There is little doubt that Alexis Lafreniere of the New York Rangers is and will be a good player in the NHL with a lengthy career.
But as far as the hobby is concerned, we can pretty much stick a fork in him.
At least for now.
The hobby is a little bit more fickle when it comes to declaring someone a bust than the general sports world is. Sports fans invest emotionally in their favorite players. Collectors invest hundreds or even thousands of dollars on these players.
The sample size on Alexis Lafreniere is now three years. He finished his third NHL season with 16 goals and 23 assists for 39 points in 81 games. It was a small step forward in point production, though he is still at less than a half point per game. His goals total fell from 19 to 16.
In the playoffs, the largest stage in the game and the most important time of the year, Lafreniere had zero goals, zero assists, zero points.
Through it all, Lafreniere has been continually praised by the New York media, the hockey media, and by his teammates. He is a very good player with great hands and an elite skill set. One national hockey writer said that patience is needed for Lafreniere’s game to develop. He compared Lafreniere to Guy Lafleur, who took three years to put his game together before erupting for 119 points in his fourth year.
That’s a bad comparison. Lafleur had a “disappointing” 175 points in his first three years. Lafreniere has 91 points in three years.
In fact, after taking nearly four years off, Lafleur came back and played for parts of three seasons from age 37-39. He had 107 points in 165 games as an over-the-hill chain smoker with the Rangers and Nordiques. Lafreniere, as a 19-21 year old, has 91 points in 216 games.
That’s what New York Rangers fans are hearing. There needs to be patience. Lafreniere was caught in the COVID-19 year, so it slowed his development. But that was a few years ago now. Tim Stutzle seemed to rebound from it. The young Ottawa Senators forward had 90 points this year and was selected third overall in 2020.
Lucas Raymond of the Detroit Red Wings was drafted fourth overall that year. He has more points in two years in the NHL than Lafreniere has in three.
But growingly impatient Rangers fans are being spoon fed the wisdom that they need to have patience with their young star.
And even though Lafreniere is not putting up numbers, and although he rarely gets a shift on the top two lines, he is playing well and improving. Unfortunately for collectors, doing the little things that made players like Guy Carbonneau and Bob Gainey and Mike Keane and Kris Draper so good do not necessarily translate to higher bids for a high-grade rookie card in an auction.
High Hobby Expectations
To understand why we are even having this discussion, we have to go back three years and take a look at where the hobby was, where Lafreniere was, and where hockey was.
Lafreniere had just led Canada to the gold medal at the IIHF World Junior Championships. He became pegged as a generational talent. He was a great skater with great hockey sense, a great passer and playmaker, and a good scorer.
His success also coincided with the wave of a hobby rebound. Everyone was excited about cards, and the anticipation for his rookie cards had not been seen since Sidney Crosby entered the NHL. It could be argued that, because of where the hobby was, there was more hype for Lafreniere than there was for Connor McDavid in 2015.
More than the hobby had these expectations for Lafreniere. The draft lottery became a bit of a gong show that year. Fans cried that the Rangers should not have had a shot at Lafreniere as they finished too high in the standings. The Rangers won the lottery, and the conspiracy theorists immediately compared the lottery to the urban legend of the alleged frozen envelope of the Patrick Ewing NBA Draft. The conspiracy theorists pointed to the fact that the league was negotiating with ESPN to bring hockey back to the network. Delivering Alexis Lafreniere, a projected generational superstar, to the most popular team in the biggest market in the United States, seemed like it was too good to be true.
After the draft, the outcry was so loud across the league that the draft lottery rules were actually changed moving forward because of the outcry over Lafreniere’s pick.
Ironically, the loudest cries came from Ottawa, where the Senators were “stuck” with Tim Stutzle as a third overall pick. Stutzle is one of the most exciting – and collectible – young stars in the NHL.
But in 2020, we were all just ripping open packs of cards while living in Alexis Lafrieneire’s world.
Hockey scheduling was turned upside down with a delayed playoffs and no fans. It also altered the hockey card schedule.
The first NHL hockey card set to come out post-draft was Upper Deck’s Tim Hortons product. The NHL waved the traditional rule that stipulates that a player cannot be on an NHL hockey card until he plays his first NHL game. Lafreniere was so highly anticipated in the hobby that redemption cards for his rookie card helped Upper Deck Tim Hortons packs sell out more quickly than anticipated.
Lafreniere was also included in 2020-21 Upper Deck Series 1 Hockey. For months, his Upper Deck Young Guns rookie card sold for $300 raw and $900 PSA Graded 9. Those cards are now worth just a fraction of those prices now. One dealer at the Sport Card and Memorabilia Expo was blunt in his assessment in the drop in value.
“What that card’s value was when that set came out, well, take a zero off it now.”
Upper Deck Spokesman
Upper Deck had already jumped on the young prodigy in 2019 with an exclusive autograph and memorabilia deal with Lafreniere. The multi-year agreement granted led to Rimouski Oceanic, Team Canada and New York Rangers autographed items. They also released an Alexis Lafreniere trading card product.
The quote attributed to Lafreniere in the press release announcing his signing with Upper Deck can now be looked upon as cringe-worthy, though it looks and reads like something a PR firm would write with approval from the player’s agent.
“Joining the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Patrick Roy and Connor McDavid as an Upper Deck spokesman is a dream come true for me and my family,” Lafreniere was quoted as saying in the press release. “This is an exciting time in my career, and I look forward to working with Upper Deck for many more years to come.”
In April, 2021, Upper Deck released a line of New York Rangers autographed jerseys, gloves, helmets, stick blades and photos.
But in the hobby, more than anywhere, prices are set at where supply meets demand. The going rate for a box of Upper Deck’s Lafreniere cards is now less than $15, well below cost.
While Lafreniere was the most talked about player at the 2020 NHL Draft, he was also talked about a lot at the recent 2023 draft. This time, however, it was trade talk. The New York Rangers were widely reported in the hockey media to be shopping the former first round pick around. He is an impending restricted free agent. No deal was made.
Lafreniere’s first three years have been bumpy. He stepped into the NHL as an 18-year-old coming out of a cancelled junior season. He has had two coaches who put him in two different roles. He did not get the opportunity to develop the way he may have had the spotlight not been shining so brightly in his face.
Now, it’s time for him to sign a bridge deal. The Rangers have cap space issues – no surprise there.
But what happens next? Does Lafreniere sign in New York and grow into a top six role and maybe grow into becoming an elite player? Will he be traded or move on as a free agent and maybe have much better success somewhere else? If that happens, will his rookie card values rebound?
And if he moves on, what will happen to all of those Upper Deck Authentic New York Rangers items?
Coaches and scouts will be watching and analyzing Alexis Lafreniere closely this year.
The hobby, however, has moved on, and it will take a lot for Lafreniere to get the attention of collectors again.