Kravtsov heads home, Rangers’ drafting and development issue at the forefront

Earlier this week, Vitaly Kravtsov signed with Traktor for two years to return to the KHL. He’ll play back at home over the next two seasons after flaming out with the Rangers and Canucks.

Originally, a first round pick selected ninth overall by the Rangers in the 2018 NHL Draft, Kravtsov signed very early with the club. At age 20, he was anxious to come over and get his feet wet. Perhaps that was a miscalculation by both the team and player.

Most Russian players that get drafted usually stay over in the KHL for a few years to develop. A good example of that is Wild star Kirill Kaprizov. Following Minnesota grabbing him in the fifth round back in 2015, he became a dominant player while starring for CSKA Moscow.

It wasn’t until he was 23 that he debuted in the NHL, winning the Calder in 2020-21. Since that rookie year, he’s posted consecutive 40-goal seasons, including topping 100 points in 2021-22. Kaprizov is an outstanding star player who the Wild count on.

Regarding what happened to Kravtsov, he showed a little promise late in ’20-21. Under former coach David Quinn, he scored two goals and added two assists in 20 games. While the production wasn’t overly impressive, it looked like he had the potential to become a top nine forward. His skating and instincts were noticeable. He didn’t look out of place for a 20-year-old.

What transpired following that season were wholesale changes. Quinn was let go along with John Davidson and Jeff Gorton. Chris Drury took over as both Team President and GM. He hired Gerard Gallant as the new coach. Brought in to change the mindset, Gallant certainly accomplished the team’s goal of returning to the playoffs.

While the Rangers had more success than expected in the playoffs, 2021-22 was a nightmare for Kravtsov. With it expected that he’d make the roster and have a prominent role, instead he was beaten out by Dryden Hunt. Lost in translation was whatever the perception was for Kravtsov.

After being designated for assignment to Hartford, Kravtsov decided not to report. On bad advice from his agent, he exercised his opt-out clause to return to Traktor in the KHL. That was his choice. He could’ve stayed and learned the North American game playing for the Wolf Pack. But he felt more comfortable going home to play professionally in Russia.

Left unsaid was the berating he took from Drury. A public spat that probably didn’t help his confidence likely led to Kravtsov deciding to play for Traktor. After initially struggling when he came home, Kravtsov had a good Gagarin Cup, posting seven goals with three helpers over 15 games.

Following that postseason, there were lingering questions about what his future was with the Rangers. Having asked for a trade through his agent, Kravtsov, instead cleared the air with Drury. Entering 2022-23, he was supposed to have a clean slate. But that’s not what happened.

Following a so-so training camp where he didn’t impress Gallant, Kravtsov would get the treatment from a coach who preferred gritty veterans to skilled types. Even when he played, there were too many instances where Kravtsov didn’t know if he’d see the next shift. It was an untenable situation.

Following a good game where he scored a goal in a win, he was a healthy scratch the next game. That was a puzzling decision by Gallant, who never fully explained it to reporters. If Kravtsov couldn’t get a fair shake following a game in which he performed well, then what was the point of keeping him? Gallant diminished Kravtsov’s value to virtually nothing.

After playing 28 games and tallying three goals and three assists, he was traded to the Canucks for basically nothing. All Drury could get back was William Lockwood and a 2026 seventh round pick. They may as well have just waived Kravtsov. That’s how little interest he received.

A year earlier, the Canucks were rumored to be very interested in acquiring Kravtsov as part of a package for J.T. Miller. A player who could’ve helped the Rangers. However, Drury balked at the price. It definitely would’ve been interesting had they been able to bring back Miller. It wasn’t a realistic option.

When he was dealt to Vancouver, Kravtsov readily admitted that his confidence was lacking. The way he was handled by Gallant made one wonder if he stole his lunch money. It never made sense. Even with improved puck possession metrics, he never received consistent ice time. There wasn’t any patience shown.

It didn’t get any better playing for new Canucks coach Rick Tocchet. A very demanding bench boss who expects a lot from his players, he didn’t like what he saw from Kravtsov. Both he and former Russian linemate Vasily Podkolzin found themselves out of the lineup often down the stretch. That didn’t bode well.

In fact, after finally scoring his first goal as a Canuck, he only dressed in two more games. Afterward, he was a healthy scratch for the remainder of the schedule. Kravtsov totaled only two points in 16 contests for Vancouver.

