When you deal with Russian players who don’t speak English, you’re never quite sure whether you’re being hosed by the translator. That makes it a little more difficult to get a read on Russian captain and World Junior Championship goals leader Kirill Kaprizov. We know he smiles easily and seems engaging, but once his responses are translated to English he comes across as dull as dishwater. Perhaps he’s simply preparing himself for the NHL where under no circumstances are players encouraged to display even an inkling of personality.
But as much as Kaprizov has tried to fade into the woodwork, his stick is not allowing him to do that at this tournament. With two goals against Denmark in Russia’s 4-1 win in the quarterfinal, Kaprizov now leads the tournament with seven goals. The fifth-round pick of the Minnesota Wild is really the lone bright offensive light on a Russian team that one scout described as, “the worst Russian team I’ve seen at this tournament in years.”
It’s likely that this Russian team will go as far as Kaprizov and goalie Ilya Samsonov will take it, which may very well not be beyond the semifinal. If it can win that game, the Russians will have assured themselves of a World Junior medal for the seventh straight year. Perhaps if that happens, Kaprizov will open up.
Here’s a sampling of his post-game interview, via the Russian team’s media relations director, who translated:
Q: “He must be very pleased with his play in this tournament.”
A: “We are all doing this as a team. It doesn’t matter who is the scoring leader.”
Q: “But somebody has to get the goals and he seems to be doing it.”
A: “Yes. He is pleased about that. Everyone will be pleased if he is the scoring leader in such a big tournament.”
Q: “He is very good in-tight. Where did he learn to do that?”
A: “He doesn’t know. He’s just trying to do his best. He just practices hard and that is the result.”
Q: “Has he had any contact with the Minnesota Wild?”
A: “All questions about NHL after the tournament.”
Q: “But he has one more year to go after this one on his contract in the KHL, right?
A: “He said his contract is written on the KHL website. Date of expiration. Check it. You should be more prepared. That’s my addition.”
Goals have not exactly come in abundance for the Russian team. Including their four-goal effort against Denmark, they have just 20 goals in five games, which means Kaprizov has accounted for more than one-third of them. One shudders to think where the Russians would be without Kaprizov, a player who originally wasn’t going to be made available. “He is supposed to be a key player for our team,” said Russian coach Valeri Bragin. “He has done that on the ice and also in the dressing room, where he’s creating the atmosphere he should create.”
As we said, he is learning his NHL lessons well, which is perhaps why the Wild are so happy he’s in their system. At the age of 19, Kaprizov has 15 goals and 30 points in 37 games with Ufa, which are unheard of totals for a teenager. And with 62 penalty minutes, it’s pretty clear that Kaprizov is no 5-foot-9, 185-pound shrinking violet. Wild GM Chuck Fletcher chose Kaprizov in his seventh draft as the organization’s GM, making him the first Russian taken by the Wild in Fletcher’s tenure.
“We kind of stayed away from Russians for a few years because with the KHL, you never know if a player is going to come over,” Fletcher said. “But that kind of skill is hard to find. We play in a division with Chicago and St. Louis and Dallas and you need skill to beat those teams.”
The Wild took Kaprizov with the 135th overall pick in 2015 and might have another Russian steal with Dmitry Sokolov, who scored 30 goals with the Sudbury Wolves last season and has 24 in just 37 games in 2016-17. The Wild got Sokolov with their seventh pick, 196th overall, in 2016. Fletcher said that before the 2015 draft, assistant GM Brent Flahr told him he thought Kaprizov was a second-round caliber talent. “He’s a smart player with very good hands and he’s really good on the power play,” Fletcher said. “Those skills are really hard to find. I think the 2015 draft is going to be remembered as one of the stronger ones in history, which might be why he was still there in the fifth round.”
For now, the Wild are content to let Kaprizov continue to develop with a solid KHL program in Ufa for another season after this one. But once his contract expires, they’ll be eager to see what they have in him.
“I’ve watched a lot of his KHL games on video and what I like is how hard he works,” Fletcher said. “He plays a lot of shift and he’s learning how to play away from the puck.”