With the ninth overall pick in the 2018 Draft, the New York Rangers selected Vitali Kravtsov, a highly-skilled winger who showcased his competitive nature in the 2019 World Junior Championships playing for Team Russia. After the draft, Kravtsov returned to Chelyabinsk Traktor and recorded one of the best U20 seasons in KHL history.
Kontinental Hockey League
In 2016-17, Kravtsov got a sniff of the KHL when he appeared in three regular-season games for Chelyabinsk. He didn’t register a point, but more importantly, played in six playoff games for the club and recorded a goal. At the time, he was 17 years old playing with men in the second-best hockey league in the world.
Moving to the 2017-18 season, Kravstov’s played limited time in 35 regular-season games and notched four goals and three assists for seven points. The playoffs are where the 18-year-old caught fire. In 16 games, he recorded six goals and five assists for 11 points. He won the Aleksei Cherepanov Award following this season as the KHL’s rookie of the year. This run would be his breakout as in a few short months he would be headed to the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas for the NHL Draft.
On June 22, 2018 the Rangers drafted the native from Vladivostok, Russia. The organization decided to pass on Oliver Wahlstrom, a right-handed American sniper who put up 94 points in 62 games with the US National Under-18 team in the USHL. Fans were furious, but as the summer months passed and more analytics were brought in on Kravtsov, that anger quickly subsided.
With one year left on his contract, Kravtsov returned to Chelyabinsk Traktor for the 2018-19 KHL season. The team lacked offense, unlike prior rosters, only scoring 79 goals all season. Kravtsov, dripping first-round prospect swagger, collected eight goals and 13 assists for 21 points in 50 games, tying Artemi Panarin for the ninth-highest point total for KHL players under 20-years-old. He was only six points behind the team’s top points leader, Ryan Stoa. Kravtsov represented his team at the all-star game and rightfully so when you see he contributed for 26.58% of his team’s points. His point contribution percentage relative to the number of goals scored by his team surpassed Evgeny Kuznetsov, Vladimir Tarasenko, and fellow Blueshirt teammates, Panarin and Pavel Buchnevich when they were all in their post-draft-year season. Below is a graph to illustrate this statistic.
Being in the KHL, Kravtsov was basically invisible to the North American spectrum. The chances of finding a KHL game on an American cable network are slim to none. Some watch highlights and read statistics of European players, but for the average fan, this is never enough. Approval needs to be gathered from first-hand accounts to justify why the organization decided to give the player a look. In this case, why the 6-foot-3 and 181-pound winger deserved to a pick so high in the first round. Kravtsov needed a stage closer to the west to show what he could bring to the Rangers’ organization.
2019 IIHF World Junior Championship
That “stage” would come around quick as Kravtsov would make his way to Vancouver for the U20 World Junior Championships, where he would serve as an assistant captain for Team Russia.
In his first World Junior Tournament, Kravtsov was told he would center the first line and made the switch from the wing around November. In his first true experience as a center, he answered the bell with two goals and four assists for six points in seven games. He finished fourth on the team in scoring, thanks to two multi-point games, against Denmark and Switzerland, and led his team with 21 shots.
Ultimately, this Russian team won bronze. Not bad for his first tournament and taste of the center position. Throughout the tournament, Kravtsov buzzed around the net and seemed to get opportunity after opportunity. He looked dominant and by far one of, if not the best player for Team Russia. Most noticeable was his competitive nature. Frustration would flood his face with a missed opportunity. On the flip side, pure energy radiated from his vocal cords when contributions were made. Kravtsov was a beaming presence on the ice and production followed when the puck was on his stick.
Following the tournament, news surfaced that he had suffered a torn tricep in the playoff round. Kravtsov showed courage through adversity as well as versatility, by playing center. His stock surged after this tournament, especially after seeing his dazzling cross-ice, seam sauces, and thundering one-timers. The Rangers are lucky to have him in their system and fans seem anxious to see a return to the States sooner rather than later.
Rangers Prospect Camp
Fans would not have to wait much longer after the World Juniors to see the Russian stud return to the States. In May of 2019, Kravtsov signed his entry-level-contract, along with goaltender, Igor Shesterkin. Accompanied by his mother and nine-year-old brother, Kravtsov left his father in Russia to come live in New York to train and continue his education with the English language.
In two months’ time, Kravtsov would be at the Chelsea Piers Connecticut training complex getting ready for prospects camp. Alongside his peers, including 2019 second-overall pick, Kappo Kakko, Kravtsov led the charge with his electrifying skill, including a dazzling penalty shot five-hole goal on goaltender Adam Huska.
Kravtsov shocked the many Ranger fans in attendance when during the three-on-three scrimmage he displayed incredible hockey IQ with an assist… on a breakaway. Let me explain… Kravtsov, all alone, checked over his right shoulder and saw Morgan Barron following close behind. With this, he focused back on Huska, faked to his backhand and dragged the Slovakian goaltender with him. He then wrapped a centering pass to Barron in the slot for an easy empty-net tuck. A jaw-dropping demonstration of his raw talent and what we may see in October if Kravtsov is to make the opening night roster.
Kravtsov would later comment on his play at the camp. As reporters swarmed his stall in the locker room, Director of European Scouting, Nick Bobrov, began to make his way over to help with translation. Kravtsov respectfully waved him off willing to take this one on his own. He answered a majority of the questions, but looked to Bobrov towards the end for help. He demonstrated character by tackling the obstacle head-on, a feat most young men would try to avoid.
There used to be a worry that drafting Russian players would ultimately be a mistake, especially with a high draft pick. Translating from a European style on bigger, Olympic sized ice, to the North American style on NHL-sized ice was the obvious reason. With Kravtsov, this will not be a huge problem. He has shown with a short stint at the World Junior that he can adapt to working his speed and skill into a tighter setting. He will have to learn to do this on a consistent basis, but will be fine.
Head coach David Quinn likes to run this speed and skill style-of-play with a lot of moving parts, including offensive weaving and defensemen stepping into the rush. Coach Quinn can use Kravtsov strategically due to his versatility. He will be able to hold is own in the top-six or shine in a lesser role on the third line. He obviously has the offensive talent, but can also play a respectful, defensive game. Adjusting to the NHL speed may take some time, but his time in the KHL will help with the adjustment.
Kravtsov is eager to come to North America, which shows with his decision to come to New York early in preparation for training camp in September. A year ago, the franchise loomed heavy on his shoulders, but in a year’s time, Kakko came around to alleviate some of that pressure. Shortly after, fellow countrymen Artemi Panarin landed in New York to lend a hand. The face of the franchise in 2018 was merely a headshot of Kravtsov, no doubt about that. Now, that image looks more of a family portrait with a bunch of young faces joining the picture, most he became familiar with at prospects camp. New York is going to be fun to watch next season, especially with Kravtsov in the picture. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.