Meeting the media for his first availability since re-signing with the Minnesota Wild, Kirill Kaprizov looked chill.
The star left winger had endured a protracted negotiation over the summer and had been rewarded with a new five-year pact worth $45 million and heightened expectations after he torched the league with his dazzling play as a 23-year-old rookie. So, was he feeling the pressure? “No, no, it’s not pressure,” Kaprizov said. “Now it’s easy for me (once) I signed. I just want to play, it’s like, phew, now it’s just hockey.”
And hockey is Kaprizov’s specialty. A wizard with the puck who thinks the offensive side of the game like few others, the creative winger is already staking a claim as the most dynamic player the Wild have ever seen. There isn’t much competition in an organization that had its early success by playing a defense-oriented team game. Still, the first name that comes to everyone’s mind is Marian Gaborik, the franchise’s first-ever draft pick back in 2000. The pinnacle of Gaborik’s career came in 2007-08 when the Slovakian stunner potted 42 goals and 83 points, both franchise records that stand to this day (Eric Staal tied the goal mark 10 years later). Kaprizov, a fifth-round pick in 2015, put up 27 goals and 51 points in 55 games as a rookie last season. Needless to say, Gaborik’s records are in peril.
Re-signing such a talent may sound easy, but finding a deal that worked was a challenge, given Kaprizov’s career path. Not only was he a late-round pick, but the talented Russian had stayed home longer than young stars typically do, playing five seasons in the KHL with hometown Novokuznetsk, Ufa and finally CSKA Moscow. The wait was agonizing for Wild fans, and at times it appeared as though the kid may simply stay in Russia and become a KHL lifer. But during that span, Kaprizov won a Gagarin Cup with CSKA and earned Olympic gold during the 2018 Games in Korea, which famously did not feature NHLers.
Still, there was always some question as to how Kaprizov would fare against the best in the world. He answered quickly and emphatically with his rookie campaign in Minnesota. “What he was able to do was extraordinary,” said Wild defenseman Matt Dumba. “And when you dive into it a little deeper, it was during a COVID year where it was hard to get up for every game, having the circumstance of being trapped inside the hotel and not being able to get the full NHL experience. Without fans, you can’t ride momentum and I know this guy will flourish having the fans on his side and the energy of the building. He already gets himself up for games and prepares very intensely, but it will add another element when he can feed off the crowd when he’s doing laps around the offensive zone and making defenders look silly. I’m really excited to see what he can do and the steps he takes this year.”
Based on his rookie campaign and his age, Kaprizov looked to be in line for a big payday – but how big? Despite his lofty pre-NHL reputation and his seemingly fulfilling that potential as a freshman, he still only had one shortened season under his belt. At the same time, he would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency in three years. So, do you go with a short-term bridge or dive right in with an eight-year pact? Those options each have their pros and cons for both team and player, and there weren’t a lot of comparables for Kaprizov’s career trajectory. “It was such an unusual circumstance,” said Wild GM Bill Guerin. “It was such a small sample size, but then the player also had a big impact on our team with the year he had, so it was very unusual. I knew it was going to take a long time regardless, so I was prepared for it. And I said a number of times, ‘We’re not the only ones. This happens all the time.’ He was doing what he thought was right and I’ve been there before, so I don’t look negatively at the process at all.”
In a roundabout way, the final negotiations also showed off Kaprizov’s commitment to being ready. While he spent the beginning of the summer in Russia, Kaprizov had quietly decamped for Florida to get NHL-approved COVID vaccinations and serve out his travel quarantine prior to officially agreeing to his new deal.
So when it finally came time to put pen to paper, Kaprizov was ready to go and prepared for training camp – which happened to start two days later in Minnesota. “I was worried about the protocols, but him and his agent prepared,” Guerin said. “Kirill came back early, did his quarantine and all the things necessary for him to be ready. They were proactive and to me, that says a lot about Kirill. I was really happy they did that.”
Overall, it was a wonderful summer for Kaprizov, even before he signed the new contract. Thanks to his stunning rookie performance, the left winger became the first Wild player ever to win the Calder Trophy – which he found out about via text when he was at his parents’ house in Russia. “I said ‘I won the Calder,’ ” Kaprizov recalled. “We did a little bit of a cheers with some drinks, some beer and nothing more. I was so happy, and my family was so happy. The next day I went and practised.”
Beyond his on-ice potential, Kaprizov has also shown a big personality that will only endear him to fans more as he improves his grasp of the English language. He still uses a translator for interviews, but there has been progress. “When I came to Minnesota, the first two or three months, I couldn’t speak (very well),” Kaprizov said. “A little bit I could understand. Now, it’s better but I can’t say what I want, every time I ask him.”
