The Kravtsovs of the World And The Plan

A cost-benefit question reappears for the Sabres General Manager

The news is out, 2018 9th-overall selection Vitali Kravtsov is unhappy with not making the starting lineup for the New York Rangers, will not report to their AHL affiliate and has asked for a trade, a request which will reportedly be granted. This isn’t new for the Rangers, as 7th overall selection in 2017 Lias Andersson, was also unhappy and ultimately traded to the Los Angeles Kings just four days after his suspension by the team. Both cases, interestingly enough, saw the players refusal of going to Hartford, the Rangers AHL affiliate, but both were willing to go to their new team’s respective AHL affiliate. Lias ended up playing 15 games for the Ontario Reign while mixing in for 23 games with the Kings last season. Vitaly also says he is OK with some more AHL-seasoning... as long as it isn’t with Hartford.

Who is Kravtsov?

In Vitali’s draft year, TSN’s Bob McKenzie had Kravtsov as the 12th best prospect in his final rankings and TSN’s Craig Button had this to say about him “a classic Russian scoring winger with skating ability to break free and hands to finish” who projected to be a James Neal type of goal scorer. Sounds like a solid prospect at the time. How he’s done since then?

Since being drafted, Kravtsov has played 110 games over three seasons in the KHL amassing 48 points — which lines him up with first-line production for the two near-full seasons he played. Adding to his KHL resume, he also played in 39 games for Hartford in the 2019-20 season, notching 15 points. He followed up his KHL return last season with a 20 game stint with the Rangers, notching 2 goals and 2 assists. Maybe not the biggest jump the Rangers would like to have seen, but surely some upwards progression during his KHL tenure while also having a solid half-season in Hartford.  I don’t think there is much merit to him being under-utilized last year with the Rangers; he mostly played with Kevin Rooney and Brett Howden, a couple of 20 point kind of guys, but saw even worse results with a combination of Strome / Chytil / Panarin. Too young, at the age of 21; with a COVID season, this shouldn’t be a big surprise to most.

For more on why he might be shopped so easily: I mean he is a top 10 pick of just a few years ago, and the Rangers had dramatic changes with new General Manager Chris Drury coming in and clearly putting his fingerprint on this season. Supposedly, if this even matters, Drury was never a fan of the pick and is happy to move on ( rather than any kind of angle of Kravtsov being a problem or not good enough to keep around. Another angle in this is Drury wants Kravtsov to marinate in the AHL to recover from his training camp injury rather than him being worse than all 12 forwards currently playing.

Gerard Gallant, the new head coach, thinks a bit different in that others “played better” in camp. From Vitali’s own words, he doesn’t come off as entitled. Back in 2020, he said  “Count how many players they have at my position. There’s plenty to chose from. Right now there’s no place on paper for me.” Does he want an easy path to the NHL? Or does he hate the fact that it’s tough to beat out a lot of competition in a league that favors the veteran to the prospect? I’m betting on him putting the work in, especially since he’s OK with playing in the AHL this season — just somewhere else.

We should be targeting this guy.

The Buffalo Sabres have had no respectable right wing prospects since Sam Reinhart, and with him gone, the horizon is even farther from the sunset. Kevyn Adams addressed the forward pipeline in the 2021 draft, but could be adding long-term options right now. We’re starting off the year very happy that Kyle Okposo is leading the way for the right wingers, but man. We need someone a little younger than 33 and with a history of rough injuries to pass the torch to. Whatever optimism one may have with Tage Thompson, he’s now being looked at as a center and if he can make that transition, we lose another spot on the right side. Victor Olofsson, who can dabble on either side, is a restricted free agent and with Kevyn worried about players who want to be here, will Victor want to be here? Hard to know, not much has been said about the team’s pending restricted free agents. Add in Hinostroza in the same boat. If he has a good season under his belt, would he take another deal here? Maybe, his old coach and a team that took a chance in a big role, but money talks. I don’t think we have to spend much bandwidth referring to Hayden and Caiggula here, so I’ll skip them. For Rochester it’s either Jack Quinn or hope JJ Peterka & Linus Weissbach are good and just as good on their off-wing. Other than that, we’re waiting for Isak Rosen and the Russians, whenever that day comes. I imagine Kevyn Adams knows his forward-eggs are too few and being counted on too heavily, Casey Mittelstadt is in the middle of developing and is the projected first line center, for Pete’s sake.

Lately, These Guys Have Been Relatively Cheap

It took the Rangers four days to move on from Lias Andersson for the not so steep price of a second round pick Vegas selection that the Kings had, which, as expected, ended up near the beginning of the third round at 60th overall. Since then, guys like Sam Reinhart, Pavel Buchnevich, Sam Bennett and Viktor Arvidsson have all been moved for late firsts or second round picks and sometimes some small change on the side, like a Devon Levi. All those guys except Arvidsson are restricted free agents which gives their new team some hope of keeping the guy. The Sabres should not be moving first round picks for guys like Kravtsov, and an early second rounder in 2022 is a stretch, but the Philly second in 2023? A guy like Jacob Bryson or Oskari Laaksonen? Gets a little muddier.

