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The Pressure is off Vitali Kravtsov

Once seen as the centerpiece of the rebuild, the Russian winger can now come to New York with less weight on his shoulders.

NHL: JUN 29 Rangers Prospect Development Camp Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the Rangers drafted Vitali Kravtsov with the ninth overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, there were more than a few eyebrows raised around the hockey world. Oliver Wahlstrom was falling into the Rangers’ lap — he of the 94 points in 62 games played in his draft year. The right-handed shooting goalscorer that the Rangers had been seeking seemingly forever was right there for them, and they went with this tall, lanky kid from the KHL that put up 7 points in 35 games with Traktor Chelyabinsk.

At first, there was a curious concern that the Rangers reached for Kravtsov at nine and then the New York Islanders strode up to the podium behind the Rangers and immediately snagged the American sniper. There was much anger and gnashing of teeth immediately following the moment when Wahlstrom was announced, but then cooler heads prevailed in the weeks following the draft and analysis showed that the Kravtsov pick might just have been OK — even a savvy selection.

Once the season started, Kravtsov was the best Rangers’ prospect not playing in the NHL and went back to the KHL for another season with Traktor. Once there, the young Russian winger found himself stuck on a truly awful team but was producing nonetheless, ending his final season in Russia with 21 points in 50 games — securing one of the best U20 seasons in KHL history. On top of that, Kravtsov put up six points in seven World Junior Championship games in December for Team Russia.

Russia v Switzerland : Bronze Medal Game - 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images

While all of this is going on, the Rangers continued to patiently rebuild. Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes were traded away. Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, and Brett Howden all had their ups and downs in their first real taste of NHL action. The Rangers finished the 2018-19 season with 78 points in 82 games, giving them the seventh-best odds in the Draft Lottery. They were again in solid position to pick up another rebuilding piece to add to a stable that already included Chytil, Andersson, Kravtsov, and defensive prospects K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist.

Then, on April 9th, 2019, something incredible happened. The New York Rangers, with a 7.8% chance to do so, ended up with the second overall pick and the chance to draft one of two franchise players in Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko. We all know what happens next.

On June 21st, the Rangers made it official by drafting Kakko, a Finnish winger, with the pick, immediately changing the outlook of the rebuild and the future of the franchise. All of a sudden, Vitiali Kravtsov wasn’t going to be the guy the Rangers build around. The young Russian was going to have a friend to hang out with in the top-six for years to come.

Finland v Sweden: Quarter Final - 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Slovakia Photo by Lukasz Laskowski/PressFocus/MB Media/Getty Images

In just over a year, Vitiali Kravtsov went from being the cornerstone of the Rangers rebuild to being a part of a really really good dynamic duo. To top it all off, the Rangers went out and signed Artemi Panarin like it was no big deal.

With Kravtsov aiming to play his first season in the NHL, things just became a whole lot easier for the 19-year-old. No longer does the future rest squarely on his young shoulders. Instead, he can take time to adjust and learn the NHL game without the lofty expectations that would have come had the Rangers not fallen into Kakko and signed Panarin.

Kakko is clearly the better player of the two, but an unburdened and relaxed Kravtsov might just be the funnest thing to watch on the Rangers this season — a list that’s getting longer by the day.

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at New York Rangers Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Head Coach David Quinn has already talked about playing both Panarin and Kakko with the Rangers’ first-line center, Mika Zibanejad. Doing so would push Kravtsov down in the depth chart to either the second or even third line, depending on whether Quinn wants to put another young Russian — Pavel Buchnevich — on the second line with presumptive second-line center, Filip Chytil. That would leave Kravtsov on the third line going up against the bottom-six lines of other NHL team, playing against notably weaker competition, rather than going up against the Connor McDavids and Auston Matthews of the world.

This is a great opportunity for Kravtsov to get acclimated to the NHL in the first part of the season before jumping up and establishing himself as a bona fide top six winger.