A near month-long injury layoff did not prevent Rangers prospect Vitali Kravtsov from making a scintillating return to KHL action.
Having previously been held out of Traktor Chelyabinsk’s lineup since Sep. 29, the 6-foot-3 right wing recorded goals in consecutive victories against Amur Khabarovsk.
In each contest, the 20-year-old recorded four shots. Traktor earned a 4-2 victory on Friday, followed by a 2-1 win on Sunday.
In both games, Kravtsov impressed with an active stick, his skillful weaving through packs of defenders, and his ability to get his body to prime real estate and create net-front traffic.
Through 13 KHL contests, Kravtsov has collected eight goals and two assists. Though he missed seven games due to a lower-body injury, his 50 shots on goal only trails Alexei Byvaltsev (52) for the team lead. As of Monday, his seven even-strength goals rank fourth overall in the KHL.
When healthy, Kravtsov has proven to be a difference-maker for his club. In the 13 games he’s appeared in this season, he’s notched a point on 10 of 30 Traktor goals. Additionally, he’s been on the ice for nearly half of Traktor’s goals in games he’s appeared in – 14 of 30.
Traktor has tallied 26 points through 20 games played and sits fifth in the KHL’s Eastern Conference. Given Kravtsov’s return to health and impact, it’s very possible that Traktor will continue to climb the standings. Ak Bars leads the East with 30 points gained through 21 games.
The likelihood of Traktor reaching the Gagarin Cup playoffs is high, thus complicating the Rangers’ plans for their highly-touted right wing. Feb. 27, 2021 is the end date for the 2020-21 KHL regular season, and the playoffs are set to begin on Mar. 2 and run through Apr. 30.
With Pavel Buchnevich and Kaapo Kakko occupying the right side on the Blueshirts’ top lines, it might be best for Kravtsov’s development to receive consistent top-six ice time and a defined role on a KHL playoff contender in Traktor.
Understandably, The Garden Faithful are clamoring for Kravtsov to join up with fellow under-23 talents Kakko, Filip Chytil, Adam Fox, Brett Howden, Ryan Lindgren, and 2020 first overall pick Alexis Lafreniere. Yet, the most important consideration should be what’s most logical for Kravtsov’s long-term growth.
Even though Kravtsov is close to being NHL ready, his development is probably better suited to spirited KHL contests rather than attending Rangers training camp and participating in half-speed NHL exhibition games. In other words, the bright lights of Madison Square Garden can wait.
Follow Sean Hartnett on Twitter: @HartnettHockey