If Vitali Kravtsov ends up anything like Evgeny Kuznetsov, then the No. 9 overall pick in the NHL draft will be the transformative forward the Rangers need him to be.
Kuznetsov is the comparison Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark provided for Kravtsov, the 18-year-old Russian wing the Rangers used the first of their three first-round picks on. It’s always hard to predict how exactly teenagers will develop, but everyone knows what a ceiling of Kuznetsov-level production means after he put up 83 points in 79 games last season and dominated during the Capitals’ run to their first-ever Stanley Cup with 32 points in 24 games. Kuznetsov also had a 77-point campaign in 2015-16.
The Washington center, who played for the same KHL team in Russia that Kravtsov plays for, Traktor Chelyabinsk, made his NHL debut at 21 before becoming a full-time NHLer at 22. Kravstov has one year remaining on his KHL deal but could come stateside before 2018-19 is over.
“He’s a very Kuznetsov-like player,” Clark told reporters in Dallas after the selection. “Kuznetsov was 6-feet at that time, and this guy is already 6-3. Kuznetsov obviously has grown and he’s matured. But he’s very much like him. I’d say Kuznetsov at that age probably showed a better scoring touch, but the playmaking ability is right there. Skating and playmaking ability is identical.”
When Kuznetsov was drafted in 2010 he was coming off a KHL regular season in which he had two goals and seven assists in 35 games. Kravtsov, the league’s rookie of the year, had four goals and three assists in 35 games before his playoff breakout in which he had six goals and five assists in 16 matches.
The Rangers thought so highly of Kravtsov’s current ability and potential that they had him rated as the second-best forward of this draft class — ahead ofJesperi Kotkaniemi who went No. 3 to Montreal; ahead of Brady Tkachuck who went No. 4 to Ottawa; ahead of Barrett Hayton who went No. 5 to Arizona; ahead of Filip Zadina who went No. 6 to the Red Wings and obviously ahead of Oliver Wahlstrom, who went to the Islanders at No. 11.
“He’s such a high-end hockey player. We had him as our second-best forward in the draft, and everybody was on board,” Clark said. “We all went to see him. What he did, especially in the playoffs, certainly stamped what he was. But we’ve been on him since last November and followed him all year long. What he did in the playoffs didn’t surprise us at all. He just looked like he was getting ready to break out for an 18-year-old boy at that level.”
Clark also brought up J.T. Miller, whom the Rangers dealt to Tampa Bay at last season’s trade deadline, when discussing Kravtsov, saying the Russian plays like a center and was a center growing up but was drafted as a winger.
At this critical juncture for a rebuilding franchise, players like Kravtsov and fellow first-round picks K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist, both defensemen, need to pan out. The Rangers seem to believe strongly in Kravtsov’s talent and character.
“His skill level, his hands and his head are through the roof,” Clark said. “He’s a very, very intellectual kid and he’s a great kid. You know what? Good people find a way to be successful, and that’s what it turns out to be with him.”
RANGERS GET DEFENSIVE IN DAY 2
The Rangers loaded up on defensemen over the two-day draft. After taking four more Saturday they ended up using six out of their 10 draft choices on blueliners, three of them from Sweden.
They began Day 2 with a surprising second-round pick of Swedish goalie Olof Lindbom at No. 39 overall. Lindbom was the first netminder taken in the draft. The Rangers have high-upside goalie prospects in Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev.