Alexis Lafreniere’s NHL future will be determined when Phase 2 of the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery is held Monday (6 p.m. ET; NHLN, NBCSN, SN, TVAS).
The eight teams that lost in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers each have a 12.5 percent chance to win the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft and the right to select the left wing, who is No. 1 in NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of North American skaters. The New York Rangers, Winnipeg Jets, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh Penguins, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild and Toronto Maple Leafs each will be represented by one ball in the lottery machine at the NHL Network Studios in Secaucus, New Jersey.
Lafreniere (6-foot-1, 193 pounds), playing for Rimouski, led the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with 112 points (35 goals, 77 assists) and won the Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year Award for the second straight season. Lafreniere and Penguins center Sidney Crosby (2004, 2005) are the only two-time winners of the award.
Today, staff writers Guillaume Lepage, Mike G. Morreale and Adam Kimelman debate which NHL team would benefit the most from adding Lafreniere.
Winning comes at a cost. We all know it and the Penguins surely know it. The Penguins haven’t missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2006; I guess that’s what happens when you have Crosby on your team. They’ve won the Stanley Cup three times during that span (2009, 2016, 2017) and reached the Final in 2008. But after they were upset by the Montreal Canadiens in four games in their best-of-5 qualifier series, it’s fair to wonder if their window is closing, which Crosby even admitted after losing Game 4 that it was a “possibility.” Because of trades to help their playoff pushes, the Penguins have had two first-round picks in the past seven years, selecting forward Kasperi Kapanen at No. 22 in 2014 and forward Sam Poulin at No. 21 in 2019. Getting the No. 1 pick in 2020 and choosing Lafreniere 15 years after they drafted Crosby would ensure a much smoother transition than the one that is shaping up.
Mike G. Morreale
One team that would benefit most from the presence of Lafreniere among the eight lottery participants is the Minnesota Wild. My reason is twofold. One, the Wild need star power in the lineup because it seems the most popular question surrounding them each season is which big-game player on offense can get the job done. In their four-game loss to the Vancouver Canucks in the Qualifiers, the Wild didn’t score a 5-on-5 goal during the first three games of the series, which led to them stacking their top three forwards, Kevin Fiala, Zach Parise and Eric Staal, on the same line. Second, Lafreniere would give those die-hard Minnesota fans something to sink their teeth into. His jersey would fly off the shelves because he’s such a unifying and passionate athlete. He’s not just a great hockey player but a great, funny teammate. I recall inquiring about Lafreinere’s personality while interviewing several Canadian players at the World Junior Summer Showcase in August 2019. The one constant was that he’s one of the funniest guys in the room.
The best players should have the biggest spotlight, so what do you think of Lafreniere landing on Broadway with the New York Rangers? He’d certainly help offensively. The Rangers would be a force on the left side with Lafreniere added to Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider. And Lafreniere seems like a player who would have no issue with the pressure that comes with playing in New York. Off the ice, the marketing opportunities abound. The Rangers are developing young, talented offensive pieces with Kaapo Kakko, 19, Filip Chytil, 20, and Vitali Kravtsov, 20. Now add Lafreniere to that group. Along with Panarin, Kreider and Mika Zibanejad in their prime, and 24-year-old goalie Igor Shesterkin, and Lafreniere could make the Rangers more than just a contender for a playoff spot next season.
Pittsburgh has won championships and still has big-name players on the roster. The Rangers added several offensive pieces last offseason and possess an intimidating lineup, so they’re fine too. Close your eyes and imagine crafty veteran Eric Staal centering Lafreniere and right wing Kirill Kaprizov. Sign me up! The timing of getting a player with Lafreniere’s credentials could not be any better after the Wild signed Kaprizov, their top forward prospect, July 13. Kaprizov, a fifth-round pick (No. 135) in the 2015 NHL Draft, was a star in the Kontinental Hockey League and helped the Olympic Athletes from Russia win the gold medal at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics with nine points (five goals, four assists) in six games. Lafreniere and Kaprizov each possess the intelligence, poise, offensive skill set and wherewithal to not only become threats for Minnesota, but two of the most dominant forwards in the Western Conference, if not the NHL. The thought of having Lafreniere and Kaprizov on the first power-play unit, and possibly working on separate lines with the idea of spreading the offensive wealth and creating matchup nightmares for the opposition, are intriguing options.
There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that between our three teams, the Wild is the one that would need a player like Lafreniere the most right now. I agree with you on that, Mike. But when you look a couple years ahead, the Penguins are going to need a player of his caliber to maintain the winning culture they’ve established the past decade. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the central pieces of their offense, are approaching the mid-30s. I’m not saying that their careers are over — I’m not going to bet against them even after losing to the Canadiens in the Qualifiers — but I think that it’s time for Pittsburgh to start thinking about who are the young guns that are going to take over in a few years. Poulin and Nathan Legare (No. 74 in 2019) — each a good friend of Lafreniere, for what that’s worth — are solid forward prospects who have shown promising signs in their development. But it wouldn’t hurt to have someone who’s going to lead the offense like Lafreniere can do. And with their Rimouski roots, how cool would it be to see Lafreniere play with Crosby for a few seasons?
If you think Lafreniere and Crosby might be fun, I submit the Edmonton Oilers and the thought of Lafreniere playing on the left side of either Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl, the top two scorers in the NHL this season and each well into the prime of his career. I know there’s a ton of jokes to be made about the Oilers and having the No. 1 pick. But let’s put those aside and think of Lafreniere, who has a grinder’s mentality to go with superstar skills, forcing a loose puck in the defensive zone. Then there’s McDavid driving through the middle of the ice, drawing in the defense and sending the puck back to Lafreniere for an open one-timer. Or Draisaitl and Lafreniere cycling the puck in the offensive zone to create scoring chance after scoring chance. The Oilers used Tyler Ennis as a top-six left wing at times during their four-game Qualifier loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, so another strong, skilled wing is a need. The chance to add one with Lafreniere’s skill set would be a tremendous bonus.
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