Is Alexis Lafrenière a bust? not so fast


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How close are we to regularly mentioning Alexis Lafrenière and Alexandre Daigle in the same breath?

Sounds a bit hyperbolic, doesn’t it? But ask diehard New York Rangers fans what they think. Their beloved franchise’s No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft had 52 points in 135 games in his first two seasons after debuting in 2020-21. It was good for 260th among NHL players, putting him in the 77e percentile. During Daigle’s first two seasons in the NHL, he scored the 88e most points in the league, placing him in the 90e percentile.

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I’m just stirring the pot here. The expectations placed on Daigle after the 1993 NHL Draft far exceeded any hype around Lafrenière, whom scouts saw as a can’t-miss star rather than a superstar or, as in Daigle’s case, a generational talent. But the idea of ​​Lafrenière as a « bust » has been bouncing around in my head for the past few days, ever since it was a topic in my colleague Nick Alberga’s whimsical weekly Daily Faceoff mailbag. This sparked a lengthy Royal Rumble debate that spilled over to Twitter. Some fans had a revisionist idea that Lafrenière was indeed a generational talent and therefore a crushing disappointment thus far in his career. Others felt it was unfair to put a bust tag on the kid at 21.

What do we do with Lafrenière’s career so far? Which crowd has the right idea: detractors or defenders?

Perhaps the best question to ask first is: are we still able to properly assess what Lafrenière is?

At the end of the 2020 draft year, he decisively moved away from Quinton Byfield and Tim Stutzle for No. 1 shoo-in status. Lafrenière tore up the QMJHL with the Rimouski Océanic and was the third Draft Player of the Year to earn Most Valuable Player honors at the World Junior Championship. But the COVID-19 pandemic has seriously disrupted its trajectory. He played his last game of the QMJHL season on March 8, 2020. In accordance with return-to-play protocols, the NHL’s shortened 2020-21 season did not begin until January 2021. The New York Rangers have chose not to send Lafrenière to the 2021 World Juniors Championship, which I think was a huge mistake at the time.

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By the time Lafrenière joined the Rangers for his first NHL training camp, he hadn’t played a competitive hockey game in 10 months. It would be ignorant to assume that this did not set him back at all. Was it any wonder that at 19 with an unprecedented layoff, he had one goal and no assists in his first 15 NHL games? So, before passing judgment on the beginning of his career, we must recognize the arrested evolution. It’s almost as if we had to take a year off his life as a hockey player. Think of him in 2022-23 as 20, not 21. Can we call a 20-year-old a bust?

Looking strictly at the numbers for Lafrenière’s first two NHL seasons… OK, sure, they’re not great, to say the least. In 2020-21 and 2021-22 combined, 443 NHL forwards played at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5. Among them, Lafrenière sat 351st in strokes per 60; 341st in individual shot attempts by 60; 366e in individual scoring chances by 60; and 338e in individual goals expected by 60. He barely registered a pulse but still managed 31 goals in those two seasons thanks to the fifth-best shooting percentage in this sample of 443 players.

Among the Rangers attackers? He had the ninth-best share of shot attempts and the ninth-best share of expected goals in that span. So he was barely good enough to break the third line, not to mention the top six. He also had a chicken-and-egg situation to overcome when it came to his role, of course. He saw almost no power-play work and couldn’t even average 14 minutes of ice time in his first two seasons, whether coached by David Quinn or Gerard Gallant.

But are all of these things still true about Lafrenière in Year 3 of his career? Area stats can tell. He amassed a measly three goals and 10 points in 23 games. But everything looks different under the hood. Find out the trend of his 5-on-5 game play and where he ranks among NHL forwards.

ALEXIS LAFRENIERE

SeasoniSF/60percentileiCF/60percentileiSC/60percentileixGF/60percentile
2020-215.5223rd9.1120e5.3414e0.5734e
2021-225.5317e9.6421st5.9019e0.5618e
2022-237.2157e13.566e9.4378e0.7862n/a

He did massive jumps, from ranking near the bottom of the league to well above average, roughly second-row level. Of course, we can attribute some of the change to the company he kept. His most frequent 5-on-5 linemates this season are Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck, and his game parameters are stronger with them than without. But it takes a good player to keep up with good players, and their metrics are also better with Lafrenière than without.

We are witnessing a real evolution in his game. And that reminds me of the escape that we saw of the man who took first place in the general classification the season before Lafrenière: Jack Hughes. His first season in the NHL was tough, but his game-driving metrics exploded in the second year before a major star turned into the third year. Take a look at the first two seasons of Hughes:

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Jack Hughes

SeasoniSF/60percentileiCF/60percentileiSC/60percentileixGF/60percentile
2019-207.0554e11:25 a.m.40e7.4755e0.7468e
2020-217.9477e13.5778e8.4477e0.7575e

Hughes’ area stats were passable in 2020-21: 11 goals and 31 points in 56 games. He didn’t seem to be improving, but his game play was simmering below the surface.

If we delete Lafrenière’s first season from the books because of this 10 month layoff and compare Lafrenière in Year 3 to Hughes in Year 2? We see startling similarities.

SeasoniSF/60percentileiCF/60percentileiSC/60percentileixGF/60percentile
Hughes 27.9477e13.5778e8.4477e0.7575e
Lafreniere 37.2157e13.566e9.4378e0.7862n/a

Hughes was playing at a high level in the second year, but didn’t go supernova until the following season. So maybe even if we don’t see the surface results changing, it’s too early to call Lafrenière a bust. He’s generating a lot more chances this season, but he’s been bitten by a snake with a plummeting 6.7 shooting percentage. If he continues to create as he has done so far in 2022-23, the points will come. Even if they don’t? He was undoubtedly a better player in Year 3 and could break out significantly in Year 4.

Don’t give up on Alexis Lafrenière.

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