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Rangers relegate No. 1 pick Alexis Lafrenière to the press box

The Rangers are benching the first overall pick in 2020 for a crucial game against the Lightning as Lafrenière’s NHL struggles trudge on.

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The Rangers are benching the first overall pick in 2020 for a crucial game against the Lightning as Lafrenière's NHL struggles trudge on. (Getty)

The Rangers are benching the first overall pick in 2020 for a crucial game against the Lightning as Lafrenière’s NHL struggles trudge on. (Getty)

Alexis Lafrenière will be watching Thursday night’s showdown between the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning from the press box.

The first overall selection from 2020 will serve as a healthy scratch, head coach Gerard Gallant confirmed after the team’s morning skate at Amalie Arena. As a corresponding move, teammate Sammy Blais will draw in for his 31st contest of the season.

Blais, who hasn’t played since Dec. 20, has five assists and is averaging 9:54 of ice time per night during his second campaign with New York.

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Lafrenière has yet to meet his high expectations at the NHL level thus far, tallying 36 goals and 69 points across 171 career games. And his offensive production has tapered off even further this season, scoring just five goals and 17 points in 36 contests.

The 21-year-old has endured plenty of criticism — both from the fanbase and inside the organization — for his lacklustre performance in 2022-23, causing many to question his future with the franchise. That subject gained additional traction after the team juggled its forward lines on Wednesday.

Amid an eight-game stretch without a goal, Gallant demoted Lafrenière to the Rangers’ fourth line in practice, hoping it’d send a clear message to the struggling forward, who’s failed to perform consistently all season.

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“I want him to be better,” Gallant told USA Today when asked to explain Lafrenière’s demotion on Wednesday. “He’s got some chances to play with good people and he’s played well at times, but it’s the inconsistency.”

Lafrenière averaged 16:59 of ice-time over his first 14 games, coinciding with two goals and five points, but has seen his workload decrease significantly lately, dropping to 13:46 of ice-time per game since Nov. 10. It also doesn’t help that he’s put up just three goals and 12 points during that span.

The St-Eustache, Que., native delivered one of his worst showings of the campaign last game, registering one shot on goal, two giveaways and finishing a minus-1 in 13:14 of ice-time. And he wasn’t shy about his disappointing effort post-game, either.

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“I was rusty,” Lafrenière said following Tuesday night’s 4-0 loss to the Washington Capitals. “I didn’t play my best game. I’ll try to be better in the future.”

The Rangers, sitting one point above the Islanders at 19-12-5 for the final wild-card seed in the Eastern Conference, will need Lafrenière’s play to improve if they hope to push for a higher position once the calendar flips to 2023. His future likely hangs in the balance, too.

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The 6-foot-2 forward’s entry-level contract will expire after this season, making him eligible for a new contract next summer as a restricted free agent. But for now, he’s more focused on overcoming his current woes than his future contract, and rightly so.

“I don’t think about it too much,” Lafrenière said. “It’s not something that you’ve got to focus on. You’ve got to focus on just your play and trying to get better.”

Lafrenière is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2026-27 season.

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