Why Alexis Lafrenière's slow start is nothing to worry about

Thomas Williams
·Hockey writer
·4-min read
Alexis Lafreniere will be just fine. (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)
Alexis Lafreniere will be just fine. (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

The NHL has had a gluttony of elite talent at the top of the draft in recent years. 

Ever since the Colorado Avalanche selected Nathan MacKinnon first overall in 2013, the likes of Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid have proceeded to haunt the unlucky teams that were unable to win the lottery. Those players immediately made their respective teams better from the first moment they stepped on the ice.

The most recent first overall selection hasn’t made that impact.

Alexis Lafrenière was the consensus top pick of the 2020 NHL Draft and the New York Rangers had the honor to select him after winning the mid-pandemic lottery, oddly full of playoff teams. But since his NHL debut, the hype has fallen flat and the production that we have grown accustomed to seeing from the heralded top selections is missing.

Through 14 games and over 200 minutes of ice-time, all Lafrenière has to show for his rookie season so far is one single, unspectacular goal.

The goal, which came seven games into the season, calmed some nerves about his slow start, but he's since gone pointless in his last seven. The lack of production has caused head coach David Quinn to occasionally bench Lafrenière late in close games. 

That might be where the problem lies.

Quinn simply does not trust the 19-year-old in close situations and has not settled on any consistent forward lines in his second season as New York's bench boss. Lafrenière has been on the ice with eight different forwards for at least 25 minutes during 5-on-5 play. For how little experience he has playing in the top tier of professional hockey, that is quite a lot of linemates to try to create chemistry with, all the while he is trying to overcome a disappointing start to his career on a massive stage.

The inconsistency and instability has led to a horrid 2.08 on-ice shooting percentage at 5-on-5 for Lafrenière, meaning nothing he or his linemates throw at the net is getting past the goaltender.

In the larger scope across the entire league, among all forwards who have played at least 150 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey, only Detroit Red Wings’ Matias Brome has a lower on-ice shooting percentage than the snake-bitten Rangers rookie.

With that amount of inconsistency and bad luck through the first quarter of the season, it’s really no wonder he hasn't been able to put up many points. At least the process is there and he’s creating opportunities for himself.

The majority of Lafrenière’s shot attempts have been in prime areas -- spread evenly through the middle of the ice, right in front of the opposing goaltender. This area is where most goals in the NHL are scored from and the rookie is willing and able to get his shots off right in the heart of it.

Lafrenière’s teammates are also able to create high-quality chances with him on the ice. Using the on-ice expected goals for rate metric (xGF/60), Lafrenière sits among the league’s top offensive powers. With an on-ice xGF/60 at 5-on-5 of 2.74, which ranks 44th among forwards with a minimum of 150 minutes of ice-time, the teenaged winger is helping generate more dangerous opportunities than the likes of William Nylander, Jake Guentzel, Steven Stamkos and Jack Eichel.

While those four examples get to play on top lines with top-tier forward talent, Lafrenière is busy hanging out with Ryan Strome as his center. Nothing against Strome, but, c’mon, you know.

Every single elite forward goes through these stretches where anything they touch just ends up in the opposing goaltender’s glove or millimeters away from the open mouth of the goal. It’s just unfortunate that Lafrenière has had to endure one of these league-leading unlucky streaks in the earliest stages of his career. 

To even insinuate that Lafrenière is a bust is absurd and simply untrue. Everything you can historically depend on to tell the full story, that adds context to the zeroes on his stat line, is pointing to the shots eventually ending up as goals and his basic production rising.

The points will come eventually, but at least his process is producing some numbers.

All stats via Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz, or Evolving Hockey.

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