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Jeff Gorton Needs To Take Control Of The Vitali Kravtsov Situation

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New York Islanders v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Vitali Kravtsov situation — already rife with controversy and overreactions — took another sharp turn last week, when it was reported Kravtsov was sent to the VHL (the KHL’s minor league).

This has been a season full of drama for the 19-year-old winger, just a year removed from what was one of the most celebratory post-draft years in recent memory for Ranger prospects.

Not just because Kravtsov did so much with so little against men in the KHL, but because he was succeeding when the “name they should have picked” Oliver Wahlstrom was struggling his way through a horrific NCAA post-draft year. For what it is worth, Wahlstrom went pointless during his nine-game stint with the Islanders, and he’s tallied nine points in 17 AHL games to date.

With much celebration, the Rangers announced their ELC agreements with Kravtsov, Yegor Rykov, and Igor Shesterkin this summer. Kravtsov followed that up with, what I thought, was a fine pre-season performance — one I thought earned him a third-line role with the team. You all know what happened next. Kravtsov and Filip Chytil were sent down because “if they aren’t going to play top-nine minutes we want them to get the time in Hartford.” The team played Brendan Smith as a bottom-six winger, Lias Andersson somehow wasn’t important enough to get the “top nine or bust” treatment, and Greg McKegg and Micheal Haley are still both playing meaningful minutes in NHL hockey games.

From that demotion, things spiraled even further. Kravtsov was healthy scratched in just his second AHL game — a decision I blasted in a vacuum at the time. Now that it’s happened again in Russia, it’s clear there’s more to the situation than meets the eye, but things in Hartford were muddier than “a lack of effort” or “the kid doesn’t want to be here.”

Reports surfaced the team pointed toward Kravtsov’s low heart rate that he wasn’t working hard enough, the coaching staff wasn’t happy with the way he was playing, and to me it didn’t seem like they gave him much of a chance to start acclimating to a North American rink.

After five AHL games (where he recorded just one assist) Kravtsov bolted back to Russia where he could get meaningful minutes with a top-tier team (and make more money), and deleted, or potentially just archived, all of his Rangers association off Instagram. His Twitter account remains the same, and his header and last Tweet both include the Rangers.

Today — after just a 2-1-3 line in 11 KHL games with Traktor — Kravtsov has seen two VHL games with Chelmet where he has an assist. The official Traktor twitter account stirred up more controversy when a roughly translated tweet about him called Kravtsov “sad” but further context seems to point toward his lack of confidence, not a mental state.

Regardless, it’s time Jeff Gorton ends the charade. Because Kravtsov signed a contract with the Rangers, and is currently being loaned to the KHL, he can be recalled at any time. That is probably the direction this should move, and the sooner the better. Furthermore, this is not a time to take a victory lap on Kravtsov being a bust — as some prospect talking heads have done — because he’s had three months of bad hockey. It is, however, time for Gorton to stop letting this situation continue to spiral out of his control.

Traktor has no reason to groom, nourish, or, frankly, bother with Kravtsov’s struggles. It’s part of the reason why they showed him such tough love and then threw him to the VHL. He is not a true Traktor player, he is not a part of their future, and if things go well or poorly for him long term it doesn’t impact them at all. It’s the Rangers who have a stake in the game here, since his future is tied to their’s for better or for worse. Why should Traktor — who was likely expecting a boon to their playoff hopes with one of the best young players in the league joining them — bother wasting time and effort so he can go succeed across the Atlantic? It was one thing when he was a contracted hockey player who could re-sign with them at the end of the rainbow. It’s another now, when he’s Rangers’ property and has made his intentions known.

Now reports are surfacing that Traktor is listening to offers on the 19-year-old. Again, Traktor would be smart to gain a quick asset or two here, and cut ties. They might not be looking at the Kravtsov situation as harshly as I am, but it would make sense if they were.

So Gorton should reach out and extend an olive branch. He should offer a fresh start in Hartford, and maybe reach out to some of the plethora of Russian alumni to help him transition as they did with Kaapo Kakko by hiring Tuomo Ruutu.

When I suggested this the overwhelming responses from those who disagreed was that “Kravtsov shouldn’t get special treatment,” or “that’s a good lessons to show others who throw temper tantrums,” or “he’s a professional so he needs to suck it up.”

These are the rants and ramblings of people who happily sit in front of their computers and tell you about how it should be — when it’s happening to someone else, of course. Is Kravtsov a professional? Technically yes. Is he also a 19-year-old who moved across the world to play hockey, in an unfamiliar land, and without really speaking the language? Yes. Is he someone who — at 19 — feels the crushing pressure of his current struggles and has to worry about the fact that these struggles might take the only thing he’s truly dreamed about away from him? Probably.

Have any of the people lobbing insults at him ever felt something like that? I feel safe enough to say no. Hell, I went to college and was homesick for a month and a half before I figured it out. I was two hours from home, in America, speaking the same language as everyone else. Forgive me if I refuse to throw Kravtsov to the wolves for things not working out right away.

Gorton leaving Kravtsov dangling in Russia is a great way to allow this to fester. Either Kravtsov will blame the Rangers for their lack of confidence in him and be spiteful, or things will get worse and his slump will become something too big to wrestle down. Or it’s entirely possible he comes out the other side better for this and everyone is happy. But that’s a huge risk to put on a former 9th overall pick, especially since the Rangers don’t seem overly concerned with what’s happening to the guy picked a year before at 7th overall.

Kravtsov is a wildly talented hockey player, who succeeded in a remarkably harsh environment two years ago. He proved, to me at least, he was close enough to being NHL ready that the Rangers should have given him a shot on the third line this year. He could be an enormous part of this team’s future, and is the type of scoring winger the team has pinned after, or overpaid to try and find in free agency.

Taking control now will let the team make decisions in his best interest — the same way they did with Chytil two years ago when they kept him in the AHL rather than sending him back to the Czech Republic. At the time Gorton cited it was easier to control Chytil if he was here under the organization’s umbrella.

It’s time to get Kravtsov out of the rain, too.