Should the Rangers trade the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL draft?


The worst thing about the New York Rangers winning the Alexis Lafrenière draft lottery is how their fans are going to absolutely mangle his name.

My father grew up in the city. His first attempt at a pronunciation was “Lufthansa.” The Canadian hamlet of Saint-Eustache produced an exquisite French Canadian moniker — Alexis Lafrenière. On the tongues of New Yawkers, it’s going to sound like a Claude Debussy suite performed by an orchestra of accordions.

The second worst thing about the Rangers winning the Lafrenière draft lottery is that he’s not a center. He’s one of the most talented left wings at the top of the draft board in years, but not that foundational center — think Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel — for whom teams tank their seasons.

For the Rangers, that’s a real bummer, positionally speaking. They could use an elite center prospect. Mika Zibanejad is fantastic. Filip Chytil is still only 20 but isn’t on that elite level of prospect. Although Chris Peters, ESPN’s prospects guru, ranked the Rangers’ farm system No. 1 heading into this season, he didn’t have a center prospect ranked in their top 10. And they’re solid on left wing, with Artemi Panarin on their top line and Chris Kreider signed to a new seven-year contract with four years of no-movement clause.

“Centermen are really hard to find,” Rangers president John Davidson told me on this week’s ESPN On Ice podcast.

Actually, you don’t have to look hard to find one in this draft, and not just because he’s 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds: Quinton Byfield, 17, of Sudbury in the Ontario Hockey League, is cited by many as the second-best prospect behind Lafrenière, 18.

How close is it between them? I asked three experts in the realm of NHL prospects for their opinions, on background.

Expert No. 1: “Great question. There’s a gap between the two, no doubt, but I still don’t think it’s as big as some make it since ‘Q’ is almost a full year younger than Lafrenière.”

Expert No. 2: “It’s a significant gap right now, because Lafrenière is NHL-ready, while the appeal with Byfield is his ceiling. Byfield still has work to do, so there is a little bit of risk, while Lafrenière is plug-and-play.”

Expert No. 3: “I don’t think the gap is terribly large. I think Lafrenière is the best available option and the safest pick for landing a superstar. Byfield has super-high upside with enough questions to wonder.”

Interesting. Even more interesting: The team with the second-deepest prospect pool, per Peters, is the Los Angeles Kings, and they hold the No. 2 pick. So if they coveted Lafrenière … and the Rangers wanted a center … could they do business?

Of course, holding the first pick means you don’t even have to dabble in prospects if you don’t want to. If you’re the Rangers, trading Lafrenière could get you a more proven commodity at center as well as help on defense, both of which the team needs in its rebuild more than it needs another left wing. And they could probably scare up a bidding war, considering the rarity of the No. 1 pick moving — it hasn’t happened since 2003 in the NHL, when the Panthers traded picks No. 1 (used on Marc-Andre Fleury) and No. 73 (Daniel Carcillo) for No. 3 (Nathan Horton), No. 55 (Stefan Meyer) and Mikael Samuelsson.

So if you’re the Rangers, why not trade that top pick?

“You know, we just got the pick. The dust hasn’t even settled,” Davidson said. “I know people are excited here in New York. They’ve got a lot of calls downtown about getting season tickets. It’s been very good, that part of the business.”

I’m not hearing a “no” here.

Davidson brought up the 2007 NHL draft in Columbus, when he was team president of the St. Louis Blues.

“We, amongst other teams, had talked to Chicago. They had the No. 1 pick. We made a significant offer. The Blackhawks, led by Dale Tallon, said no. ‘We’re sticking at No. 1, and that’s that,'” he recalled.

“Well, Patrick Kane was a pretty good pick. So these types of things … somebody would have to blow the socks, the shoes and everything right off your feet if you’re ever going change for something like that. So we’re excited where we are. We have the No. 1 pick. It’s a great time for us. We’ll just see where everything goes.”

Yeah, I’m still not hearing a “no,” JD.

But just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s the right option. So I turned back to our anonymous panel and asked whether they would trade the No. 1 pick, were they the Rangers?

Expert No. 1: “Would I trade the pick? Nope. You get a top-six guy for three years at a reasonable number.”

Expert No. 2: “I’d keep the pick if I was the Rangers.”

Expert No. 3: “I think the package would have to be substantial to move the pick since Lafrenière is such an immediate impact guy. Rangers certainly dealing from a position of strength but if I had Panarin-Lafrenière 1-2 for a few years, I’m sitting pretty good.”

OK, so not a lot of support for my “maybe trade the pick” campaign. That makes sense. Alexis Lafrenière is a special player, and winning the lottery is a special moment. If the Rangers need to find that elusive center in the years after Lafrenière arrives on Broadway, it’s not as if they won’t have a treasure chest from which to withdraw.

