It was a moment when youthful exuberance met Stanley Cup playoffs euphoria.
Facing elimination in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Rangers were staging a rally. As they had for most of the first-round series, the trio christened “The Kid Line” — 20-year-old left wing Alexis Lafrenière, 21-year-old right wing Kaapo Kakko and 22-year-old center Filip Chytil — acted as the accelerant to turn a spark of momentum into an offensive explosion.
It began with a pass attempt from Kakko from behind the Penguins’ net to Lafrenière, as Pittsburgh defenders closed in.
“You can always try. So I tried,” Kakko said.
“He found me with that backhand sauce,” Lafrenière said.
Lafrenière’s one-timer goal tied the game late in the second period, and the Rangers would eventually win en route to a stunning seven-game series victory. As the goal horn blared, Lafrenière spun away from the crease, punched the air and screamed as he raised his arms to a frenzied crowd that was already out of their seats.
“His emotion in the game, it carried over. With the home crowd that we have, it was special,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said, smiling. “They better do it again next game.”
In most games in this playoff run for the Rangers, it’s been The Kid Line making things happen, if not on the scoreboard than in setting the tone for the veterans on the team.
“We’re having a lot of fun. But every shift matters. That’s what makes it so much fun,” Lafrenière said.
Through eight games, the line is plus-14 in shot attempts and plus-3 in scoring chances. They’ve given up one more goal (five) than they’ve scored (four), but they’ve hit the board at critical times: Look no further than the goal they generated in Game 1 against the Carolina Hurricanes by Chytil, which stood up until Sebastian Aho‘s tying goal with 2:23 left in regulation.
“They’ve played real good hockey. For young guys, coming in here,” Gallant said.
According to Rangers analyst Steve Valiquette, their inexperience has served them well.
“There are three ‘E’s’ in every player’s career: Excitement, because you’re just happy to be in the league; entitlement, when you want to get paid; and then the ender, when your career is over,” said Valiquette, who appears on MSG Network. “I think there are a lot of players in that locker room right now that are in the excitement phase. They’re too naïve to know how big the moments are. They’re just playing with a load of enthusiasm.”
That enthusiasm isn’t just because they’re helping the Rangers to their deepest playoff run since 2017. It’s because all three are finding significant, sustained success for the first time in their young NHL careers.
“Flat honesty, they all needed this,” Valiquette said. “Not one of them has gotten a great foot on their career. But now you can see Lafrenière. You can see Kakko. You can see Chytil playing. All three of them needed this, badly. And they must be so stoked with their role out there.”
Having a “kid line” is a trope as old as the NHL itself.
The Toronto Maple Leafs had one in the 1930s with Hall of Famers Charlie Conacher, “Busher” Jackson and Joe Primeau. Teams including the Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning have had them — in the case of the Oilers, they’ve had different ones in each of the last three decades.
It was only natural the Rangers would end up with one, having committed to a youth movement since 2018.
Chytil was the first “kid” to join the Rangers family. A center from Czech Republic, he was selected No. 21 overall in the 2017 NHL draft, in between two rather productive current pros: St. Louis Blues center Robert Thomas (20th) and Oilers winger Kailer Yamamoto (22nd).
Chytil debuted for the Rangers in the 2017-18 season, registering three points in nine games. They handled his maturation methodically. Chytil was expected to start on the main roster in 2019-20, but instead started the season in Hartford of the AHL. New York called him up at the end of October when Mika Zibanejad was injured, stuck him between Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich, and he played well. When Zibanejad returned, that meant a demotion to the bottom six for Chytil, and his production suffered. But Chytil had some proof of concept and continued to show positive progress as an NHL-level center.
Kakko and Lafrenière both ended up on Broadway thanks to draft lottery wins. In 2019, the Rangers moved up from the sixth spot to No. 2 overall behind the New Jersey Devils, who selected Jack Hughes. Kakko was the clear second choice in the draft, as a big-bodied scoring winger from Finland.