Draft pick value is always changing due to the relative weight each team has on the players still available, but there’s been a few attempts to best quantify draft-pick-value in some way. The Sabres are generally thought of to be around a bottom 5 worst team in the league, likely making their second round selection at or before #37 overall. According to Dom at The Athletic’s goals-score-value-added (GSVA) measure, a pick in the 32-37 range adds about 2.3 to 2.7 over the life span the player is on the team. This is about three times less than the pick generally used at the 8th selection, where Kravtsov was drafted. To try and make this “value” more “tangible”, Dom projects old friend Ryan O’Reilly a GSVA value of 2.6 — arguing that a second round selection is worth the same value as ROR would bring just this season, if “rentals” were truly a thing in the NHL.

If we look across the league, there’s been a few disgruntled players within the past few years. Already mentioned is Lias Andersson, who looks to improve on his second season with the Kings. But we have seen Valeri Nichuskin come back from his hatred of the Stars and look to be a very valuable and solid top 9 player with the Avalanche. Jesse Puljarvi, lucky enough to get new management, was able to reconcile with the Oilers and the former fourth overall looks to still be trying to live up to his draft status. Of these three, are you paying a second round pick for them? I think if we know that Vitali would at least be as good as Andersson with the hope he’d project to the other two, that’s a no-brainer decision. Most second round picks don’t even sniff the league!

We don’t have to look far before we see how many misses we have had in the second round. Tim Murray traded up to select Connor Hurley, who has never seen the ice in Elmira/Cincinatti, Rochester/Portland or Buffalo. Hudson Fasching was acquired for two second rounders and has never made the jump from our farm system or the Coyotes. Brendan Guhle was selected late in the second round, made a jump in the AHL early, and has stagnated in Anaheim. JT Compher, competing with Jake McCabe as the best Sabre-second-round-selection of the decade, is seemingly on the outs in Colorado (and was used to acquire a stud in Ryan O’Reilly). Rasmus Asplund, the best second rounder since JT, was drafted in 2016 and is maybe having his first full NHL season this year. Can we really wait that long to see if our guy next year is better than Kravtsov? Or even as good? What about value added to the roster now, rather than half a decade later?

The Timeline, The Plan

The reality is, if we use the second round selection next season, it’s more likely than not we gotta let the kid marinate. Owen Power was a consensus number one pick and he’s not going to be adding much to the Sabres this year. The scouting world was almost in a consensus on letting the kid dominate at Michigan then make the jump. He likely won’t need AHL-seasoning, but most prospects do. Our best second rounder of the 2010s, Jake McCabe, took three seasons to make his season long debut and that was earning a spot after one of the worst rostered teams in league history. Can Adams wait until 2025 to add a significant prospect in the Sabres lineup? I’m not so sure.

Kevyn likely wants to keep this job, and the best way to do that is winning. Winning happens when good players want to stick around. We’ve seen, not so long ago, what happens when the not-so-good players want to stick around and get their last shot in the NHL. Adams handling of his restricted free agents over the past year gives himself a three year window to evaluate the current talent. Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt and Dylan Cozens will have to decide if the team is worth sticking around for. Sure, they’re restricted free agents, but Dahlin and Mittelstadt will only have one year left to stick it out in Buffalo, Dylan won’t be so lucky, if we in fact are not a good team at that point. If Dahlin and Mittelstadt decide they don’t want to be here anymore, it’s going to be tough to get a trade return that’s going to keep a guy like Cozens happy when his time near unrestricted free agency comes knocking. Buffalo is pretty damn far from Whitehorse, after all.

For this point, we don’t have to look far. Orchard Park is within viewing distance of the KeyBank Center (ok, not really). We can see it in our own town. The Bills, after being a free-agent laughingstock for who knows how long, have now become one of the most attractive teams in the NFL, thanks to budding star Josh Allen. Aaron Rodgers let the world know Green Bay ain’t worth a damn without guys like Favre or him bringing the talent in to play with a contending team. These guys are competitors. We see good players in all leagues and teams take favorable deals just to get near the ultimate goal: the championship.

We don’t need to hear about flexibility and comfort anymore. The Sabres are significantly under cap, far from the contract limit and inching closer to moving on from Jack Eichel as the days go by. The Buffalo Sabres roster won’t significantly improve from this to next season simply on prospect promotion alone; we’re going to need two goalies, four defenseman and three more forwards just to keep us at the minimum number of players, let alone good ones.

What could Kravtsov become? Maybe he’s Mikhail Grigorenko rather than a Valeri Nichuskin or Jesse Puljarvi. Maybe he’s a late bloomer like our own Casey Mittelstadt who we’d happily pay a second rounder type valuation for. We won’t know for a few years, I imagine, but this is the fun part of the job and why we all keep chattin’ away on this website. Unless Terry and Kim Pegula like Kevyn that much, winning is ultimately going to be the reason he sticks around and I imagine he likes this job, too. And eventually, he’s going to have to start splashing in the pool, but is Kravtsov the guy we should be sticking our necks out for?