The New York Rangers have decided to drop Alexis Lafreniere even further down than the fourth line. He’ll spend this evening in the press box as a healthy scratch while the Rangers take on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Sammy Blais will enter the lineup in his place, according to Colin Stephenson of Newsday.
The Rangers and the 2020 first-overall pick are at a critical point, according to Arthur Staple of The Athletic, who spoke to several scouts that were critical of Lafreniere’s play. Still just 21 years old, the left-shot forward has five goals and 17 points in 36 games.
He has seen his playing time decrease rapidly over the last few weeks, and now he’ll have to watch a sixth-round pick in Blais take his lineup spot. Lafreniere scored more goals last season than Blais has over his entire career; in fact, he hasn’t scored a single time since arriving in New York before last season.
But it’s the lack of identity that comes up in so many critiques of Lafreniere’s play. He disappears often and rarely imposes his will on a game, even though there is talent to do so. The legendary junior player – who won two QMJHL MVP awards, two CHL Player of the Year awards, and World Junior gold and MVP honors – is too rarely present for the Rangers.
Lafreniere has scored 36 goals and 69 points in 171 games, while bouncing all around the lineup to try and find a good fit. While one healthy scratch doesn’t mean he’ll be immediately traded, it is just another chapter in what has been an imperfect marriage since the moment he was selected.
Notably, the young forward is going to be a restricted free agent at the end of the season and will likely have to settle for an inexpensive deal. There’s no reason to pay him, given he doesn’t have arbitration rights or much leverage. What that contract looks like will be determined by the second half of 2022-23, when he’ll either re-establish himself as a core piece for the Rangers moving forward, or confirm the idea that he’s never going to become that difference-maker for New York.