This past Tuesday, Larry Brooks wrote in the New York Post that head coach Peter Laviolette needs to the right thing by former number one pick, and by that he means move Lafreniere to the right wing. It’s not without merit, after all the Rangers have both Chris Kreider (4 years NMC converting to a M-NTC next Summer) and Artemi Panarin (3 years NMC) in the line-up for the foreseeable future.
As Brooks points out, there’s not a lot of space for Lafreniere to find his game right now. Lafreniere will turn 22 the day before the season opener on October 12th, and while that is still very young in terms of an NHL player, it’ll mark his fourth season in the NHL, and his first after signing a two year extension last month.
Of course the situation on the right wing is far less certain. Kaapo Kakko is the only natural right winger on the roster that will remain a Ranger controlled player beyond this season, with stop-gap veterans Blake Wheeler and Tyler Pitlick both on one-year deals. As it stands right now, it’s likely that someone like Jimmy Vesey or Barclay Goodrow will play their off-wing just to fill out the lines – something they both did last year and in prior seasons.
If Lafreniere can prove effective on the right wing, it would open up more opportunities for the player and the team and maybe even address some of the dysfunction we saw at the end of last season as Gerard Gallant searched for combinations that could work in the top six.
It makes some sense for sure, and some of the advanced stats that he cites, make the argument more compelling.
To be clear I don’t have much of a problem with trying that experiment out again, though matter how it plays out, it does have ramifications to the rest of the line-up.
Assuming the trial move to right wing coincides with the promotion of Kaapo Kakko to the top six, it does leave a question mark over the third line. As it stands right now, either Vincent Trocheck or Filip Chytil stand to center that line, with one of Barclay Goodrow or Jimmy Vesey filling in the other wing spot.
There’s plenty of folks -Brooks included – who think this is the year that Chytil gets another shot on the second line, pushing Trocheck down to the third line, so lets go with that. It would also mean that Blake Wheeler slides down to the third line, giving you a combination of Vesey/Goodrow-Trocheck-Wheeler.
For my mind it’s Vesey that should get that spot, especially when you look at the CF% numbers of Goodrow with pretty much anyone. Without Trocheck, Goodrow is a subpar 44.67 CF%, seeing that number improve to 47.80% with the projected third line center. By contrast Vesey and Trocheck share a 56.03% number in 263:28 of ice time together, which is higher for both players when compared to playing with others on their line.
But here’s where Larry and I differ.
I’d like to see a third line that can really go hard and provide a different look, and for my mind that means adding Chris Kreider as the left wing. Kreider and Trocheck had a 70.37 GF% together last season, playing over 300 minutes together. Vesey and Trocheck also saw positive results together, and while CF% dropped down to 48.84 as a trio with Kreider on the line, the GF% remained a healthy 57.14% in just over 100 minutes played.
Stepping back from the stats, it is reasonable – as Brooks implies – that moving your top goal scorer over the last two years down the line-up could hurt the offense. After all, you’d expect that Chytil, Kakko and Lafreniere may have benefitted from playing against lesser defenders by being united on the third line, and that could ultimately prove be true, and moving Kreider away from Zibanejad could certainly impact his goal totals.
But if the concern is about ice time, then maybe the concerns are overblown. At 5v5 last year, the Artemi Panarin lead the way with 16:00 of even strength time per game (which does include 3v3 and 4v4). Perhaps a little surprising, Trocheck was second on the team with 15:34. Kreider (13:19) for his part was actually behind Kakko (13:59) and Lafreniere (13:49), and only slightly ahead of Chytil (13:16).
For my mind there’s an argument to give a third line of Kreider-Trocheck-Vesey a shot as not just a checking line, but really a two-way line that plays a solid North-South game, and perhaps two such lines depending on how the Zibanejad line shapes up.
There’s no guarantee that Laviolette will even try these lines, nor that they’ll make it out of the preseason, let alone training camp, but to dismiss moving Kreider away from Zibanejad I think limits your options for trying to build a successful playoff team.