A recent interview with Tocchet saw him question Kravtsov’s commitment. He definitely felt that the former first round pick needed to spend more time in the gym. Despite being listed at 6-3, he’s only 186 pounds. It isn’t so much a skating issue, as Kravtsov is very elusive. It’s more about getting stronger to win the board battles.

The question for the Canucks is, was 16 games enough for Tocchet to give up on him. If it was, that doesn’t say much for the Rangers when it comes to drafting and development.

In 2018, Oliver Wahlstrom was available when the Rangers picked. However, hockey insiders knew they liked Kravtsov. That was who they selected over Wahlstrom and most notably Joel Farabee. The shift in organizational philosophy didn’t help. They went from the letter to fans indicating a rebuild to suddenly throwing nearly a combined $20 million at Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba. That was still under Davidson and Gorton.

They asked Quinn to help develop high first round picks Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere. He also did a good job with Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren. It was under Quinn that Panarin worked best with Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast. A player Panarin liked playing with due to the grit he brought. The Rangers passed on re-signing him due to Fast wanting four years at around three million per season. He eventually landed in Carolina for less due to taxes.

When Gallant replaced Quinn behind the bench, he emphasized more grit and toughness. That led to Drury bringing in Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Reaves. The Rangers were certainly harder to play against in Gallant’s first year. For whatever reason, Drury went away from what worked. That meant losing Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, and Tyler Motte. He added Jimmy Vesey, whose work ethic was a good fit under Gallant.

However, keeping Hunt was a mistake. He’d eventually be waived. The same player Gallant loved wound up on three more teams, including the Avalanche, Maple Leafs, and Flames. Drury signed former Golden Knight Ryan Carpenter. A fourth line player who had success under Gallant. He didn’t last long. Eventually, he cleared waivers and went down to Hartford.

There also was Reaves, who fell out of favor quickly. From being a high character guy who played on the fourth line while pumping up the locker room before games, he eventually got his request out of the Big Apple to Minnesota. You have to wonder why the philosophy dramatically changed.

The Rangers went from a unique combination of skill and grit to almost all skill. How else to explain Drury adding less than 100 percent Patrick Kane when he previously traded for Vladimir Tarasenko, who fit in better. At least Niko Mikkola came in that trade to help solidify a shaky blue line. Drury also brought back Motte, who again was a fixture on the checking line and penalty killing unit.

The trouble was that the Rangers relied heavily on their top six. That hurt Kakko, Lafreniere, and Filip Chytil, who was re-signed by Drury. They always played second fiddle behind Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Tarasenko, Kane, and Vincent Trocheck, who never found consistency with the Bread Man.

It eventually led to a first round disappointment where the Rangers lost to the Devils in seven games. They were uncompetitive in Games 5 and 7. They blew a two games to none lead. There was a disconnect between both the GM, players, and the coach. That’s why Gallant is gone.

It doesn’t change the drafting and development issues that exist within the organization. How else would you explain them not sending down Kakko in a rookie year where he wasn’t ready? It was all PR. He would’ve benefitted from going down to Hartford. He finally cracked the 40-point mark. But one goal and one assist wasn’t enough production in the first round for a player who’s yet to hit 20 goals.

Lafreniere was mishandled by Gallant until mid-January when he was finally moved back to the left wing to play with Kakko and Chytil. He finished with 39 points, including a career high 23 assists. However, he went without a point against the Devils. Although his work ethic was there, he didn’t make a difference. It still would be a big mistake to give up on him. He’s 21 and is willing to drive the net and win board battles. The instincts tell me he’ll become a good overall player.

Would both Kakko and Lafreniere be producing so little on another team? In NYC, they’re blocked. Neither has been given the keys to unlock their full potential. Kakko deserves to be given an extended look with Zibanejad and Kreider on the top line. Lafreniere needs to be in the top six even if it means Panarin shifts to the right side. It makes no sense to continue undermining him. He should be on the penalty kill. More power play time for both Lafreniere and Kakko is a necessity.

Of their recent first round picks, defensemen K’Andre Miller and Braden Schneider have developed the best. Miller went over 40 points for the first time. The problem is that his defense still wasn’t consistent. He didn’t have a good series against the Devils, tallying only an assist. With Drury being hindered by the cap, he could try to bridge Miller and Lafreniere, who doesn’t have as much leverage.

Schneider showed signs of becoming that stabilizing force on the right side behind Trouba. He had some big hits during the season. He also got better at jumping into the play, finishing with five goals and 13 assists. More of a rugged defenseman than Miller, who relies on his reach, Schneider plays with more physicality. He has another year on his entry-level contract.

