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What to Make of Vitali Kravtsov’s North American Stint and Return to Russia

Philadelphia Flyers v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Top prospect Vitali Kravtsov made the decision to utilize his European Assignment clause, opting to return to Trakor Chelyabinsk of the KHL rather than remaining with the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack. The decision has ignited a firestorm of opinions and takes on Kravtsov, the Rangers, and rebuilding philosophies. There are a lot of assertions flying around that are, shall we say, less than fully informed. A lot of people seem to believe there are very simple explanations for what is truly an esoteric situation.

While the Rangers’ roster makeup is a complicated mess with many points of contention, it’s hard to make a convincing argument that Kravtsov particularly made a preseason case for starting the season in the NHL. Though he wasn’t actively hurting the team with his play, he did struggle to consistently create offense and the tactical nuances did seem to overwhelm him at time. He is far from the first 19-year-old to not make an NHL team out of training camp; particularly one who just came over from Europe.

The real eyebrow raises began when Kravtsov had a turbulent beginning to his stint in Hartford. After a difficult opening game against the Charlotte Checkers, Kravtsov was healthy scratched the very next game. He struggled in various ways over the following few games and was benched once or twice for particularly gruesome misplays. A turnover like this one just can’t happen in the middle of the defensive zone.

Also concerning was that Kravtsov was not driving offense. He displayed individual moments where he reminded everyone of just how talented he is, but the overall product was absent. He had just one assist and two shots on goal in five games. As the above clip might indicate, Kravtsov evidently struggling with the smaller North American ice surface and the limited time and space with which to navigate.

It wasn’t all bad, though. Another cause for Kravtsov’s limited production is likely that the coaching staff wanted him to focus on the defensive and tactical side of the game. He has enough skill that the offense was always going to come, but it was the things away from the puck that he needed to really work on. Though he made plenty of errors, he absolutely did work hard. Here are a few examples from his final game against the Binghamton Devils (#91 in blue).

Let’s quash any accusations that he was playing lazily. While Kravtsov did draw the ire of the coaching staff at times, it was for poor decisions and reads; not a lack of hustle.

Kravtsov’s decision return to Russia is a big one and has many different layers of context. His decision to do so doesn’t make him a quitter or a character concern. Let’s first understand his situation. He is a 19-year-old who took a massive pay cut to move halfway across the world where he knows almost nobody and barely speaks the language. Those would be extremely difficult circumstances for most people. Once it became clear that his stay in Hartford would not be temporary, it’s completely rational to want to return home for this season. And while the Rangers would have preferred that he stay, they seem very understanding and supportive of his decision.

Still, Kravtsov does seem to hold some resentment over the experience. In an interview with Russian media company Sports Express, Kravtsov voices a few gripes. He seems upset that the Rangers accused him of not working hard enough after his pulse on the exercise bike did not reach 180 beats-per-minute. There’s some hint of irritation at how a defenseman (Brendan Smith) is playing the wing on the third line and how that line is used for checking rather than skill. He feels the need to return to Chelyabinsk in order to play a style he is more familiar with and return to feeling confident about his play.

Though there’s no bomb-drop here, the number of complaints and their varied nature add up to a situation that is not ideal. However, it’s important to note some extremely important cultural context. Athletes based in North America are taught to bite their lips and not rock the boat. Any criticisms are to be reserved for private conversations. That’s why the Minnesota Wild’s Jason Zucker was forced to apologize after making an extremely obvious and banal observation that everyone, including the team’s coaches, had to do better if the Wild were to start winning games. Rest assured that there are many players in every single organization who are annoyed about a few things they have experienced, but societal expectations result in them rarely getting voiced. If, say, Adam Fox was to publicly voice issues to the New York Post, it would be a big deal not only because of the content of his remarks, but also the general fact that he felt it was a big enough deal to break with societal norms and escalate the issue publicly.

The Russian attitude towards this is extremely different. The threshold for crossing the line with public comments is tremendously higher and there’s less pressure to suppress what is on one’s mind. While his remarks may hardly be music to one’s ear, this isn’t the cause for alarm it might appear to be. In his mind, he is not being rebellious or insidious, but rather casually stating his experience. There are also multiple instances where he refuses to take the interviewer’s bait and insists that some things should remain private. He also shoulders the majority of the blame for his inability to make the NHL roster.

Kravtsov’s return to the KHL is disappointing for everyone involved, and there is really no way to argue otherwise. He came over in the summer in order to acclimate, meet new teammates, and prepare to play in North America for the 2019-2020 season. To leave just a few games into the season is a divergence from all expectations both he and the organization had. His departure means the Rangers are burning a year of his entry-level contract for nothing. It means it will take longer for him to become accustomed to the team’s tactics, environment, and North American life.

Development is a two-way street. Whether the Rangers handled this “correctly” is beside the point. They very well may have, but a big part of their future has decided, rightly or not, that he did not feel supported and was better off finishing the year elsewhere. It’s on the Rangers to communicate with Kravtsov and his agent and figure out how the team can best aide him going forward so that he can reach his potential and be a productive member of the team.

Ultimately, this is likely a minor setback rather than a career-altering decision. Kravtsov mentions himself that he has an NHL contract for the next two seasons and strongly insinuates that it’s his intention to return to North America next season; Winnipeg’s Kristian Vesalainen followed this exact path last season. Bet on Vitali Kravtsov having a long, successful tenure as a New York Ranger. It may just take a season longer for it to begin than originally anticipated.