When Rangers star wing Artemi Panarin was playing in the Kontinental Hockey League and working his way to the NHL, he looked to Danil Markov — a fellow Russian who had nine years of NHL experience — when the two crossed paths for three seasons with the Chekhov Vityaz.
Markov, who played defense for the Maple Leafs, Coyotes, Hurricanes, Flyers, Predators and Red Wings, took a liking to Panarin. The since-retired blueliner pushed him, Panarin recalls, but it worked. So when Vitali Kravtsov returned to the Rangers’ scene this training camp looking to get back on track after refusing an AHL assignment last season, Panarin took it upon himself to pay the mentoring forward to his fellow countryman.
“I think he’s ready to work right now, two years ago, not really, he was still playing kids hockey,” Panarin told The Post after practice on Friday. “Right now, he understands everything. Sometimes, for me, it’s hard — like when you lose your confidence. Look at last playoffs, the last few games, the last few games I lost confidence. But for a young guy, it’s tough. He’s a strong man. Mentally, he is strong.”
The two Russians have often been the first players on the ice throughout training camp, engaging in their own private warm-up drills or just chatting. Sometimes they’ll go off to the side during team skates, and Panarin will point out a thing or two to Kravtsov, who seems to hang on to every word the veteran says.
It appears natural for Panarin and Kravtsov to relate to one another. Not only are they both wingers, but also they both spent part of their early hockey years in Chelyabinsk, Russia. Panarin even said he sees some of his own tendencies in Kravtsov, such as how he focuses more on the pass than the shot.
The main focus for Kravtsov, Panarin believes, should be on gaining confidence. So Kravtsov is making a point to stay off social media.
“He told me to,” Kravtsov told The Post.
This training camp has been important for Kravtsov, who fled home to Russia after failing to crack the opening-night roster last season. It has been about proving his commitment to the Rangers, which he showed through his early arrival in New York this summer to get a head start on training. The effort has no doubt been there, but it hasn’t produced any eye-catching results on the ice just yet.
Kravtsov spent the beginning of camp skating on the second line with Panarin and Vincent Trocheck. During the past few days, however, Kravtsov has been relegated to the fifth line, with players on the roster bubble such as Dryden Hunt and Julien Gauthier. Still, the likelihood of Kravtsov getting time on that second unit once the season officially starts on Tuesday is high.
Under the pressures of the flat cap, the Rangers need Kravtsov to work out. Panarin taking Kravtsov under his wing is just an added bonus.
“Every time when I go in the locker room, he’s like, ‘Hey, you have to be in the gym,’” Kravtsov said of Panarin with a laugh. “I like it. He’s making me stronger every day.”
The 22-year-old Kravtsov feels he has grown up a bit. All the little things he is doing to show he’s all in aren’t just to impress Rangers management, it’s for himself. Kravtsov said he isn’t happy with his play so far this preseason, during which he has recorded just one assist.
Maybe it’s just taking some extra time for Kravtsov to get acclimated. Maybe something will click and his confidence will benefit. Maybe he just needs more time with Panarin.
“He has such talent, a lot of talent, probably more than me,” Panarin said with a smile. ”But you have to work hard, like [he’s doing] this year, he did everything he can. He’s a great player. He needs to build confidence. Everyone knows his situation, it’s never easy to come and try again.”
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