Wings’ Lucas Raymond, Rangers’ Alexis Lafreniere take different paths to stardom

Detroit News

Detroit — Funny how NHL Entry Drafts work.

In 2020, every team was angling and hoping to get that first pick overall and select forward Alexis Lafreniere, a much-hyped junior out of Quebec.

The Wings had the worst record, by far, before COVID-19 arrived on the scene and prematurely ended the regular season. Though having the worst record, the Wings dropped to fourth overall in the lottery and saw the playoff-caliber New York Rangers leap to No. 1 in the lottery.

The Rangers selected Lafreniere. The Wings drafted forward Lucas Raymond.

Nothing against Lafreniere, but as the Wings arrive to play the Rangers Thursday in New York — it’ll be the first time Raymond and Lafreniere face each other — the Wings are mighty happy with who they selected.

“When you look through the first 20 picks (in the 2020 draft), there are a lot of real good players in that mix,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “The first four or five picks were all good prospects, really good prospects. We were lucky it was that deep at the top of the draft to get a player of what (Raymond’s) caliber will be in the long term at No. 4.”

In 50 games in this his rookie season, Raymond has 13 goals and 26 assists for 39 games, with a minus-1 plus-minus rating. Raymond is squarely in the running for the Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) with teammate Moritz Seider and Anaheim’s Trevor Zegras, and could win the trophy with a big second half of the season.

Lafreniere arrived last year in the NHL in the shortened, pandemic-ridden season. This year, Lafreniere had 10 goals and three assists for 13 points, in 46 games, with a minus-2 rating.

In Lafreniere’s two-year career, he’s posted 22 goals and 12 assists for 34 points, in 102 games with a minus-9 rating.

Lafreniere arrived in the NHL on a talented team, but there are drawbacks to that. He hasn’t gotten the playing time in a deep, Rangers lineup, and hasn’t consistently played on the top power play.

Lafreniere has often played on the third or fourth lines — he’s currently getting an opportunity on the top line because of injuries in the Rangers’ lineup — while Raymond arrived in the NHL this season and showed enough to play on the No. 1 line with Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi from opening night.

Raymond stayed and played in Sweden last season, and that extra year of development has proven beneficial.

“That was huge for me,” Raymond said. “Another year of against men in Sweden (in the Swedish Hockey League) and develop both mentally and physically. I felt ready when I got here and if I would have come over last year, I don’t think I would be as ready.”

Start of tough stretch reminds Red Wings of work still needed to be done

Fans on social media almost immediately began comparing Raymond and Lafreniere this season, as Raymond excelled in his opening weeks in the NHL.

Raymond doesn’t spend time watching Lafreniere.

“No, I haven’t seen anything, no, not really,” Raymond said.

The Wings have long been an organization that took its time with prospects and didn’t rush their development. That was the direction they rook with Raymond, whose season in Frolunda was shortened because of elbow surgery, but had shown enough that he’d be ready to win an NHL job in training camp.

Blashill feels the extra year in Sweden benefitted Raymond.

“It helps protect you from having that really hard year that can eat away your confidence,” Blashill said. “With Larfreniere, I don’t know what his experience was like, but I do know a lot of those No. 1 and No. 2 picks that show up in the league right away aren’t ready and they’re just surviving.

“In Lucas’ case, he had a chance to have a real good year in Sweden and was more prepared when he came to camp. We weren’t going to just give him a spot. He had to show us he could thrive and he did that.”

As far as Raymond is concerned, he was thrilled with the way the draft unfolded. The Wings were an organization he followed, given its success with Swedish players and as an annual Stanley Cup contender for so long.

“It was an amazing night to go through with my family and friends,” said Raymond of draft night, which was held virtually because of the pandemic. “It was a little bit different with it being over Zoom, but it was amazing, and especially to be drafted to the Red Wings.

“They had such a rich culture and with a lot of Swedes, that was pure happiness, and I’m very grateful. Growing up in Sweden, the Red Wings were always a team young guys cheered for with a lot of Swedes and the greats that played here.

“It couldn’t have gone any better.”

When the Wings drafted Raymond, Blashill asked about him in conversations with scouts and came away with similar responses in the way Raymond saw the ice.

The scouting reports have also proven true.

“The thing that always was mentioned was hockey sense, that he had a real elite hockey sense, and that’s played out to be absolutely true,” Blashill said. “He knows how to  maximize his ability and the team’s ability. The other thing he was talked about was he’d be a real good power play player and he’s been a real good power-play player.

“It’s been a lot of stuff as advertised.”

More: Detroit News 2021-22 Red Wings midseason grades

Raymond has never gone through as long and grueling a season as this rookie NHL season is unfolding for him. But he’s done a good job of adapting and learning to the rigors of the NHL.

“I’m learning things all the time, throughout the process, how to manage your body and mind and be fresh for every game,” Raymond said. “If it’s maybe not all there, you just have to find a way to compete and play hard. You learn throughout the season.”

Blashill wants to see Raymond continue to pushing through in games where Raymond’s legs may not be quite there, and continue to skate hard.

“When he’s skating he’s a real good player and he isn’t, he’s not quite as good and it’s a learned process,” Blashill said. “A huge part of it is playing your best when you’re not feeling your best. There are going to be games when you don’t, and he has done a pretty good job of be responsible defensively and he doesn’t cheat for offense on nights when he isn’t making a huge impact offensively or doesn’t have his legs.”

Ice chips

Blashill said defenseman Gustav Lindstrom is unavailable for Thursday with a middle-body injury.

“It’s day to day, that hopefully will stay day to day,” Blashill said. “It could be day to day, it could be longer.”

… Forward Vladislav Namestnikov (undisclosed injury) didn’t play Monday, but Blashill isn’t ruling Namestnikov out for the game against the Rangers.

… Raymond was thrilled to see Sweden defeat Canada 2-0 in the Olympic quarterfinals.

“Great win, great win, it was fun to watch,” Raymond said. “I’m really happy Sweden got the win.”

Both Canada and Team USA suffered quarterfinal losses after good preliminary results. Blashill went through that coaching USA at the world championships and knows the disappointment.

“When you get to quarters and you lose and you’re done, you’re mega disappointed,” Blashill said. “You went there to win and prove you could be one of the better teams, and are in position to prove it and potentially win gold, and it’s over that quick. It’s devastating.”

Red Wings at Rangers

Faceoff: 7 Thursday, Madison Square Garden, New York.

TV/radio: BSD/97.1

Outlook: The Rangers (31-13-4) are coming off a 2-1 shootout victory Tuesday over Boston. … LW Artemi Panarin (39 assists, 52 points), D Adam Fox (40 assists, 47 points) and G Igor Shesterkin (23-5-2, 2.05 GAA, .938 SVS) are among the top players in the NHL.

Twitter: @tkulfan

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