It wasn't supposed to be like this. This was supposed be the season where the New York Rangers showcased their rebuild by introducing a load of young talent. Kaapo Kakko was supposed to light the Calder Trophy race on fire, Filip Chytil was supposed to return as an improved sophomore and Lias Andersson and Vitali Kravtsov were supposed to be pivotal pieces of the team's attack.
But that couldn't be further from reality.
Kakko has just one point through three games, Andersson is playing limited minutes on the fourth line. And Chytil has been plying his trade in the AHL, off to a hot start with five points in his first four games. But perhaps the most puzzling development has been the lack of exactly that – development – for Kravtsov, who not only missed out on an opening-night roster spot in the NHL but has been largely invisible with the Hartford Wolf Pack.
Sending Kravtsov to the AHL right away wasn't shocking. He hadn't played in North America beyond tournament action, so some seasoning was needed. Besides, at 19, there was no reason to rush him. That's not to mention in the AHL, Kravtsov seemed primed to skate consistent top-six minutes and see work on the power play, both of which he wouldn't get in the NHL. But the expectation was that Kravtsov would head to the minors, make good on the opportunity and start strong, all the while making the case for a quick call-up to the NHL. None of that has happened. After sitting as a healthy scratch in what would have been his second game, Kravtsov's stat line reads zero shots and one assist through three games with the Wolf Pack, where he has skated alongside Boo Nieves and Matt Beleskey.
So, what do the Rangers do now? In an ideal world, Kravtsov would have been up to replace Brendan Smith, a natural defenseman, as New York's third-line left winger. But the Rangers can't simply give Kravtsov a spot due to his potential. He needs to earn it. And he hasn't. Whether due to a lack of motivation or the inability to adjust to his new surroundings immediately, he hasn't yet found his footing in Hartford. And now a report from Sport-Express' Igor Eronko suggests that Kravtsov is considering exercising the European assignment clause in his contract and returning to the KHL.
Having the European clause in his contract suggests the Rangers were fine with the possibility of Kravtsov moving back home for a bit if things didn't work right away. And such a clause isn't all that rare. Winnipeg Jets prospect Kristian Vesalainen took that path last season. After failing to stick with the Jets, he played five games in the AHL before heading to the KHL. The upside? If Kravtsov finishes the season in the KHL, he has an opportunity to return prior to the NHL playoffs. If there's a spot open then, it could give Kravtsov a place on the big-league roster by season's end. And maybe a return home wouldn't be the worst thing at this point. For a player his age, skating big minutes against top competition might be what's best for his continued development.
There's no easy answer in regards to Kravtsov's next steps, but his current situation doesn't seem to working. And if there isn't room for Kravtsov higher in the Wolf Pack's lineup by the end of October, it might be time let him rebuild his confidence in the KHL before he tries his hand in North America again next season.
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