Even when they finally get a win, things aren’t as they seem for the Rangers. With key right wing Kaapo Kakko suffering an upper body injury on a hit from Alex Romanov during the first period in Montreal, he was placed on the injured reserve. At minimum, the third year forward is out a week.
That means he’s out for tonight’s game at the Maple Leafs, Thursday at Nashville and Saturday in Ottawa. He won’t be eligible to return until the Blueshirts are back home next Monday versus Calgary. Without Kakko, that weakens the Rangers at right wing. Once a team strength, it no longer is thanks to the Vitali Kravtsov Saga. An unnecessary distraction that was created by both sides. The latest after TSN insider Elliotte Friedman said that the Rangers were trying to get Kravtsov to come back and play in Hartford is that the disenchanted former 2018 first round pick went home to Russia.
All of this could’ve been prevented had the organization communicated better with the self entitled Kravtsov, who hasn’t done himself any favors. It was in 2019 that he pulled a similar stunt after failing to make the roster. After initially going down to Hartford, he didn’t like playing there. Eventually, the Rangers agreed to reassign him to his KHL team Chelyabinsk Traktor. It went poorly for him that he was demoted in Russia. Eventually, Kravtsov had a change of heart and finished his season with Hartford. COVID complicated the hockey season and sports world with many leagues cancelling the rest of the schedule.
A year later, Kravtsov stayed home and played better for his KHL team. He produced well scoring 16 goals and 24 points in 49 games for Traktor. After they were eliminated from the playoffs, the Rangers finally brought him over. In 20 NHL games, he tallied two goals and two assists while mostly playing on a bottom line under former coach David Quinn. There were moments where he was bumped up. He didn’t look out of place. It’s my opinion that Kravtsov deserved more ice time. Unfortunately, he was behind recent first round picks Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere. That made it hard for him to get the opportunity he had hoped for. Quinn trusted Colin Blackwell, who performed admirably on the second line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome.
Somewhat curiously, the recent information the organization fed the New York Post about Kravtsov’s exit interview didn’t come out until last week. I find it very strange that suddenly, there was an issue they knew about during the summer. If that was indeed the case, why didn’t Chris Drury make Kravtsov available? He had more trade value. Instead, following an injury that kept him out most of the preseason until he scored a power play goal from Strome in a win over the Islanders, the Rangers mysteriously cut him and kept depth forward Dryden Hunt and team ornament Libor Hajek, who’s behind Jarred Tinordi.
That decision was perplexing. Nothing against Hunt, who had a solid showing in training camp. But they preferred not to expose the veteran to waivers. Ditto for Hajek, who looks to have no place in the club’s plans. Supposedly, Drury tried to trade him with no success. That’s because Hajek has little value. It never made sense to re-sign him. Especially with the knowledge that Nils Lundkvist was being given a spot in the top six with both Tinordi and Patrik Nemeth signed as veteran presences.
Both young defense prospects Zac Jones and Braden Schneider impressed in preseason. Even stranger, they’re not paired together for the Wolf Pack. Instead, Jones plays with veteran Anthony Bitetto while Schneider works with Matthew Robertson. Interestingly, coach Kris Knoblauch has Jones playing the right side on the top pair. Maybe that’s by design. Happy Birthday to Zac!
Given that the defensive depth is excellent, I don’t understand the Rangers’ reluctance to let Hajek go. He’ll likely not get another opportunity here. It isn’t fair to him. So, he isn’t quite what they hoped for. Put the blame on former GM Jeff Gorton. He didn’t exactly do well getting both Hajek and former Ranger Brett Howden in return as part of the Ryan McDonagh/J.T. Miller trade. At least it netted Lundkvist, who will play his third NHL game later. A gifted skater with offensive potential, he’s still searching for his first NHL point. Right now, he gets around 14 minutes depending on how much power play time there is on the second unit. Hopefully, he’ll gain the coaching staff’s trust and receive more shifts in close games. The Rangers are being cautious with him thus far.
As it pertains to Kravtsov, who isn’t helping himself by quitting on the Rangers, you subtract what should be a player on the third line and suddenly the team is paper thin at right wing. What’s more. Julien Gauthier has only played one game. That’ll change tonight with him likely slotting in for Kakko on the second line. Having recalled veteran Greg McKegg, who served as the team’s fourth center in the win at Montreal, they have brought up Morgan Barron. Another center who is decent in the face-off circle, he scored goals in the Wolf Pack’s first two games. Barron had a good enough camp to possibly make the team. But was blocked by checking center Kevin Rooney.
At the moment, Chris Kreider continues to play the right wing to allow Lafreniere to stay at his position on the left wing where he scored the game-winner back home in front of family on Saturday night. So far, it’s working out well. Kreider has scored in all three games and leads the team in goals (3) and power play goals (2). However, when you take out Kakko, who’s expected to have a good season in his third year, there’s not much scoring depth on the right side. Gauthier has yet to prove himself as a reliable scorer. When Hunt plays, it’s not to provide offense. Barclay Goodrow had been used a lot by Gallant at all three positions. He can be moved around due to his versatility. However, he’s not known for his scoring, but rather his checking and grit. We know what Ryan Reaves is here for.
Add it all up and there seems to be a void without Kravtsov. Unless Lauri Pajuniemi performs well in his first year in the AHL, there’s not much available. Both Will Cuylle and Brett Berard are playing for their junior teams. Each should have a bright future. Especially Cuylle, who Gorton at least got back in return as a second round pick for Lias Andersson. Another former first round pick the organization mishandled. He thought he did enough to make the roster a couple of years ago. Instead, they sent him down where he had a mental breakdown.
While the cases of Andersson and Kravtsov are different, you have to ask why this keeps happening with the Rangers. While they went out of their way to gift 2019 second overall pick Kakko a spot even though he wasn’t close to ready, he never played one game for Hartford. Neither will Lundkvist if everything goes well. It’s a bit inconsistent for the organization to treat certain prospects better than others. Jones could be here, but isn’t due to a numbers game.
I still haven’t figured out what all the fuss is over K’Andre Miller. He spent his entire first season with the Rangers. There were ups and downs. Something you’d expect from a young defenseman. Last season, he played on the penalty kill. An area I believe he should continue to receive shifts. Instead, Gallant has stuck with Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox while Nemeth and Jacob Trouba comprise the second shorthanded pair. So, Miller is only being used so far at even strength. That should change. He and Trouba have had some issues. They struggled in the third period against the Canadiens. They were caught out of position on the tying Jonathan Drouin goal. That second pair remains a question mark. They’re depended on for key minutes at five-on-five.
If they can’t work it out with Kravtsov, then they must trade him. This can’t be a distraction that lasts all year long. The Rangers have plenty of room on the cap to add an NHL player. But it’s awfully hard to see them getting a top six forward in return for an unproven prospect, who needs an attitude adjustment. Would they trade with Chicago and acquire the suddenly out of favor Dylan Strome? The problem is the younger brother of Ryan Strome [COVID protocol] isn’t a right wing. Unless Gauthier can start finishing around the net, right wing will be a concern. Hopefully, Kakko isn’t out too long with his injury. They need him.
For the time being, we don’t know how the complicated Kravtsov situation will play out. If he’s eventually dealt which is looking more and more likely, can Drury still get a good enough return to improve the roster? Or will the mismanagement of another prospect hurt the team? Halloween is right around the corner. Trick or Treat.