It’s hard to imagine many ways that the first half of the 2019-2020 hockey season could have gone worse for 2018
10th 9th-overall pick Vitali Kravtsov. He didn’t make the Rangers out of training camp, which was not a big deal. But then he struggled heavily in Hartford, getting sat multiple times. He abruptly left the team and flew back home to Russia, where he rejoined Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL and griped about the way the Rangers handled him. He then had such a tough time at Traktor that his hometown team demoted him to Russia’s minor league. Tail between his legs, Kravtsov returned to Hartford. The goal was no longer a quick promotion to the NHL, but first to mend the relationship between player and club and help the talented player regain some semblance of confidence.
Kravtsov is finally back in form, though it has been a very slow burn. His return started tepidly. He did register three points in five games, but his impactful moments came in relative isolation. Then a six-game pointless streak endured, though he was more involved than the invisible performances that led to reprimanding in October.
For the last month or so, Kravtsov’s game has been on the rise in a meaningful way. He is now not only doing enough to stay out of the doghouse but has actively become one of Hartford’s best players. In his past 16 games, Kravtsov has registered three goals and seven assists. More importantly, eight of those 10 points have either been a goal or a primary assist.
Further context offers supplementary encouragement. For one, he lost linemate Phil di Giuseppe when the Rangers recalled him in early February. The two had found chemistry together and Kravtsov’s game did take an initial hit, but he’s rebounded recently and has taken a more active role himself in catalyzing his line’s offense. Kravtsov’s offense is also less isolated, which is to say that he’s much more involved in the game from start to finish as opposed to earlier games in which he’d have a threatening shift or two amongst many less memorable ones.
Kravtsov is also offering fewer no-show performances. Even upon his return, he would follow up a good game with a couple of irrelevant ones. That’s rarely happened in the last few weeks. The points aren’t always coming, but he’s at least attempting to make a difference in every game. In his last five games without a point, he’s totaled 12 shots on goal. In total, Kravtsov has 24 shots in 10 games this month. He’s averaging roughly one shot-per-game more than he was in 32 games from October through January.
What’s changed for Kravtsov is that he’s no longer waiting for the puck to find him in shooting areas. Rather, he’s working hard to create shots for himself. Here are a couple of examples.
The transition to North America is difficult in many ways. One learning experience for Kravtsov has been that there’s less room in the offensive zone. The ice surface is so big in the KHL that defensive units literally have to pick their battles. They can’t defend everything, and so the priority is protecting the middle area below and between the circles. Offenses then cycle the puck around the perimeter and try to free up a good shot. In some ways it mimics an NBA offense, where possession is generally a given and you’re trying to parse through different levels of shot selection.
He’s learned that shots aren’t a given in the AHL because teams can defend and pressure more of the ice surface. He no longer can wait around the circles until the puck cycles his way. Kravtsov has begun to go to uncomfortable areas of the ice and fight for shots. He’s moving deep into the slot. He’s winning physical battles for positioning. He’s using quick stickwork to find the puck and then get it off his stick.
In fact, I think Kravtsov has been a bit unlucky. He has just one goal in his last 13 games but could easily have a few more. He’s also not a major component of a power play which heavily prioritizes the point man at the top dishing to Vinni Lettieri at the left faceoff circle.
So all is well Kravtsov? Well, let’s pump the breaks a little. Even during this recent hot streak, Kravtsov’s 0.63 points-per-game rate is good but hardly great. Difference makers at the NHL level tend to average closer to at least .70 and often higher at a similar age in the AHL. Aside from doing it for more than 16 games, the Rangers will want to see Kravtsov raise his game a tic more and become that high-end AHL winger.
Yet this is obviously a massive turnaround from where he was at even a month ago, let alone the disastrous first half of the season that drew his entire worth as an NHL prospect into being. He still has steps to take in order to re-establish himself as one of the world’s elite prospects and there are long-term questions of just how good he will become, but the Rangers can stop worrying about him. He’s playing well in Hartford and is progressing upwards.
Except for in special circumstances, NHL teams are only allowed to make for recalls from the minors once the trading deadline passes. The Rangers used two of them already when they temporarily sent down Brett Howden and Julien Gauthier to ensure they were on Hartford’s roster at the deadline and therefore eligible to play in the AHL playoffs.
So, the Rangers have two recall opportunities remaining. Injuries and the team’s playoff outlook will determine a lot about when and on whom the Rangers use them, but if Kravtsov continues to play as he has for the last month then there’s a strong possibility he could see his first NHL action before the end of the season.