Building Up Lafrenière

How to nurture under-aged offensive players

Ten games into his NHL career, 19-year-old rookie Alexis Lafrenière has just one point. Some New York Rangers fans are already getting impatient.

The forward’s initial struggles are completely predictable. After all NJD’s Jack Hughes and NYR’s Kaapo Kakko, the first two picks of the previous year’s draft, had similarly underwhelming point totals and abysmal underlying statistics in their freshman years.

Hughes’ example is instructive for those seeking to understand Lafrenière’s situation. In 2019-20 the American had a tough time making the jump from the USHL to the NHL, where he competed against fully-formed pros rather than juniors.

In Year One, Hughes’ success rates with the puck plummeted, leading to poor outcomes on both sides of the puck. (Read More)

But in Year Two (2021), Hughes’ returned to the NHL older, stronger and savvier. Incremental improvements in his physical, technical and tactical games have vastly improved his success rate. He has been NJD’s top center in the absence of Nico Hischier. (Read More)

I would expect a similar progression from NYR13 Lafrenière in the next 12 months.

However that is not to say that there aren’t things NYR13 and his coaches can do right now to fast-track his development.

Building an Process-Based Offensive Mindset

Dominant juniors tend to draw confidence from their scoring numbers, so going from putting up nearly two points a game in the QMJHL to just one point in ten games in the NHL is a mental hurdle Lafrenière will have to overcome.

  • I don’t score = I am not playing well

  • I score = I am playing well

Rather than this all-or-nothing mindset, I’d like to propose the following five-step process:

  1. “Can’t get the puck” (poor acquisition volume)

  2. “One and done” (single-possession plays leading to turnovers)

  3. Low-quality sequences (multi-possession plays outside the dots)

  4. High-quality sequences (multi-possession plays inside the dots)

  5. Goals (high-quality sequences leading to scoring)

This mental model is inspired by a discussion with three-time Olympic gold medalist Josh Pauls, one of the most dominant sled hockey players in the sport’s history:

For Pauls, Hughes and Lafrenière, possession means control.

Successful offense leads to all the other good things - points, wins, defense, confidence, etc.

Lafrenière’s Reference Game

NYR13 score his first NHL goal, a 3v3 overtime game-winner, against the Buffalo Sabres on January 28th, 2021.

The game is significant not only because of his milestone goal, but also because it clearly illustrates the process-based method he’ll have to employ as an NHLer.

In his first shift of the game, Lafrenière starts building timing and confidence that he can leverage during the rest of the night. He makes a great start even if he doesn’t find the scoresheet.

1st period, 19:11 left: NYR13 is F1 on the forecheck. He pressures the BUF D into making a turnover, recovers the loose puck, then creates a long OZ sequence in which he touches the puck seven times.

Inside of this sequence Lafrenière:

  • Overcomes (1) by working hard on the forecheck and forces a BUF turnover

  • Overcomes (2) by making quick low-to-high plays to his Ds rather than risking a middle play before settling into the game

  • Improves his team’s (3) by skating between checks after outside-the-dots plays, thereby creating an inside threat for his teammates

Throughout the night Lafrenière makes his fair share of one-and-done plays, especially on the breakout, but he adjusts and finds ways to create multi-possession sequences.

2nd period, 3:22 left: Lafrenière hangs back on a NYR breakout instead of sprinting early in an attempt to cheat for offense. He catches a pass, delays, and gives the puck to a linemate sprinting the middle of the ice. Then he turns on the jets, joins the rush as the fourth man and nearly scores as the second layer of the rush.

His confidence grows. He’s more poised with the puck and more engaged without the puck.

He’s right on time, instead of being late to loose pucks or early on passing plays.

3rd period, 19:15 left: Lafrenière sprints the weak side of the ice on the breakout. NYR89 Buchnevich creates a middle entry, then kicks out to NYR93 Zibanejad. Zibanejad sends a cross-seam pass to Lafrenière, who has adjusted his route and is all alone at the back post. BUF’s goalie slides over and just gets a piece of NYR13’s tap-in.

Late in the tied game NYR13 begins to simplify his puck plays in order to manage risk. He plays steadily, but he’s feeling it and the puck continues to find him.

3rd period, 9:43 left: On a BUF dump-out, Lafrenière recovers the puck. He rims the puck back into the BUF zone rather than risking and outside carry. Two NYR forwards hunt for the puck while Lafrenière is patient as F3. The puck lands on his stick and he walks into the slot. His chance is denied by a sliding BUF skater.

Scoring, the Inevitable Outcome

Lafrenière’s strong game does not go unnoticed.

NYR’s coach deploys NYR13 in OT and the forward scores on a 2v1 following a broken NZ play.

But this lucky break is enabled by a methodical accumulation of successful plays throughout the game.

By earning first touches, making continuation plays, threatening the middle and completing quality sequences, Lafrenière will have no choice but to pile up goals and assists.

A deeper understanding of this process over time will help NYR13 reach his immense potential.

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