It was the sort of scene the Rangers probably thought would become routine when they drafted Lafrenière first overall back in 2020.
Alexis Lafreniere knocks a one-timer down before the second period ends. 🚨 pic.twitter.com/IBxomLO7Z6
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 27, 2023
After all, the 22-year-old scored 127 goals at the QMJHL level and looked poised to become an electric offensive force in the NHL. Meanwhile, Panarin was coming off a 95-point campaign in his first season with New York looking like one of the league's top playmakers.
The duo seemed like they'd inevitably come together at some point, but with Lafrenière's struggling to make a mark early in his NHL career, the two have rarely played alongside each other.
In Lafrenière's first three seasons, he's has only played 263:55 with Panarin at 5v5. That might seem like a relatively large total number, but it translates to just over one minute per game, or 9.6% of Lafrenière's 5v5 ice time.
While that's hardly enough to see what the two could do, they never produced enough together to warrant a lengthy trial. In that 263:55 of 5v5 time they shared, New York was outscored 11-15 and produced a mediocre 49.92% expected goal rate.
Despite the lack of a strong track record, new Rangers bench boss Peter Laviolette appears interested in testing the pair's compatibility, and so far the results are promising.
When Lafrenière and Panarin have been on the ice together in 5v5 situations this season, the Rangers have outshot their opponents 50-29, out-chanced them 53-30, and posted an expected goal rate of 57.86% — well above New York's substandard team average (49.87%). The team has only outscored the opposition 5-4 in that ice time, but that gap will grow if they keep tilting the ice.
The sample size here is small-ish (78:15), but it represents 82.5% of Lafrenière's 5v5 time and 77.9% of Panarin's. These guys have been glued together since the Rangers' opener when they combined for the first goal of New York's season.
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) October 12, 2023
Whether they stay together is likely to hinge of Lafreniére's production. Panarin is a force multiplier capable of boosting most lines he plays on and the team won't want him to spend his minutes with guys who aren't pulling their weight.
Clearly the early returns are good, though.
Lafreniére has now scored in three consecutive games — a career first for him — and his four goals through seven games are impressive for a player who took 27 contests to reach that total in 2022-23.
The Rangers have consistently been a good team in recent years, but greatness has eluded them, particularly in the playoffs. Last year they tried boosting their lineup with veteran pickups Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko, but goals remained hard to come by.
The most obvious route to offensive improvement for this group has always been high picks Lafreniére and Kaapo Kakko taking significant leaps to bolster New York's existing core. That hasn't happened in any of the last three seasons, but 2023-24 might be a different story — particularly if the Lafreniére-Panarin connection remains a consistent staple as opposed to an occasional option for mixing up the lineup.