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Alexis Lafreniere, who popped out of a pingpong-ball machine into the Rangers’ lives, is the shiniest new toy to hit these parts in, oh, I don’t know … forever?
So while Monday marked merely the first day of training camp in an accelerated run-up to the season that opens a week from Thursday, when the 19-year-old took the ice officially for the first time as a Blueshirt, it also represented the dawn of an era.
It is no longer about The Letter. That is old news. It is about Igor Shesterkin, Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox among a bushel filled with prospects who have preceded Lafreniere to Broadway and will follow him to the Great White Way. It is about Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, the soul of the club.
But let’s not kid ourselves. It is Lafreniere who has brought his star with him from Quebec and is next in line to inherit the spot on the marquee reserved for so long for Henrik Lundqvist. It is No. 13 with a ceiling higher than those in all the magnificent prewar buildings in Manhattan who sends pulses racing on and off Broadway even before he has suited up at the Garden.
Not that Lafreniere will ever admit to that. No Reggie, Reggie, Reggie lobbying here for a eponymously named candy bar. It will be left to others to sing the praises of the young man, who, following Monday’s first day of training camp, said, “I just want to improve myself every day and get better as a hockey player. I don’t have any expectations.”
There is no need to heap too much on Lafreniere. It is not as if he is Manny Malhotra joining a group bereft of young talent. It is not as if the Rangers need a flag-bearer. He is starting on the third line with potential stud Filip Chytil in the middle and unknown quantity Julien Gauthier on the right.
He has been slotted there initially perhaps partially to minimize pressure, perhaps partially to maximize matchup opportunities, perhaps partially because this short camp lends itself to stability and continuity with the top six. Likely, a combination of all of the above. Keep this in mind: Derek Jeter batted eighth or ninth in 84 of his first 108 games of his 1996 rookie season.
But Lafreniere, if not via words but rather via deeds, is expected to demand more. More ice time. More responsibility. And when he earns it, when he is awarded it by David Quinn, he will be ready for his moment.
“He’s an awesome, awesome guy; I mean, an awesome kid,” said Kreider, who had trained and skated with Lafreniere for the past couple of months. “You forget how young he is because he carries himself with such maturity.
“I’ve played with him a bunch and the skill is very, very evident. He’s got the [puck] on a string, sees the ice incredibly well, [his] head’s up. The one thing that really struck me from the last few weeks is that he’s not an immature kid. He carries himself with that level of maturity, but he’s a lot thicker than the normal 18- or 19-year-old kid.
“He’s very strong on his skates, and he competes. He’s a dog on the puck,” said No. 20. “Guys try to bump him, he tries to spin off and get to that ice. So he’s hypercompetitive, he wants to win and you can tell he loves playing the game. He’s got a serious passion for the game and enthusiasm, really good energy and just wants to succeed and win.”
Monday’s scrimmage was essentially a dip-your-toes-in-the-water exercise. Things picked up a bit during the second half. Lafreniere and his line created as many and as few memorable moments as the rest of the squad. To put this in context: it was Day 1.
“There was a little bit of nerves playing with these guys but I think I’ll get used to it and then I’ll get used to the pace,” Lafreniere said. “I’ll get better as the camp goes and I’ll try to improve myself and my game.”
Jack Hughes, not nearly as physically mature as Lafreniere, had a devil of time last year after going to New Jersey as the No. 1-overall pick. Kakko for the most part was a stranger in a strange land after coming out as No. 2 overall. This is not one-size-fits-all.
“There’s no blueprint to coach each player, whether it’s a rookie or a 30-year-old veteran,” Quinn said. “Every player is different and you’ve got to have a feeling of what motivates him and what doesn’t.
“It’s our job as a coaching staff to figure out a way to coach Lafreniere to the best of our abilities and to allow him to be the best player he can possibly be.”
The journey from Saint-Eustache to Manhattan is underway. First stop on the express: Greenburgh. Destination: Penn Station. Monday was All Aboard.
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