Amidst the encouraging rebuild occurring at Madison Square Garden, with one of the NHL’s youngest teams showing some signs that a bright future might exist just a few seasons from now, the New York Rangers are also faced with stark reminders of how difficult and precarious it can be to tear a roster down and start practically from scratch.
Two stark reminders, to be precise.
One of them is the well-chronicled case of Lias Andersson, the seventh-overall pick in the 2017 Draft who finds himself back home in Sweden, suspended by the team after a seemingly ridiculous amount of twists and turns has left his NHL prospects dim at just age 21. An interview this week indicated Andersson’s problems may run considerably deeper than first thought, but his chances of ever playing for the Rangers seem extremely slim (From ‘Rangers Must Answer for Curious Handling of Lias Andersson Mess’, New York Post, 1/9/2020).
Before Andersson’s situation blew up, though, there was the saga of Vitali Kravtsov, the talented Russian forward the Rangers grabbed with the ninth pick of the 2018 Draft. And while Kravtsov has largely left the news cycle for now, there’s reason for real concern that the Blueshirts might have missed on two consecutive top-10 draft choices – a scenario that could end up setting their reconstruction project back years.
The Kravtsov episode hasn’t been nearly the slow-motion train wreck the Andersson one is, but the net result might end up being the same. To review: following his celebrated arrival from the KHL over the summer, Kravtsov, who turned 20 late last month, stole the show at the Traverse City tournament and then the Rangers’ prospect camp during the preseason, often looking like the best player on the ice and upstaging 2019 No. 2 overall draft pick Kaapo Kakko at times. He then came close to making the team out of training camp before being cut and sent to the American Hockey League’s Hartford Wolf Pack.
That, of course, was when the wheels started to come off. Kravtsov struggled badly with the Wolfpack, contributing little and being scratched and benched for long stretches, then choosing to exercise the European Assignment Clause in his entry-level deal and return to the KHL in late October.
Kravtsov Failing to Use Demotion as Opportunity
The debacle then really gained steam. Kravtsov also struggled for Traktor, his KHL team, and found himself assigned to the remote VHL minor league – a situation that clearly caught the Rangers off guard, causing them to step in and bring him back to the AHL in December, looking to regain control of their prospect’s development.
The trouble is, little has changed since Kravtsov’s return to Hartford. In nine games since coming back, he’s recorded two goals and an assist. For all of the offensive talent that compelled the Rangers to draft him so high, Kravtsov hasn’t shown signs that he’s better than the minor leaguers around him.
Contrast that with rising center Filip Chytil, who recorded nine points in nine games with the Wolf Pack after failing to make the team out of camp before going on to establish himself as a promising NHL player, scoring 10 goals with the Rangers so far following his recall Oct. 28. Or highly regarded Russian goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who went 15-4-3 with a 1.93 goals-against average and three shutouts with Hartford in his first season in North America. Shesterkin won his NHL debut Tuesday, making 29 saves in a 5-3 victory over the Colorado Avalanche, and followed it up with a 6-3 win over the New Jersey Devils on Thursday in which he made 46 saves.
Chytil and Shesterkin did exactly what the Rangers would like all of their prospects to do – leave the team with no choice but to call them up and give them an opportunity. That duo forced its way out of Hartford and into New York City. Kravtsov hasn’t come close to doing that.
“Everybody assumes that part of development is just putting someone out there and playing him, and that’s certainly not the case,” coach David Quinn said in early October when learning of Kravtsov being scratched and benched by the Wolf Pack. “Sometimes there are areas that a player needs to be aware of that are non-negotiable. And if that doesn’t happen, then you have to take the proper steps to make sure they understand that.” (From ‘Rangers Prospect Vitali Kravtsov Heading Back to Russia’, New York Post, 10/25/2019)
The argument against concern over Kravtsov: He’s a 20-year-old trying to find his way in a new country with a different language and a new style of hockey, and the Rangers need to be patient with him. They will, because they have little choice at this point – and because they need him.
For all of the young assets that have been flowing into the organization over the past two years, the Rangers’ system isn’t exactly bursting with high ceilinged talent on the wings. The club’s biggest successes so far have come in rebuilding the defense and strengthening the center position, with Chytil adding key depth down the middle and the promising Brett Howden doing what’s expected to be a temporary apprenticeship on the wing.
Those spots remain a work in progress, and the problem is likely to be exacerbated by a potential trade of Chris Kreider by the trade deadline. Even if Kreider stays, the Rangers need more offense from the wing – which makes Kratvsov’s development crucial.
Did Rangers Miss on Both Andersson and Kravtsov?
General managers own their draft picks. Part of the job is being fair game for second-guessing from fans and media when a young player doesn’t pan out. Though that’s, of course, the case here as well, it’s difficult to fault Gorton’s approach to that No. 9 pick in 2018, at a minimum.
There’s a fine line between boldness and foolishness, but the GM was willing to take a chance on a lesser-known prospect who was considered to be rawer than others available at that spot. With many calling for the Rangers to take winger Oliver Wahlstrom, who ended up going to the archrival New York Islanders two spots later, Gorton bet on what he saw as Kravtsov’s higher-end potential.
Some will call that a textbook reach on a player. With the Rangers’ front office having formally announced its intention to rebuild four months earlier, however, Gorton was willing to try and find an elite player – the kind more often found in the first three to five picks – rather than make a “safer” choice. It’s the type of decisiveness, conviction and daring fans should expect from a GM.
Despite that, if the pick doesn’t work out, it’s on Gordon. Should Kravtsov – who’s no longer drawing excited comparisons to Washington Capitals star Evgeny Kuznetsov – not live up to what the general manager foresaw for him, that would mean the Rangers blew it on Andersson in 2017 and Kravtsov a year later, which would represent back-to-back failures on top-10 picks.
What’s worrisome in both cases is the mental state, as neither young player has shown any ability to overcome adversity. Andersson’s sulking response to not simply being handed ice time is well-documented; is Kravtsov engaging in similar behavior? If so, Gorton and team management might have to answer for failing to do their homework on both players’ personalities and mental makeups.
Chytil’s selection at 21st overall in 2017 certainly helps to mitigate the fact that neither of those picks have contributed to the Rangers at all to this point, but the club really can’t afford to have whiffed on both selections as it works to build a foundation for future playoff contention. Andersson might be a lost cause at this point, as his talent level was in question anyway; Kravtsov’s abilities aren’t.
Unlike the Andersson mess, it’s far too early to proclaim the drafting of Kravtsov a mistake – in fact, it’s too early to judge that draft at all. Still, the Rangers would certainly like to start seeing at least some signs that Kravtsov might be on the path to tapping his potential, beginning with some discernible success in the AHL.
Right now, that’s not happening, and it’s hard to believe that possibly missing badly on two high picks wouldn’t make the road back to contention longer – and perhaps, prevent the rebuilding Rangers from being as good as they otherwise might have been.