While they’ve had more success with developing defensemen, including the otherworldly Fox with partner Lindgren, there was a big swing and miss with the Lightning first round pick that became Nils Lundkvist. A player who fared well on the wider ice surface in Sweden.

Even with Drury taking over for Gorton with Gallant behind the bench, they were excited for what Lundkvist could bring. But after a good showing during camp, Lundkvist struggled to adjust once the regular season began. An undersized right defenseman who had offensive instincts, he found himself behind Fox and Trouba. That meant little power play time due to the over-reliance on the top unit. A Gallant special.

Eventually, Lundkvist fell out of favor due to the emergence of 2020 first round pick Schneider. He was a better fit. That left Lundkvist floundering at Hartford after being guaranteed a job. Similar to the way the Rangers did things with Kravtsov. It’s no wonder Lundkvist asked out. The operation is run like a carnival. Nobody knows what to expect. That’s what happens when Sather is still pulling the strings with Dolan.

Eventually, Drury dealt Lundkvist to the Stars for a conditional first and fourth round pick. The Stars’ first round pick was top 10 lottery protected this year. With them making the Conference Finals, that means the pick will be around where Lundkvist was taken. The fourth round pick in 2025 would become a third if Lundkvist can total 55 points by next season. That doesn’t look promising. He totaled 16 (6-10-16) in 60 games this season before losing his job. He hasn’t played during the postseason.

The issue here is whether Lundkvist was worth being taken at number 28 as part of the failed Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller deal. Astonishingly, Brett Howden scored a key overtime winner to beat the Stars in Game 1 for Vegas. He’s having a good postseason and could join McDonagh as a former Ranger to win a Stanley Cup. Somehow, Libor Hajek still remains along with Karl Henriksson. AHL players.

Right after the Rangers took Lundkvist, the Maple Leafs selected Swedish teammate Rasmus Sandin. Toronto could rue the day they gave away Sandin to the Capitals to rent Erik Gustafsson. Rugged left defenseman Mattias Samuelsson was also available when the Rangers grabbed Lundkvist. Instead, he’s part of a promising young D cote with the Sabres that features Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power.

The Caps took Martin Fehervary at number 46 in the same draft. A similar style player to Samuelsson. Both have established themselves while Lundkvist hasn’t.

There have been other first round misses. Lias Andersson tops the list. The old regime reached for him with the seventh pick in 2017. Despite winning a silver medal, which is best remembered for him chucking it into the stands, he never distinguished himself as a Ranger.

In fact, Andersson admitted to suffering from depression when he was living in Hartford. It was another epic fail. He was moved to the Kings for a second round pick in 2020 that became Will Cuylle. A high-energy forward who could be on the roster next season. He had a goal and two assists under Kris Knoblauch in the Wolf Pack’s run to the third round of the AHL Playoffs. Cuylle got into four games with the Rangers.

Andersson went before Casey Mittlestadt, Owen Tippett, Martin Necas, and Nick Suzuki. Robert Thomas went later in the first round right before Chytil. Jason Robertson wasn’t taken until number 39 by Dallas. Those are some well established players that the Rangers passed on.

At least Chytil has panned out. Hopefully, he can build on his career high 22-goal, 45-point season. With his new cap hit of $4.4 million kicking in next season, the Rangers need him to become more consistent. Hopefully, he makes a full recovery from the fractured cheekbone he suffered during the World Championships.

The Rangers should be encouraged by recent first round pick Brennan Othmann. After helping Canada repeat at the U20 World Junior Championships, he’s helped lead the Peterborough Petes to the Memorial Cup. After winning the OHL Championship, they’ll participate in the prestigious Memorial Cup. It begins this Saturday when the Petes face the Seattle Thunderbirds. They’ll also play the Kamloops Blazers on Sunday, followed by the Quebec Remparts next Tuesday. The semifinal is June 2, with the final June 4.

During the OHL Playoffs, Othmann had eight goals and 17 assists for 25 points over 23 games. The 20-year-old must be better handled by the Rangers when he turns pro this fall. If that means spending time in Hartford to fine-tune his game, so be it. Unless he blows everyone away in camp, Othmann shouldn’t be rushed. Look at the recent history.

As for the narrative about Kravtsov, who failed to meet expectations, there was too much confusion on Broadway. Whether he ever has the desire to return to the NHL remains to be seen. No matter how you view it, the Rangers look bad here. Another failed prospect. At some point, that must change.


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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