“What you try to do in this business,” Davidson told me, “is you build up assets, and when you have good, real strong depth with your assets, maybe a deal can be made down the road.”

For now, Alexis Lafrenière. Later, a No. 1 center and help on defense, to add to Panarin, Zibanejad, Kaapo Kakko, Igor Shesterkin, Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba

… I, for one, welcome our new hockey overlords.

Jersey Fouls

From Su Ring:

The General Manager Jersey Foul is always an interesting one. On the surface, honoring an executive on a jersey is a minor offense. But the problem here is the No. 10. First, there might be an amazing No. 10 on the Kraken — *cough* Brayden Schenn *cough* — whose number is now tied to the general manager on your back. But more importantly, Ron Francis has a number with the Kraken: No. 32, as in the 32nd team, which was on the jersey that was presented to him at his unveiling. Go with that. FYI: We’ve seen a few in which a dollar sign or a Stanley Cup was placed where a number would go. Those are Fouls — but points for creativity.

1. Listening to the Maple Leafs’ postseason media conferences this week, I had to double-check that they weren’t using the Washington Capitals‘ scripts from 2009 to 2017 and just changing the names.

It’s the same vibe: not knowing how to play to win in the playoffs; questioning if the supporting cast around a core of stars is good enough to win while asking if that core should be broken up; dissecting playoff disappointments against archrivals and random teams that take them out. Really, the only thing missing was someone speculating about whether Auston Matthews is happy just scoring goals and if he might leave for the KHL if things don’t turn around — you know, classic Alex Ovechkin stuff.

The lesson from the Capitals is a simple one: Patience plus pruning equals a championship. Matthews has been in the league for four seasons. Three of the Leafs’ top four scorers are 23 or younger, and the fourth (John Tavares) is just turning 30. The Leafs have time to work this out, but there’s also room for them to alter that core. When the Capitals finally raised the Stanley Cup, they had three core players left from the dawn of the Ovechkin Era: Ovi, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson. Others, such as Alexander Semin, Mike Green and Karl Alzner, had been jettisoned. (Braden Holtby and Evgeny Kuznetsov were added to the core along the way.)

You have to both stay the course, confident that things will click into place as your stars mature, and be fearless in smashing some of your favorite toys. The best thing GM Kyle Dubas said this week: “You all think I have one way of going about things and that it’s never changing,” he said, “[but] the vision for me is always changing.”

2. Kyle Dubas was hired as Leafs GM in May 2018, and he inherited a team that Lou Lamoriello had capped out with contracts including the 35-year-old-plus free-agent deal he handed Patrick Marleau and the seven-year deal he clasped to defensive albatross Nikita Zaitsev. Dubas had to make those go away last summer in order to give his best young players new, elephantine contracts. He spent a good portion of his first two seasons cleaning up old messes while having to pay two franchise pillars. That’s a lot of business that is now settled. Plus, as Elliotte Friedman noted this week, the Leafs have a little more cap flexibility than many assume. Dubas deserves more than a few months to sort it out.

I like to give general managers either five years or three major indefensible player transactions before they’re turfed, whichever comes first. The Nazem Kadri-for-Tyson Barrie disaster was Dubas’ first strike, but it’s otherwise shaping up to be a long at-bat. Again, the word is patience. The notion that Dubas should be fired if the Leafs lose another “win or go home” playoff game next season is strictly for the most loyal Mark Hunter fans.

3. I asked a respected NHL insider how to fix the Leafs after they were eliminated, and the answer was “JAM, up front.” Team president Brendan Shanahan echoed the sentiment when asked if there is enough Ryan O’Reilly-esque toughness on the roster or if the team needs to go shopping for some. “A bit of both. We all talk about it. It’s people growing into it. I do believe you can develop grit. A lot of players who were accused of being too soft to win suddenly won and changed the narrative for themselves,” he said. “That can develop. But I also think that compete level and grit are areas that we might need to help our team a little bit with.”

To go back to the Capitals example, the 2018 Stanley Cup team had a core of homegrown stars. Then T.J. Oshie joined the party in 2015. Lars Eller, Matt Niskanen, Alex Chiasson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Brett Connolly and especially Brooks Orpik were all imported from elsewhere. Toronto’s young star players will figure this playoff thing out. But I’d argue that it doesn’t matter if you augment them with the different varieties of “JAM” down the lineup that either have won or play a style that gets you wins in the postseason. [Homer Simpson drool voice:] “Mmmmm, imported jam …”

Listen to ESPN On Ice

New York Rangers president John Davidson joined us to talk about winning the draft lottery days after being eliminated from the postseason and what comes next. Sarah McLellan of the Minneapolis Star Tribune joined us to talk about what it was like to cover the NHL inside the bubble. Plus, we have Stanley Cup playoff talk and much more on the Leafs, Penguins and Panthers! Listen, subscribe and review here.

