Alexis Lafreniere dropped to fourth line after Rangers no-show

Gerard Gallant maintained that there were several players who didn’t play hard enough in the Rangers’ 4-0 loss to the Capitals Tuesday night at the Garden — where the head coach equated the team’s performance to “garbage” — but it was Alexis Lafreniere who ended up in the doghouse the following day at practice.

Lafreniere skated on the fourth line’s four-man rotating unit along with Jonny Brodzinski, Jimmy Vesey and Sammy Blais, who was scratched in the previous two games. It was one of several changes Gallant made to the forward group in response to Tuesday night’s dud. Lafreniere’s demotion, however, came with some motivating undertones.

“I want him to be better,” Gallant said Wednesday after a harder-than-usual practice at MSG Training Center, before the Rangers traveled to Florida for a pair of games that will conclude 2022 and kick off 2023. “Laffy has gotten some chances to play with good people and he’s played well at times, but it’s inconsistent. And again, there was a bunch of them (Tuesday) night.

“So Laffy is getting maybe knocked down (Wednesday) in practice. Not saying he’s going to be there (Thursday). I don’t know where he’s going to be (Thursday). Sometimes it’s a wakeup call for the kids.”

Rangers forward Alexis Lafreniere (13) during a loss to the Capitals on Dec. 27, 2022.
Rangers forward Alexis Lafreniere (13) during a loss to the Capitals on Dec. 27, 2022.
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This isn’t the first time Gallant has tried to push the right buttons on Lafreniere, who — despite a handful of assists in recent games — has largely faded to the background lately. The 2020 first-overall pick spent a practice and a game on the fourth line last season in early November and later served as a healthy scratch on April 13.

Gallant essentially said the same thing then as he did on Wednesday: The Rangers need more out of Lafreniere. Seventeen points (five goals, 12 assists) in 36 games isn’t nothing, but the consistency hasn’t been there. The strides that fellow youngsters Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil have taken toward making an impact on a game-to-game basis this season are simply much greater in comparison to Lafreniere.

“It frustrates you as a coach, you want to give opportunities to people,” said Gallant, who made a point to say the lines could change by the time he gets down the hallway inside the training center. “Sometimes they take it, sometimes they let it fall a little bit. My job is to win games. We’re not developing right now, we develop in practice, but we want to win games. We’re a good hockey team.

Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant during a game against the Penguins on Dec. 20, 2022.
Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant during a game against the Penguins on Dec. 20, 2022.
NHLI via Getty Images

The rest of the changes to the forward lines doubled back to some original combinations, such as Chris Kreider’s and Mika Zibanejad’s reunion with Kaapo Kakko on the top unit. Vincent Trocheck returned to the middle of Artemi Panarin and Barclay Goodrow, while the third line featured Chytil, Vitali Kravtsov and Julien Gauthier, who earned a promotion to the top nine after he was easily one of the Rangers’ best forwards in Tuesday’s loss.

Considering how many times Gallant has tinkered with the lineup this season, such drastic alterations following a bad loss comes across as a bit of an overreaction. The Rangers were feeling good about themselves heading into the holiday break, so it seems important to keep morale high and not dwell on one performance. But who could blame Gallant after what he saw unfold on the ice in the shutout loss to Washington?

Rangers forward Alexis Lafreniere during a game against the Blackhawks on Dec. 18, 2022.
Rangers forward Alexis Lafreniere during a game against the Blackhawks on Dec. 18, 2022.
Getty Images

Maybe Gallant meant it when he said not to put too much stock into the lines at practice Wednesday.

Maybe the sole purpose was to make sure it was universally understood that the last game was unacceptable.

Maybe it was all about sending a message to a certain player.

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