Folks in the Wild organization believe Kaprizov is being modest and that he actually gets on pretty well in English these days. But he and his teammates did rely on Google Translate a lot for early conversations. “He’s a happy-go-lucky kid,” Dumba said. “We have a lot of laughs and the majority come from trying to piece together his sentences, his experiences in Russia or places we’ve both played, guys he’s played with. He’s a good guy. Our friendship has been built on sushi. We have this one place in town, Billy Sushi, and there was a time last season where every time we went this guy had a multi-point game, so we kept going back. We’ve had a lot of dinners together and shared a lot of laughs.”
In fact, on one particular visit, Dumba recalls Billy Sushi featuring a special guest chef from out of town who made their table a special roll. That night, Kaprizov netted three goals, and ever since, the secret concoction has been called the ‘Hat Trick Roll.’
And that’s the thing about Kaprizov, now 24; there’s a white-hot light that emanates from the young man that, frankly, Minnesota hasn’t seen before. Gaborik was good, but he finished seventh in Calder voting and didn’t earn NHL all-star team honors until he was a New York Ranger. Kaprizov finished fourth in all-star voting as a rookie and has already won over fans from far outside Minnesota. “There’s incredible value there,” Guerin said.
“He’s got that twinkle in his eye. He’s happy playing the game, he’s got that great smile and he’s exciting to watch. If he reaches his full potential on the ice, which I think he will, the sky is the limit.”
That exuberance calls to mind fellow countryman and showstopper Alex Ovechkin, whose vibrant personality only enhanced his play early on in his career as one of the NHL’s pre-eminent goal-scorers.
Exactly how Kaprizov goes about his business on the ice is fascinating to break down, too. Dumba, one of the Wild’s most important blueliners, has seen Kaprizov’s skill set from both sides. “Somehow, I got matched up with him in every 1-on-1 drill in practice today so…I’ve been there,” he said with a laugh. “You feel like you’re a step behind. The way he thinks is one thing, but it’s also how dynamic he is and the positions he gets into to create separation and his strength, he moves completely differently from other guys on the ice, the way he adjusts his hips. That separation and the speed he does it with is pretty crazy. I really haven’t seen that unless you’re talking about guys like Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon. I think he’s more along the lines of MacKinnon, just with the power and explosiveness he has. He just drops that center of gravity on you and gets so low to the ice, it’s hard to push him off the puck, that’s for sure.”
The challenge now is for the Wild to do some playoff damage in a Central Division featuring the win-now Colorado Avalanche, a St. Louis Blues team just a couple years out from its first Cup and dangerous squads in Dallas and Winnipeg. Kaprizov is the offensive driver, but growth from forwards such as Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan
Greenway and Kevin Fiala certainly helped last year. “I would like to think we can play any way we want,” Guerin said. “You have to be fast and more than anything, we want fast thinkers, guys who can really push the game and play at a quick pace. And we want high-character guys who compete every night and play their best game in the toughest situations.”
Add in top-end prospects Marco Rossi and Matt Boldy – though the latter will start 2021-22 on the shelf – and the attack of the future looks even better. It will have to be. Over the summer, the Wild took a calculated risk in buying out vets Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, which will play into their cap plans for years. While it opened up cap space in the short term, the amount of “dead” cap space from the buyouts will peak at $14.7 million for the 2023-24 and ’24-25 seasons, which will make things tight.
Although Victor Rask facilitated adequately last year, the team doesn’t have a true No. 1 center to play with Kaprizov yet. And it doesn’t appear the cap will grow much in the near future. “It’s real,” Guerin said. “It’s not a fantasy or a nightmare, it’s real. But look, we just have to make sure we do our homework. We have a good plan going forward and we have to stick to it. If you deviate from the plan, it has a trickle-down effect and messes everything else up. With all our contracts this year, we had guys earmarked for certain salaries and we stuck to it.
We felt everyone got a fair deal and that’s something we’re happy with and they’re happy with. I thought we had a productive summer.”
Jettisoning Suter and Parise took a lot of experience and leadership out of the dressing room, but the internal expectations are for guys to step up alongside captain Jared Spurgeon. “We’ll all have a hand in that,” Dumba said. “We’re a young team, but there’s a big core of us that have been there for a while now. I’m looking at guys who took huge steps last year, but I think they can elevate their game even further.”
The mission is clear: Minnesota hasn’t won a playoff round since 2015, and the only time the Wild have made it to the conference final was in their magical third season, back in 2003 (Gaborik led the charge with 17 points in 18 post-season games). Can the new crew use their Russian dynamo as a springboard for team success? “Of course, our organization wants to win the Stanley Cup,” Kaprizov said. “Now, we have to put in good work, every game, every day.”
So fire up Google Translate and load up on sushi, things are getting fun in Minnesota.