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Seth Jones

Skating 65:06 in a five-overtime game is the kind of thing that turns a star into a supernova. Prediction: If Seth Jones plays at least 75 games, scores at least 50 points and finishes as a plus player next season, he will get a Norris Trophy nomination.

Loser: Mitch Marner

Marner’s contentious contract negotiation with the Maple Leafs always had the potential to poison the well for him with fans. It isn’t hard to see that as a factor in the reaction to his brutal postseason: three assists in a stirring Game 4 win, but one assist in the other four games against Columbus. Marner criticized his own game, saying that in Game 1 he didn’t think he “was engaged with physical-ness at all.” Later, GM Kyle Dubas felt compelled to speak up for the maligned Marner: “I don’t know where this all started, with the criticizing of Mitch Marner, but to me, it’s among the most idiotic things that I see done here.”

Winner: New voices

It’s very cool to see some diversity among the voices talking about the game. The NHL brought on the Soul On Ice podcast with Kwame Damon Mason, Akil Thomas and Elijah Roberts recently, which is a huge platform for an already compelling show. Meanwhile, NBC has given Anson Carter a new show called “Hockey Culture” on YouTube. The latest episode features Arizona Coyotes president and CEO Xavier Gutierrez.

Loser: The CN Tower

This instant classic from Mike Milbury was notable for apparently being taken with a Motorola flip phone from 1997 — and for mislabeling Toronto’s CN Tower as “The Space Needle.” In fairness to Milbury, everywhere from Japan to China to Russia to Malaysia to New Zealand has its own Needle-esque tower. If this tweet was meant to indicate that such towers are a dime a dozen, we support it.

Winner: Conspiracy theories

I can’t thank that dude from Ernst and Young enough for dropping the Rangers’ ball moments before that same ball was sucked up the lottery tube to deliver the first overall pick to the Rangers. Outlandish conspiracy theories usually take days to rise up from Reddit like foot odor before reaching the mainstream. This was like the Big Bang, born instantly from nothing and lasting infinitely. What a blessing.

Loser: NHL GMs

Hey, congrats: After their whining about the draft lottery (and the draft) being held before the season restart, there was a 50% chance that Alexis Lafrenière would end up with a playoff-bound team (under normal circumstances). The infinitesimal chance that one team could win the lottery and the Stanley Cup nearly gave Edmonton yet another first overall pick and Connor McDavid the winger he needs for the next 15 years of an Oilers dynasty. Thank the hockey gods that a team that wasn’t in playoff position at the pause ended up winning.

Winner: Flow

The NHL hired the Minnesota State High School All-Hockey Hair Team guy, John King, to critique the salad and the accessories inside the bubble, including a pink Panthers suitcase. On Oshie’s hair: “We think it’s natural. But there might be some hand sanitizer mixed in there.” (Warning: You have to get past a truly horrible song called “Bubble Drip” to get to the good stuff.)

Losers: 50-year-olds who aren’t Rod Brind’Amour

The Carolina Hurricanes coach just turned 50 years old and has the body of a slightly more in shape Thanos. Welp, time for another pint of ice cream …

Puck headlines

Rod Brind’Amour, not happy with the officiating in Game 1. “This is why the league’s a joke, in my opinion, on these things,” Brind’Amour told The News & Observer. “That one is a crime scene.” He was fined $25,000.

The Colorado Avalanche had a “doctor’s note” signed by players to get people out of work to watch afternoon hockey.

Love this: The St. Louis Blues are having mini-parades around town so that fans can come out and support the team in the playoffs.

Shane Doan is selling his $2.4 million horse ranch.

Golfer Mike Weir improved his game with a hockey-inspired drill.

Picking the winners of the quarterfinals based on their jersey designs.

The Ice Garden has started a new “Beginners’ Guide To Women’s Hockey” feature that’s worth checking out.

What was it like for Gord Miller to do that five-overtime game? “I really enjoyed (Tuesday night). It was a great time. I think one of the best things about hockey is the overtime. The NHL’s playoff overtime is great because you never know when the moment is going to come. It could be right now, or it could be an hour from now. So you’re constantly waiting for that moment to come. I loved it.”

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

I really enjoyed being able to write this story about how the NHL created synthetic crowd noise for games and chatting with the man pushing the buttons in Edmonton.

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