The New York Rangers’ playoff run ended in a humbling way, as the Tampa Bay Lightning came back from a 2-0 deficit to win four straight games to advance to their third straight Stanley Cup Final.
For hockey collectors, this was an interesting series with fascinating hobby consequences. The media and analysts continuously tried to sell the puck public on Alexis Lafrenière.
Maybe the former first overall drat pick has some upside ahead of him. He did impress at times during the postseason. But as far as the hobby is concerned, Lafrenière still has a long way to go to live up to his rookie hype.
The hobby has seen first overall draft picks enter the league as projected franchise players. We have seen it in all sports. In hockey, if you were around for the crazy era of the early 1990s, you will remember the hobby hype around Alexandre Daigle. If you are a much younger collector, maybe you remember Edmonton Oilers first overall draft pick Nail Yakupov.
Not only were those two players among the many draft busts in hockey history, but they are also players whom collectors invested heavily in.
Other sports have seen the same thing. Anthony Bennett was drafted first overall in 2013 and did not come close to having a decent NBA career, let alone living up to the hobby hype. Football is loaded with number one picks who got the hobby excited, only to crash and burn. Tim Couch, David Carr, JaMarcus Russell and Ki-Jana Carter come to mind before we even start to really think about it. Baseball may have the biggest draft and hobby bust ever with 1991 first overall pick Brien Taylor. Hype around the Classic promo card of the Yankees’ prospect fueled the hysteria at the 1991 Anaheim National. He struggled in the minors, and then had what was basically a career-ending injury in a scrap at a trailer home in North Carolina. He reportedly threw a haymaker that missed, and his shoulder went, as Bob Uecker would say, just a bit outside. Taylor never pitched above Double-A.
For Lafrenière, the case is interesting. He is developing into a very good NHL player. But very good doesn’t cut it for what the expectations were when he joined the NHL.
In two seasons with the Rangers, Lafrenière has both struggled and shown flashes of stardom. He did not jump into the league and immediately dominate the way that players like Sidney Crosby, Steve Yzerman, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky had. In his first NHL season, Lafrenière had 12 goals and nine assists for 21 points in 52 games. That’s a far cry from Crosby’s rookie year. As an 18-year-old, Crosby had 39 goals and 63 assists for 102 points in 81 games.
Lafrenière put up better numbers as a sophomore, scoring 19 goals and adding 12 assists for 31 points in 79 games. But in many games, Lafrenière was not a player who was noticed on the ice by fans. His ice time was limited in several games.
There are a number of reasons that the hobby looked upon Lafrenière with such anticipation.
When he joined the Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League – that’s the same junior team Sidney Crosby played for – Lafrenière scored 42 goals. That was the most goals a QMJHL rookie had scored since Crosby. He also joined Crosby to become just the second player to be win the Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year Award twice.
When the New York Rangers won the draft lottery for the 2020 NHL Draft, there was outrage. The Rangers barely missed the playoffs, yet they landed a projected franchise player who it was believed could have rescued teams like the Ottawa Senators, Los Angeles Kings and Buffalo Sabres.
The hockey world was livid. Predictably, there were cried from fans that the lottery was rigged. Fans called Lafrenière the Patrick Ewing of hockey. The NHL was forced to change the rules of the lottery, so that a team in the middle of the pack could not move up to number one.
Some even speculated that the draft was rigged for the sake of the NHL landing a hockey deal with ESPN. Obviously, there was no proof or even evidence of that. But conspiracy theorists will always find coincidences like that, especially when the New York Rangers are involved.
Lafrenière had already become a big deal in the hobby, thanks to the Upper Deck Team Canada products. He was a household name in Canada because of his heroics with Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships.
There was so much excitement for him in the hobby that the NHLPA allowed Upper Deck to include him in the early 2020-21 NHL Hockey products. The annual pre-season Tim Hortons hockey card set included redemption cards for Lafrenière. His first NHL card was produced before he played a game, as he appeared in Upper Deck Series 1 in the Young Guns shortprinted rookie subset.
That card was selling for $300 ungraded, with PSA 10 examples bringing $900-$1,000 and they were still in the $400-$600 range early in the ’21-22 season. As the year went on, prices continued to slip. Recent sales of PSA 10 Young Guns cards have settled in the $225-$275 range.
As the Rangers went on their playoff run, the darlings of the New York hockey writers became the team’s Kid Line. Lafrenière, Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil were all young stars and first round draft picks. They served as the team’s third line and provided some energy and a bit of offense to the team. However, as much as the line was hyped, Lafrenière and Chytil each had just nine points in 20 playoff games, with Kakko earning just five points in 20 games. Rangers forward Mika Zibanejad had more playoff points than the three Kid Liners put together, as he had 24 points.
In Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Lafrenière was moved up to the first line. He got better, and much more noticeable, as the playoffs went on. He showed that he should become a top six forward before too long.
That takes us to the interesting dilemma. Lafrenière is trending with an up arrow as far as the Rangers are concerned. He is not Zibanejad or Artemi Panarin or Chris Kreider. But he is a player who will be a solid piece of the Rangers’ future. He’ll be only 21 years old at the start of the 2022-23 season and there’s still time for him to become a superstar.
Meanwhile, Upper Deck, which signed Lafrenière to an exclusive autographed memorabilia deal, is caught in a dilemma. They have a boxed Lafrenière card set. Some of the dealers at the recent Sport Card and Memorabilia Expo in Toronto had boxes for sale on their tables. They were covered in dust. On the last day of the show, each of the dealers who had the product reported zero sales.
However, a couple of the dealers said the same thing. His numbers are very similar to Joe Thornton’s numbers in his first two seasons. Thornton is a future Hall of Famer and is very popular in the hobby, despite having only scored 30 goals twice in his long NHL career.
Upper Deck also sells some very nice autographed products. If the Rangers continue to contend, and if Lafrenière takes on a bigger role with the team, there could still be some upside.
But is he going to become the hobby superstar and collectible Rangers franchise player we all expected him to be?
No. That would be Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin, who proved in this year’s playoffs he may be the best goalie in the world.
About Jeff Morris
Jeff Morris is a hobby veteran who has been a collector for more than 50 years. Originally a hobby journalist, he became brand manager at Pinnacle, and then was an executive for Collector’s Edge and Shop at Home before joining Pacific Trading Cards as VP of Marketing. He is the former editor and publisher of Canadian Sports Collector magazine, and he was also a columnist for ESPN.com.