Of the three kids, Kakko has been the most maligned as an NHL player. He has 26 goals and 32 assists in 157 games, having played just 43 games this season due to injuries. Some blamed former Rangers coach David Quinn for stifling Kakko’s offensive creativity. Others started whispering about whether Kakko was going to end up being a bust after just three seasons.
Lafrenière, a native of Saint-Eustache, Quebec, ended up with the Rangers after they won the unique 2020 draft lottery.
Please recall that the lottery was drawn in two phases during that pandemic-shorted season. The first draw was for all the teams that weren’t involved in the 24-team “bubble” postseason, a tournament that counted the Rangers as one of its participants. That draw included eight “placeholder teams,” representing the franchises that finished outside the top eight in each conference but were invited to the postseason qualification round. One of those “placeholders” won the first lottery draw. The second draw included the teams that lost in the qualification round — as the Rangers did, bowing out in three games to the Hurricanes.
The Rangers won that second lottery and the right to select Lafrenière.
His first season in the NHL was pedestrian, with 12 goals and 9 assists in 56 games, ranking him 13th among rookie scorers. This season started out equally benign, as Lafrenière had 12 points in his first 42 games. But he caught fire near the end of the season with 13 points in 21 games to end on a high note.
Lafrenière bounced around the lineup this season, but eventually found a linemate in Chytil. They skated with the likes of Julien Gauthier, Barclay Goodrow and Sammy Blais. The Kid Line played only 28:13 together in the 2021-22 regular season.
What’s interesting about the trio is that they were actually reunited rather than united. The Kid Line played 132:16 together last season under Quinn, skating to a minus-8 in shot attempts and an expected goals percentage of 45.18.
“We started to play together last season,” Chytil said. “This season, we didn’t see much together on the ice. But I think we built the chemistry from every game.
“It can be better. Not every shift is perfect. But we’re just trying to play our best. We know our role: to be energetic. We’re skilled, but we have to also put the hard work into our game. I think that’s what we bring to the playoffs, but we also can bring another level. Just push it more forward.”
Valiquette wasn’t sure if The Kid Line would even be a thing in the playoffs. If Barclay Goodrow had been healthy, Valiquette could have imagined that Stanley Cup-winning center in between Lafrenière and Kakko instead of Chytil.
“I didn’t think they’d keep them together,” he admitted. “Lo and behold, they were the best line for most of the [Penguins] series. When the team needed it, they made plays. When games were flat, they brought it.”
Through eight games in the postseason, they’re skating to a 49.14 expected goals percentage.
In Game 1 against the Hurricanes, they were the Rangers’ best line: plus-11 in shot attempts, plus-8 in scoring chances and the source of New York’s offensive flow as Carolina’s Jordan Staal-led checking line held Zibanejad & Co. scoreless.
“They were outstanding. That goal they scored and they had four or five other great chances,” Gallant said. “It would have been great if they could have had another one.”
What makes the line work, functionally?
“Our forecheck is really good. On the rush we’re making plays, but if we don’t have anything, we’re placing pucks in good areas for us. Just trying to shoot the puck a little more too,” Lafrenière said.
Valiquette sees the forecheck as the key to the Kid Line.
“They’re hard on the forecheck, man. Lafrenière is hitting, Chytil is hitting. Kaapo was great at protecting the puck — there were times against the Penguins when he looked like Peter Forsberg out there, the way he was housing the puck,” he said. “These guys have it going on.”
It’s not “Stanley Cup or bust” for the Rangers. Their window to win extends beyond this postseason, with stars in their prime such as Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin; other young foundational players in 26-year-old Vezina Trophy favorite Igor Shesterkin, 23-year-old Adam Fox, who won the Norris Trophy last season, and 22-year-old defenseman K’Andre Miller; and, of course, The Kid Line.
“We’re young guys, so we’re just trying to play hockey. Just do the right things,” Chytil said.
And have some fun, as kids are wont to do.
“It’s the playoffs,” said Kakko. “Of course we’re having fun.”