Kravtsov arrives in NYC, tempering expectations, Johnson on waivers

The Russians are coming. The Russians are coming. As I teased in a recent post, the Rangers will be adding another young Russian prospect to the NHL roster. Following Igor Shestyorkin’s early success in ’19-20, Vitaly Kravtsov arrives with much fanfare in NYC.

A former first round pick selected ninth overall by the Rangers in the 2018 NHL Draft, there’s plenty of excitement to see what the 21-year old right wing can do. Following his KHL team Traktor Chelyabinsk losing in the first round of the Gagarin Cup Playoffs in Russia, Kravtsov concluded his season with two goals and two assists in the first round. It followed his most productive year in the KHL where he tallied career bests in goals (16) and points (24).

With the Rangers wanting to see what the former first round draft pick can do, it didn’t take long for him to arrive. His plane landed in JFK Airport yesterday. The team couldn’t wait to hint at the news that he was coming over to North America.

Here’s the deal. Kravtsov must quarantine for seven days. Once he does and of course without testing positive for COVID-19, he can join the club at team practice. That’ll be imperative so he can learn a new system. Even if I’ve been a vocal critic of the lack of structure under David Quinn, there’s sure to be an adjustment period for Kravtsov. Once he gets in a few practices and is up to speed, the organization will want to get him in NHL games and see what he can do.

It’s important to remember that he’ll be going from a wider ice surface to a smaller one with more emphasis on physical play and tight checking that limits time and space. How quickly the 6-3, 189 pound left shooting forward adjusts will determine what kind of role he’ll have. Given that he’ll be behind a top six that includes Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, Chris Kreider, Ryan Strome and Kaapo Kakko, perhaps he can slot in on a third line with Alexis Lafreniere and Filip Chytil. That’s assuming he’s ready.

For the time being, Quinn will likely roll out the same top nine that dominated the Bruins in Monday’s match-up hosting the Flyers. That would feature Kreider, Zibanejad and Buchnevich reunited while Panarin and Strome work with gritty forward Colin Blackwell. Chytil centers the Kid Line that features 2020 top pick Lafreniere and 2019 second pick Kakko.

The fourth line was comprised of Brendan Lemieux with Kevin Rooney and Phil Di Giuseppe on Saturday. We’ll see if Quinn sticks with it. It doesn’t seem fair to Julien Gauthier, who has done nothing wrong. He’s clearly gonna wind up elsewhere due to the organizational depth. Ditto for Brett Howden, who just hasn’t shown enough offensively speaking.

By bringing Kravtsov to the Big Apple, the Rangers placed veteran defenseman Jack Johnson on waivers Sunday. If he passes through unclaimed, the Rangers can move him to the Taxi Squad to save money on the salary cap. Something they’ll need for maneuverability the rest of the season.

The following was posted by PuckPedia two days ago about how Kravtsov will fit into the Rangers cap. With Johnson figuring to clear, it’ll create more room. So, there isn’t much to be overly concerned about.

If there is one point I want to make before finishing this up, it’s to emphasize how different playing in the NHL is from any other league. Look no further than how difficult Kakko is finding it to score. He has 12 goals in 85 career NHL games. Despite some noticeable improvement in both skating and overall play, he’s only got two goals and two assists this year. Still only 20, the talented Finn is 12-15-27 thus far in a season plus.

It hasn’t come easy for top pick Lafreniere either. The 19-year old from the Province of Quebec has four goals and three assists in 26 games. His best stretch coming when he put up five of his seven points over a four-game point streak between 2/26 thru 3/4. Since then, he’s gone five straight without a point. It speaks to how hard it is for young players who were very hyped entering the league.

Even Devils top pick Jack Hughes hasn’t lit the world on fire. After struggling in similar fashion to Kakko during his rookie year, the 19-year old first line center has cooled considerably following a hot start. While 14 points (6-8-14) rank second behind Pavel Zacha in team scoring, Hughes has only two goals and an assist over his last 11 games. During that tough stretch, he’s a minus-seven. Prior to that, Hughes was off to a good start going 4-7-11 and a plus-five with nine of his 11 points coming at even strength.

What it shows is how challenging it is to be consistent. Granted. Nothing has been normal for either Hughes or Kakko due to the pandemic that caused a big interruption in their development. Something other top picks didn’t have to deal with.

A closer look at the top candidates for this year’s Calder Trophy outlines how the more experienced players are succeeding. You have Kirill Kaprizov at age 23 coming off dominating the KHL as the leading candidate for the top rookie. He leads all rookies in scoring with 23 points (10-13-23) including his first NHL hat trick. His teammate goalie Kaapo Kahkonen is 24 and has 11 wins with a 2.19 GAA and .922 save percentage for the playoff contending Wild. Kevin Lankinen is another goalie candidate for the surprising Blackhawks, who boast several first-year players contributing without captain Jonathan Toews.

Perhaps having that necessary pro experience will help Kravtsov for what’s next. I wonder though how he’ll be handled. You have to wonder about that due to what we’ve seen with Kakko and Lafreniere under Quinn, who’s fared much better with more mature players in young defensemen Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren and K’Andre Miller.

In any event, I’m just keeping expectations down for that reason. The Rangers might insist they’re in a rebuild. But they do rely heavily on proven performers including the electrifying Panarin, who took the NHL by storm at age 24 with Chicago after dominating in Russia. That is a perfect example of an NHL ready talent who went undrafted. All he’s done is post at over a point-per-game clip with 434 points in 406 career NHL games for the Blackhawks, Blue Jackets and Blueshirts. A unique player with a very high skill level.

Whenever Kravtsov makes his Broadway debut, let’s be realistic about it. If we are, it’ll be better. Especially given the condensed schedule. Welcome to Manhattan Виталия Кравцов!

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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