an ultra-talented top six, but one that can be immediately supplemented, and which should be able to sustain itself over time, potentially avoiding what’s seemed like the inevitable squeeze of the salary cap.
Obviously the plan for New York when it announced it would send a wrecking ball through its roster was to acquire elite talent to build around once the pieces were picked up. But adding Panarin and Lafreniere in consecutive summers surely exceeded even the most hopeful scenario ever laid out.
The result is that rare opportunity to see a generational talent step into a situation where the expectation is to win, and where there is no burden to be the savior.
Lafreniere is in a perfect spot.
And so too, it seems, are the Rangers.
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