NHL draft: Rangers select Alexis Lafreniere with first overall pick
By Allan Kreda
The New York Rangers selected wing Alexis Lafreniere, the consensus top prospect, with the No. 1 pick Tuesday night in an NHL draft conducted virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lafreniere, who will turn 19 next week, scored 35 goals and had 112 points in 52 games last season for Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He joins a youthful Rangers roster, with forward Kaapo Kakko, 19, the second overall pick in 2019; forward Filip Chytil, 21; defenseman Adam Fox, 22; and goaltender Igor Shesterkin, 24, at its core.
The Rangers last won a playoff series in 2017 and committed to a rebuild the following season. After trading up from No. 22 to No. 19 on Tuesday night to select defenseman Braden Schneider, the Rangers have now used eight first-round picks in the past four drafts, including three picks in 2018.
Lafreniere, who is 6-foot-1 and 193 pounds, won the Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year Award for the second consecutive season, becoming the second player, after Sidney Crosby, to win the award twice. Lafreniere became the first Quebec-born forward drafted first overall since Vincent Lecavalier by Tampa Bay in 1998. All three forwards played their junior hockey for Rimouski.
“It was an unreal feeling,” Lafreniere, wearing a blue Rangers sweater and hat, said in a Zoom news conference shortly after he was selected. “Obviously, the New York Rangers is a great organization. For me, I am really honored to join them.”
Lafreniere also is a notably rare wing who can be more of a playmaker than a pure goal scorer, similar to Chicago’s Patrick Kane, Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov or Artemi Panarin, who led the Rangers in assists (63) and points (95) last season.
“Everybody talks about his ability to produce off the wing,” said Kevin Weekes, the lead analyst with the NHL Network and a former Rangers goaltender. “Wingers who can generate that much offense — make plays and create off the wall — are rare and hard to come by.”
Weekes added that Lafreniere possessed a bonus element, augmenting his offensive prowess.
“He has some jam and intensity,” Weekes said. “He will grit his teeth and dig in.”
Quinton Byfield, a 6-foot-4 center selected second overall by the Los Angeles Kings, had a succinct assessment of Lafreniere, his teammate on Canada’s 2020 World Junior Championship team.
“His play speaks for itself,’’ said Byfield, who became the highest-selected Black player in league history, surpassing Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones. “He can do everything.”
Lafreniere said he had never been to New York and was looking forward to making his first visit soon. He was also looking forward to playing at Madison Square Garden, which last hosted a game in March, before the season was suspended because of the pandemic. Commissioner Gary Bettman said during Tuesday’s broadcast that the league was targeting Jan. 1, 2021, to start the next season.
“I heard a lot of good things about the fans and about the building,’’ Lafreniere said. “I am really excited to arrive in New York in the next maybe couple of months. I hope we’re going to have a good season.”
The draft was originally scheduled for the last weekend in June in Montreal, but like everything else on hockey’s calendar since the league suspended play in March, it was delayed because of the pandemic.
An expanded 24-team playoff tournament began in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, on Aug. 1, and the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup, defeating the Dallas Stars in six games.
The initial draft lottery — held in June — included the seven teams that did not qualify for the summer playoffs plus a placeholder pick for one of eight clubs that would lose in the qualification round. That placeholder team won the June lottery, leading to another drawing in August among the eight losing teams, with each having a 12.5 percent chance to snare the first overall pick.
After the Rangers were swept, 3-0, by the Carolina Hurricanes, they won that second lottery, guaranteeing the Original Six franchise its first No. 1 pick since the universal draft format was adopted in 1969.
In 1965, when the NHL had only six teams, the Rangers chose forward Andre Veilleux with the top selection in an amateur draft that had only 11 picks. Veilleux never played in the NHL.