EDMONTON — You can’t say the New York Rangers are gun shy.
It was 55 years ago when they last had a No. 1-overall pick — in the 1965 National Hockey League Entry Draft — and they spent it on Andre Veilleux from the Trois-Rivieres Reds.
He never played a National Hockey League game.
But Alexis Lafreniere is so nice, you can bet that the Rangers will try the Quebec Major Junior League twice, after winning Phase 2 of the Draft Lottery on Monday night and landing the No. 1-overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.
“I’m watching and watching, and I see every single logo on the balls spinning around but ours. I started getting nervous,” said Rangers GM Jeff Gorton, whose club moved up four spots in the 2019 lottery to grab Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko at No. 2.
“You’re begging to see the logo. Once I saw ours come out on top, there are a lot of different emotions you go through, going back to the letter (to Rangers fans) we wrote a couple of years ago, talking about our rebuild.
“We knew we needed luck, and luck is on our side tonight.”
Lafreniere, a French-speaking Quebecer from Saint-Eustache, isn’t quite sure what lies ahead for him in the Big Apple.
“I’ve never been to New York,” the 18-year-old said, “but a couple of buddies went there, and for sure, it’s a pretty nice spot. My favourite player this year, for sure, was (Artemi) Panarin. He was one of the best players in the NHL this year.”
Like so many of today’s high draft picks — from Sidney Crosby to Connor McDavid — Lafreniere was not particularly forthcoming with thoughts and predictions. When asked to describe his strongest assets, however, he said, “My vision, offensively. The way I create chances for me and my teammates, and I think my leadership is big. Just my offensive ability — that’s my strength, where I’m at my best.”
At the same time, Gorton wouldn’t even cop to his plans for the No. 1-overall pick, though the Statue of Liberty might blush if he did anything other than draft Lafreniere.
“Listen, you know… I’m from the school of, we’ll take some time here and let this all settle in,” said the cagey Rangers GM. “I wouldn’t want to give away exactly what will happen.”
The Rangers haven’t interviewed Lafreniere yet, instead waiting for the Draft Lottery.
“We’ll start to meet the young man, and go down the road of meeting him and his family and all that first.”
How good is Lafreniere? Well, he’s not supposed to be Crosby or McDavid good, but he is the best 18-year-old hockey player in the world by some distance, known as a phenom since before he notched 42 goals as a rookie in the QMJHL. He added 68 assists the next season, and then 35-77-112 in just 52 games last season, likely his last in the CHL.
In between, Lafreniere averaged two points per game at the World Junior Championship, leading Team Canada to world juniors gold despite having suffered a knee injury early in the tournament.
He may begin the season with Rimouski, as Rangers training camp is not scheduled to begin until Nov. 15, while the Oceanic still hope to start their season in October. Or he could play in Europe until NHL camps open up for the 2020-21 season.
“For sure there are a couple of possibilities. We don’t know yet our decision,” he said.
Left on the outside were the other seven teams that had ping pong balls in the hopper: The Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators, Minnesota Wild, and Florida Panthers.
It would have been criminal had Edmonton won, sliding Lafreniere in next to McDavid as the fifth No. 1-overall pick for a franchise that has won as many Stanley Cups. Same for Pittsburgh, which had its luck when it received the right to draft Crosby coming out of the 2004-05 lockout.
Or Toronto, a team that has so many riches among its forward group that it will have to figure out a way to move a high-skilled forward to build a team that can win a playoff round for the first time since 2004, when Lafreniere was still just two years old.
In the end, the Rangers are a high-profile market that has not had a No. 1-overall pick in 55 years. And their rebuild is still ongoing, as the Rangers were swept out of the Qualifying Round by Carolina, becoming the first of 24 teams to leave the NHL’s bubble.
“You’re trying to amass, gather as much talent as you can,” Gorton said. “And when you look through the league it’s no secret where teams are getting them:
“It’s through the draft.”