Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton, in a pre-draft Zoom call with media on Friday, refused to declare which player the Blueshirts will take with the first pick in the NHL draft, though there’s probably zero chance Gorton will choose anyone other than Alexis Lafreniere, the consensus top player available.
"Tune in, at 7 o'clock Tuesday and we'll tell you exactly what we're going to do,’’ Gorton said when asked if Lafreniere was the clear choice for his club.
Still, when asked to talk about Lafreniere, who led Canada to a victory in the World Junior Championships and who scored 35 goals and 112 points in 52 games for Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Gorton made it clear the Rangers love him.
"We're really impressed with him,’’ Gorton said of Lafreniere, a 6-1 left wing. "We've had a few Zooms with him. Obviously we've done our homework on him, we've talked a lot of people around him, and he's a really humble kid that gives credit to everybody around him. He's a good family kid; he works really hard. He's really focused . . . We've been nothing but impressed.’’
The Rangers have the first pick in the draft because they won the second phase of the draft lottery, which featured the eight teams that lost in the qualifying round of the NHL’s restart back in August. When the league restarted the 2019-20 season after the four-month COVID-19 pause, it only brought 24 teams to the restart in the bubble cities of Toronto and Edmonton.
But there was a wrinkle: The NHL wanted to keep its playoff tournament to 16 teams, and not expand it to 24. So it gave a bye to the top eight teams among the 24 and made the rest play a best-of-five qualifying round with the winners advancing to the 16-team playoffs. The eight qualifying round losers were not considered to have had reached the actual playoffs, and thus were eligible for the draft lottery.
Rather than wait until the qualifying round was over to have the lottery, the league held a "first phase’’ lottery before the restart, with the seven teams that weren’t invited to the restart, and a place holder representing the eight teams who would lose in the qualifying round. The placeholder won the first phase of the lottery, so the eight qualifying round losers had a "second phase" lottery, with each having an equal chance of winning. The Rangers, who lost in the qualifying round to Carolina, won that lottery.
It was the second straight year the Rangers had luck in the lottery. They had won the No. 2 pick overall in 2019, which they used to select Finnish forward Kaapo Kakko.
This is the second time in their history that the Rangers have owned the first pick overall. But the last time was 1965, when the NHL was a six-team league, and the draft was nothing like it is now. Most of the top 18-year-old players already had agreements with NHL teams, and only 11 players were taken in the entire draft. The Rangers chose Andre Veilleux with the first pick. He never played in the NHL.
Lafreniere will almost surely be on the Rangers’ roster at the start of the next season, whenever that is. As a left wing, he’ll most likely be slotted in on the third line, behind the top two left wings, Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider. No doubt the Rangers will sell a lot of replica jerseys with Lafreniere’s name on them, though they won’t feature the No. 11 he wore in junior hockey. That’s retired by the Blueshirts.
Gorton’s job won’t be done after he announces Lafreniere as the Rangers’ first pick, however. The Rangers have a second pick in the first round, at No. 22 overall, coming from Carolina in a trade deadline deal for Brady Skjei. Overall, the Rangers have 10 picks in the seven-round draft, which continues on Wednesday. Gorton said on Friday, though, that he’ll be active in looking to improve the team, and may trade some.
Rangers draft needs
1. Grit. The Rangers need more toughness, and that doesn’t mean guys who fight, necessarily, although that would be fine. Just guys who play in-your-face hockey, like Ryan Lindgren and Brendan Lemieux.
2. Defensemen. You can almost literally never have too many of those. They’ve drafted several D-men in the last few years, but they need to continue to fill the prospect cupboard. Remember, there’s an expansion draft coming next year.
3. A big, middle-six centerman who can match up against top lines and win faceoffs – think Carolina’s Jordan Staal – is something every team could use. Could that be Brett Howden? Maybe. But don’t let that stop you from looking for one or two more for the pipeline.