The continuing saga of Vitali Kravtsov & the New York Rangers

Vitali Kravtsov #74 of the New York Rangers (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Vitali Kravtsov #74 of the New York Rangers (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

If there is one topic that is guaranteed to get a rise from Ranger fans, it is the fate of Vitali Kravtsov.  The 2018 ninth overall pick is playing in the KHL playoffs for Traktor Chelyabinsk, but he is under contract to the New York Rangers and could return to North America when his KHL season is over.

With every goal he scores in Russia, it revives the dream of the former first rounder becoming a star for the Blueshirts.

First off, let’s make it clear that he is having a very strong postseason.  Friday, Traktor took a 3-2 lead in their best-of-seven second round series against Salavat Yulaev.  Kravtsov scored the first goal to tie the game for Traktor in their 2-1 win.

They’ve won their last two games, coming back from a 2-1 series deficit

Traktor swept their first round series against Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk to advance in the playoffs.

His numbers

Kravtsov has been scoring well these playoffs.  He has five goals and three assists for eight points in nine games.  He leads Traktor with three game winning goals.

He scored two goals in one game in the first round, the only two goals for Traktor in a 2-1 win.

He’s been even better in the second round with three goals and four assists in five games including three points in Traktor’s 7-1 game four win.

In the regular season Kravtsov scored six goals and had 13 points in 19 games. He played an average of 15:44 minutes per game.  He had 37 shots on goal with a 16.3% shooting percentage.  Last season he scored 16 goals and totaled 23 points in 49 games.

It’s tantalizing to watch him score those goals.  All Ranger fans can do is shake their heads and wonder “what if.”

The KHL playoffs

If Traktor can get by Salavat Yulaev they will play either Metallurgist Magnitogorsk or Avangard Omsk in the East Conference Finals.  They win that series and they will play for the Gagarin Cup.

If Traktor gets that far, their season won’t end until the end of April.  If they lose this series in seven games, it will be before the end of March.  A Conference FInals loss will take Kravtsov to the middle of April.

His future

There has been absolute silence on the Kravtsov front from the Rangers organization.  They are no doubt waiting to see how his playoffs go and considering his history with the team, a long playoff run is probably what would be the best for all involved.  His season would end too late for him to contribute to the Rangers and a long, productive postseason would add to his value if they are going to trade him.

Then again, there is nothing to say that he cannot join the team next season and start fresh.

The challenge would be if Traktor gets eliminated in the next few weeks. At that point he could rejoin the team, but under what conditions would that happen?  The Rangers’ roster is set and overflowing with warm bodies since the trade deadline.

Is a return to North America even a possibility?

The war in Ukraine

Considering the state of international affairs, it’s a question of whether the Rangers would even attempt to bring him back from Russia.  Travel out of Russia is dicey, though there is no doubt that he could find his way back via another country.

There is no question that if the Rangers wanted him back, since he is under contract, he would be obligated to make the effort.  The fact that the NHL severed relations with the KHL doesn’t matter.

But would he even play?

There’s been a lot of talk about Kravtsov.  Some Ranger fans still believe that he can return to the team for the stretch run and playoffs and have an impact.  Is he that good?

In his only time in the NHL he played 20 games at the end of last season. He averaged 12:24 minutes of ice time per game, scored two goals and added two assists. His plus/minus rating was -6.

Let’s make one thing clear.  The KHL is a good hockey league. but nowhere near the level of NHL competition.

The KHL leading scorer is Vadim Shipachyov who had a brief three game NHL career with Las Vegas, only to return to Russia when he was sent to the AHL.  This season he scored 24 goals and added 43 assists for 67 points in 48 games.

The third leading scorer is 31-year old Corban Knight, drafted by the Florida Panthers in the fifth round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. He played 52 games over six years for Calgary, Florida and Philadelphia in the NHL scoring four goals.  He spent most of his career in the AHL before moving to the KHL where he has found success, scoring 56 goals over the last three seasons, numbers he never achieved in the AHL.

Kenny Agostino had the seventh most goals (20) in the KHL this season.  He was a fifth round pick of the Penguins in 2010 and played 86 games over six seasons, with six goals his top output in 63 games in 2018-19 for the Devils and Canadiens.

The rosters of KHL teams are littered with players who couldn’t make it in the NHL.  Ryan Spooner (remember him?) had 34 points in 45 games for Avtomobilist this season.

Is there anyone who believes that the Rangers would hand Ryan Spooner a job if he was available to play in the NHL?

What to do?

First off, the odds that we will even see Vitali Kravtsov in North America this season are relatively slim.  Traktor may go deep in the playoffs and that could rule out his availability.  If he is able to come over sometime in early April with almost a month left in the NHL season it could be possible.

If he wants to come back and resurrect his career with the Rangers, the best option would be for him to return to play for the Hartford Wolf Pack, whose season ends on April 24. They will be in the postseason.  He would have a chance to prove that he deserves a spot on the Rangers’ roster and show that his refusal to report to Hartford last fall was a mistake on his part.

The key question to his future in New York is whether he believes he made a mistake. Considering the rash of injuries and COVID-related absences that hit the Rangers, Kravtsov would have been playing in the NHL within days of his demotion to Hartford.  He could be a regular right now and any success would have had an impact on the season and what the team did at the trade deadline.

We’ll keep tabs on his progress in the KHL playoffs.  No decisions have to be made until Traktor is eliminated and at that point, we will know a lot about his future with the Rangers organization.  Keep in mind that he is a restricted free agent after this season and unless he wants to sign for the NHL minimum, it’s in his best interests to be a good soldier.  Stay tuned…the Kravtsov saga continues.

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