Vitali Kravtsov is Making the Rangers Look Brilliant

The Rangers took a massive gamble at the 2018 NHL Draft when they opted to select Vitali Kravtsov ninth overall, and raised even more eyebrows after the team told the media he was their second-ranked forward in the entire draft.

There was no doubt that Kravtsov was a skilled player with a high ceiling, but along with that came massive uncertainty. After posting so-so numbers in the KHL regular season, he exploded during the playoffs. He for the most part did not feature for Russia in the major tournaments - World Juniors, U18 World Championship, etc. - that typically shed light on the top draft-eligible prospects. It was difficult to paint a clear picture  of exactly how good he was. There were certainly a number of other highly touted players who were available to the Rangers at ninth overall, so nobody could have blamed them had that decided to go for a safer selection such as Evan Bouchard or Noah Dobson, among many others. Not to mention that Oliver Wahlstrom was the more conventional high-end forward on the table.

In turn, Kravtsov has rewarded the Rangers’ ambition. Through 32 games, he’s scored six goals and added 11 assists for Traktor Chelyabinsk. For perspective, here is how he matches up with other notable former KHLers in their post-draft seasons.

Evgeny Kuznetsov was on a whole different level, but it’s extremely encouraging to see Kravtsov within range of Vladimir Tarasenko and Artemi Panarin. We’re talking about bonafide NHL superstars whom Kravtsov is within striking distance of.

More specifically, it’s practically unprecedented for a player of Kravtsov’s age to lead his team in points (two other players have 17 points as well, but have played more games). Our own Evan Oppenheimer created a statistic called “Betweenness,” which essentially measures how central a given player is to his (or her) team’s offense. Kravtsov is a major influencer on Traktor, whereas the other three were more supplemental.

This does say as much about Traktor as it does Kravtsov; their lack of quality players is a big reason why they are so low in the standings, but that’s a favorable outcome for the Rangers.  As an 18-year-old, he’s getting a lot of ice time and gets a significant number of touches on the puck. While losing probably isn’t very fun, it’s tremendous for his long-term development.

The Rangers got a lot of flack for passing on Oliver Wahlstrom. While Blueshirt Banter’s collective opinion was that Kravtsov was a perfectly fine pick, we nonetheless ranked Wahlstrom definitely higher on the draft board. That the rival Islanders took him two picks later added to some people’s anxiety.

The full outcome won’t truly be known for at least five years, but the early returns favor the Rangers. Wahlstrom had a mediocre summer camp with the USA U20s, and his freshman year at Boston College has been turbulent at best; he’s scored three goals and added an assist in 12 games for the Eagles. In his defense, he’s played better than the point total shows, and BC on the whole is having a poor season. Still, my opinion has changed on the two players; I think Kravtsov is the better prospect at this point.

Again, it’s very early, and there are other prospects who are playing well. Evan Bouchard, taken 10th by Edmonton, was our seventh-ranked prospect and played seven games with the Oilers this season, scoring his first NHL goal. Defenseman Ty Smith nearly made the Devils’ opening night roster and has posted an absurd 33 assists in 24 WHL games.

But when it comes to Kravtsov, the Rangers’ gamble looks extremely savvy. It’s not only that he’s a good player, but that he’s special. He draws so much attention from the opposition simply because he is a threat every time he touches the puck. He possesses the kind of skill that can’t really be coached. Will he become a superstar in the form of a Tarasenko? It’s too soon to say. Certainly, though, he has that ceiling. There was plausible deniability in June, but no longer. His playoff success last season was clearly not a fluke.

The Rangers had no choice but to absolutely nail this draft pick. Not only for roster building purposes, but also because their ninth overall pick was their first, most important opportunity to set the tone of the rebuild and sell the fans on that long-term vision. The Rangers boldly went away from the consensus when they took Kravtsov and received flak for it. Six months later, their belief in Kravtsov has proven to be justified.