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Rangers need to give Vitali Kravtsov major role upon his return

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This represents the third full season of the rebuild that was undertaken at the 2018 NHL trade deadline. Unless there is a dramatic reversal of fortune, this will become the fourth straight year the Rangers will miss the playoffs.

If they do miss, and the cut line is becoming more distant by the day, this would equal the fourth-longest such drought in a franchise history littered with extended treks through the wasteland. There was the seven-year itch from 1998 through 2004, two five-year absences from 1943 through 1947 and 1951 through 1955, and a four-year walkabout from 1963 through 1966.

It is no wonder that folks are impatient for the future to arrive now.

And in what should be somewhere between 10 days to two weeks, a significant part of that future should enter the Rangers’ present. Or is that, re-enter? For Vitali Kravtsov, who endured North American misadventures in his first pro season a year ago, should be on his way to New York forthwith following his KHL Traktor team’s first-round elimination in the playoffs on Thursday.

Kravtsov, of course, is the 21-year-old, ninth-overall selection of the 2018 entry draft who is coming off an encouraging, perhaps even outstanding season with Traktor in which he recorded 16 goals and 24 points in 49 games (and two goals and two assists in five playoff matches). The 6-2 winger regularly displayed his skill, finishing ability, and ingenuity on the ice to validate his selection ahead of available alternate picks Evan Bouchard, Oliver Wahlstrom, Noah Dobson and Joel Farabee.

There were the issues in Hartford early last season that derailed his first North American pro experience, but those seem to have been put to bed. If there were questions then about Kravtsov’s work ethic, those questions should no longer exist or persist. The young man with the personality that was captivating at his first Rangers prospect camp is the one expected to walk through the door once he completes all COVID-related requirements and quarantine.

Rangers Vitali Kravtsov KHL
Vitali Kravtsov is set to rejoin the Rangers soon after his KHL team was eliminated from the playoffs.
Anthony J. Causi

Only a couple of years older, more experienced and better prepared for hockey on this side and on the smaller rink.

Kravtsov is a top-six talent — elite, really — who needs commensurate ice time and complementary linemates right from the get-go. With Artemi Panarin rejoining the lineup, and that should be no later than Saturday afternoon against the Bruins, the Rangers would be able to present three alternate first lines once Kravtsov joins the band.

Because the Rangers could keep their current top two lines intact featuring Mika Zibanejad between Alexis Lafreniere and Pavel Buchnevich on one unit, Ryan Strome between Chris Kreider and Kaapo Kakko on the other, and then present another unit with Panarin and Kravtsov flanking Filip Chytil. Presuming Chytil’s hand mends well enough in the next couple of weeks that he can slide back into the middle, this is exactly the way David Quinn should go.

No one should make the mistake of thinking that Kravtsov is a finished product or that he won’t have much to learn at both ends of the ice in adapting to the small rink and the NHL game. The best way for him to learn it is by throwing him into the deep end of the pool with Panarin as his lifeguard.

This season’s success was never going to be measured by whether the team made the playoffs. This was meant to be a stepping-stone season in which development and the laying of a foundation were priorities. So far, it’s been lukewarm. The team has been hobbled by Zibanejad’s lost first two months. Panarin’s extended absence hasn’t helped. The goaltending has been far spottier than anticipated.

Kakko, for all of the steps the 20-year-old Finn has taken with his work off the puck, has a total of two goals and has not scored in 13 games since Jan. 16, 10 of them prior to contracting COVID-19. Lafreniere has four goals and seven points. On the other hand, K’Andre Miller has had a very impressive start to his pro career, Buchnevich’s improvement has been dramatic and Adam Fox continues to shine.

The Rangers do not have the components to play the 60-minute, straight-line, hard-edged game that Quinn quite naturally promotes because that represents the route to success in the postseason. That is the recipe, but management has filled its shopping cart with different types of groceries.

So it is going to be on the coach and on the organization give these young, precocious stallions their lead. Yes, of course, Kaapo has to be responsible without the puck, same for Lafreniere, and the same for Kravtsov, but they need to produce, also. Quinn does not want young pros to define themselves by their goal totals, but they were drafted in such exalted slots because of their ability to generate offense.

So when Kravtsov is here and eligible, he should play major minutes in a major role. There is no reason to wait. If the future is around the corner, let’s find out and get a head start on it.        

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