June 19, 2018

Vitali Kravtsov – in the footsteps of Yevgeni Kuznetsov

Vitali Kravtsov. Photo: IBL/Toni Hekkala

Vitali Kravtsov was born in Vladivostok, in the far east of Russia. Today, the city has it’s own KHL team, but when he grew up, the hockey boom was yet to happen. Kravtsov started playing hockey on the outside rinks of the city, as the first closed rink was built when he was seven years old.

Kravtsov started playing under the influence of his father.
“My father played hockey when he was young,” he explained during an interview with championat.com. “He really wanted me to play hockey. He brought me everywhere: to the Czech Republic, America, Canada… Then we arrived in Chelyabinsk. My mom stayed with me, while my dad stayed in Vladivostok because of his job. And all of this just to get me playing hockey. It was very hard at first. I have to thank my parents for all the time and energy they spent on me.”

Kravtsov became a hockey player in Chelyabinsk. The fact is, he looks exactly like a player typical of that organization. He’s got very good technique and is a smooth skater. To many, it reminds them of the style of a recent Stanley Cup champion in Yevgeni Kuznetsov. Many experts draw comparison between the two players.
“I think that I probably have a style similar to Kuznetsov than to (Valeri) Nichushkin, as I’m not such a power forward like [Nichushkin] is”, Kravtsov explained. “However, Kuznetsov is like the moon to me.”

The forward started making a name for himself last year, when he scored his first pro goal during the playoffs, becoming the youngest player ever to score a playoff goal in the KHL. Kravtsov stole this record directly from Kuznetsov.

Kravtsov started the 2017-18 campaign with an injury, a problem that pretty much costed him a spot in the Russian WJC roster. He had a rocky start to the season after recovering from a broken wrist that kept him out for seven weeks. He didn’t loo like himself until the second half of the season. Kravtsov ended the regular season below expectations, with four goals and three assist. But the playoffs certainly made up for that.

Kravtsov scoredconsistently during Traktor Chelyabinsk’s deep run into the Gagarin Cup and was instrumental when the team defeated Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk in the second round. He finished the playoffs with six goals and eleven points in 16 games. Again that was enough to overtake one of Yevgeni Kuznetsov’s U18 records. Kravtsov’s strong play in the playoffs didn’t go unnoticed. It earned him the KHL rookie of the year award.

His strong display of talent in the playoffs impressed a lot of scouts. Despite not making the WJC roster, most of the rankings have him as a first-round player ahead of the draft in Dallas later this week. There is little doubt on whether Kravtsov has enough talent to be considered a high-pick player and perhaps if he had more exposure during the season, he would be considered even higher in the rankings.

However, unlike many Russian prospects of late, Kravtsov has always been adamant in his position of playing on home soil to develop and move on as a pro player, rather than a junior one. As with all Russian players, he had to make a decision on his career when he was 17, whether he would accept an offer from his home club or opt to go and play overseas.
“We have good coaches in Chelyabinsk, they give us a chance. As soon as we finished school, me and two other teammates got a contract offer. I knew there would be no problems with a move overseas”, Kravtsov explained. “I signed a three-year contract and I’m happy about it. I think that you should move overseas when you are a fully physically and technically ready player, so that you will actually be able to compete with the best players in the world.”

Kravtsov is on a good path in doing so. The forward was also called to Russia’s second national team this season and he showed a good game there, scoring twice in five games. Just as most of Russia’s good young players, Kravtsov fell into SKA St. Petersburg’s sphere of interest. During a couple of interviews, the player didn’t seem keen about the option of leaving Chelyabinsk for SKA, who recently changed coach from Oleg Znaroks to Ilya Vorobyov. They decided not to force hands and Kravtsov will play in Chelyabinsk another year until his contract runs out next April.

At this point, however, it’s hard to forecast what will happen with Kravtsov in the future. Much will depend on the team that drafts him and how he progresses during next season. He is expected to play a leading role at the 2019 WJC in British Columbia and maybe he will even get a chance to play with the senior national team.

In any case, Kravtsov is a first-round talent. Whatever team picks him will get a player with an NHL body, great moves, and a pro shot. The hunt for the next great Russian talent has begun.

Alessandro Seren Rosso alessandro.serenrosso@gmail.com
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