It was October 6, 2020, and Alexis Lafrenière was being called up to the podium as the first overall selection in the belated 2020 NHL Entry Draft.
Flash forward to today, and he’s already on his third NHL campaign and stuck on just 17 points through 37 games for the New York Rangers in the 2022/23 season. The 21-year-old has even been subject to a healthy scratch.
Worst of all? Those 17 points in 37 games still represent the best scoring pace of any of Lafrenière’s seasons thus far.
With all that said, it should really come as little surprise that the trade winds have begun to blow, and that whispers about Lafrenière needing a fresh start have emerged.
And given that Lafrenière’s aforementioned first overall selection occurred just over 800 days ago, it shouldn’t be surprising that many, many teams have reportedly shown interest in providing said fresh start.
What does come as at least a little bit of a surprise, however, is the Vancouver Canucks being specifically linked to Lafrenière, something that Rick Dhaliwal noted earlier this week.
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For the Canucks — a team that’s been described as allergic to the economic principle of buying low and selling high — to have the potential opportunity to buy low on a recent 1OA pick who was once hyped as a potential franchise player is understandably tempting. But are the Lafrenière Sweepstakes really a contest in which the Canucks are in a position to participate?
We’re not entirely convinced.
Now, don’t get it twisted: Vancouver could absolutely make use of Lafrenière’s services, now and in the future, so long as we’re operating in a vacuum. As a natural left wing, he plays arguably the Canucks’ position of greatest need up front. In New York, that slots him firmly behind both Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider. In Vancouver, he’d be competing for minutes with (sometimes centre) JT Miller, (pending UFA) Andrei Kuzmenko, and a handful of other folks who generally prefer to play on the right.
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Combine the positional need with a player who was deemed worthy of ample pre-draft hype just a couple dozen months ago, and it makes plenty of sense for the Canucks to be interested, should the price be right.
There’s also reason to believe that Lafrenière still possesses that same 1OA skill in abundance. His time in New York hasn’t exactly been flush with opportunity, and it’s worth noting that 66 of Lafrenière’s 69 career points have come at even strength, an obvious result of his lack of power play time.
Lafrenière’s even-strength points per 60 rate of 1.889 is currently tied for 167th place in the league, which isn’t anything to write home about, but is technically still second line production. For a player who has been stuck on the third line or lower virtually his entire career, it’s at least encouraging.
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Combine that with generally positive results in all analytical categories — including possession, shot control, and chance control — and you’ve got someone for whom there is reasonable expectation of a breakout yet to come.
Plus, it’s not as if two-and-a-half disappointing campaigns in the NHL have done anything to erase the powerful stride, all-ice vision, or remarkable hands that made Lafrenière first overall material in the first place. All that potential is still present at the age of 21, and with Lafrenière still on the final year of his ELC, any team acquiring him now will have plenty of time to attempt to unlock it.
But the key part of that phrase is “any team.” Because, while Lafrenière might look like a particularly good fit for the Canucks’ needs in particular, there aren’t many teams out there that wouldn’t take a shot at Lafrenière and his potential if the price were right. Unless a team were to be already stacked to the gills at the wing, there’s really no reason why they shouldn’t — and lots of teams in on a player inevitably leads to the asking price getting higher and higher.
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The New York Rangers already invested a first overall selection on Lafrenière. They won’t move him for pennies on the dollar, and so the asking price probably starts high and works it way up from there as the bidding war continues.
And the Canucks are not particularly well set up for a bidding war.
The Rangers do appear to be very much on the way to the playoffs in 2022/23. They should be a buyer in the leadup to the 2022/23 season, which theoretically matches them up well with the should-be-selling Canucks.
Still missing a piece in their top-nine — especially with Lafrenière out the door — Bo Horvat immediately leaps out as someone the Rangers might be interested in. Whether at centre or on the wing, he’d certainly give them a deeper forward set and would be a major boon to their middling power play. The fit is there, at least for the remainder of this season. But there’s next to no chance that the Rangers would have the cap space for Horvat beyond this year, and the odds of them converting a 1OA pick into a rental within the span of three years are slim.
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If Horvat doesn’t get the job done, perhaps the Rangers look to upgrade Lafrenière into Kuzmenko; another pending UFA, but one they might have a better chance of extending. That would constitute trading Lafrenière for someone older and more expensive, but as of this moment, it’s also a serious step up in production. Again, there’s a fit to be found there if the Rangers want to pursue it.
And if rentals really are what the Rangers are after, the Canucks have options for them. But if the Rangers would rather bring back something more future-angled in return for Lafrenière? Well, then, the Canucks probably don’t have much business being part of negotiations beyond that point.
The Canucks’ prospect cupboard is as barren as its ever been. They’ve somehow managed to make it through nearly a decade of cellar-dwelling without picking up much in the way of extra picks or prospects, so they don’t have anywhere near the quality or quantity of future assets required to bring in someone of Lafrenière’s profile — and what they do have, the Canucks desperately need to keep.
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Lafrenière does fit the bill of that under-26 NHLer that Jim Rutherford and Patrik Allvin have reportedly been targeting. But if they sacrifice even younger assets in order to get him, all they’ve really done is accelerated the passing of a competitive window that has yet to even be cracked open. It would be hard not to perceive it as a counterproductive move.
Now, sure, if the price is right, then the price is right. If NYR is willing to move Lafrenière for, say, a second round pick and anyone on the farm, you make that trade without thinking too hard about it at all.
But we have to imagine that, if future assets are what New York is seeking, the bidding for Lafrenière starts at a mid-first-round pick in 2023 and/or an equivalent prospect. That’s a price the Canucks cannot afford and should not attempt to match.
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Where does that leave Lafrenière and the Canucks? Call it a longshot, call it a pipedream, call it what you will. The chances are best that this one gets left at the tire-kicking stage and never progresses beyond.