Kirill the thrill: Russian rookie Kaprizov big boost to Wild

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Wary of all kinds of pressure on Kirill Kaprizov and resolute in their team-first culture, the Minnesota Wild tried to keep a lid on the fanfare enveloping his arrival in the NHL.

“I was nervous about the incredible expectations, because our fan base has waited five years for this kid, and he’s had such success,” said general manager Bill Guerin, nodding to Kaprizov’s game-winner that gave Russia the 2018 Olympic gold medal and back-to-back seasons leading the Kontinental Hockey League in goals.

One game in, all bets were off.

Kaprizov intercepted a pass on Jan. 14 in Los Angeles, bolted toward the net on a breakaway, used a slick right-left move to try to deke goalie Jonathan Quick and managed to knock in the puck off his left skate for the overtime winner in the opener.

“I said to myself, ’OK, I’m done here,″ Guerin said, chuckling.

The 24-year-old Kaprizov is about to show his skills on a bigger stage when the Wild open the playoffs against Vegas, with Game 1 on Sunday. He finished the regular season with 27 goals, the eighth-most in the league. He led all NHL rookies with 51 points and in several other categories.

Though he has competition from Dallas’ Jason Robertson, Kaprizov has been the consensus Calder Trophy favorite since that auspicious debut against the Kings. He’d be one of the oldest winners since a 1990 rule change required candidates to be under 26 on Sept. 15 of their rookie season.

“We’ve definitely seen areas of improvement away from the puck, but his skill set, his awareness offensively, is as good as it gets,” coach Dean Evason said.

Kaprizov set numerous single-season Wild rookie records in just 55 games. His scoring pace for a normal 82-game schedule would have threatened the all-time franchise record, shared by Marian Gaborik (2007-08) and Eric Staal (2017-18) with 42 goals each, but these milestones aren’t exactly front of mind for him.

Asked on a recent video conference call about his preference of his two nicknames making the rounds — Kirill The Thrill or Dollar Bill Kirill, which teammates solidified with custom T-shirts — Kaprizov naturally demurred.

“I don’t like to give myself compliments. I don’t like to think of myself as an outlier,” Kaprizov said, through a translator. “It was a team effort, and at the end of the day that’s really all it’s about and all I focus on.”

Kaprizov has given the Wild their first player with true take-over-a-game potential since Gaborik’s departure 12 years ago. He’ll be a big help on their quest to win a playoff series for the first time since 2015, the same year their floppy-haired, easy-smiling left wing was drafted.

“Every time he gets the puck, you can feel it in the arena,” said center Joel Eriksson Ek, the Wild’s third-leading scorer. “It’s amazing the things he does. He’s just creating all the time.”

He’s not overly deferential, ranking second on the team in shots behind Kevin Fiala. The 5-foot-9, 200-pound Kaprizov is also not so defined by the finesse of skating and stickhandling that he won’t pursue and protect the puck with muscle and grit.

“You should see him with his shirt off. He’s pretty chiseled,” linemate Ryan Hartman said. “He’s strong and he can definitely stand up for himself, but ideally we’d like to be doing that for him.”

The Golden Knights went after Kaprizov on May 5, their most recent matchup, when Nicolas Hague hit him from behind in the first period.

While the rest of the Wild stormed to Kaprizov’s defense in the ensuing shoving match, Zach Whitecloud charged him and wound up with a bloody nose after being wrestled to the ice. Kaprizov clearly didn’t need the help. He scored two goals in the third period of that overtime loss.

“That’s one of the things that I love about him,” Guerin said. “Can you play your best game when you’re taking a lot of abuse? He can.”

The Wild, then led by general manager Chuck Fletcher, were able to nab Kaprizov in the fifth round in 2015 because of the common uncertainty of Russian prospects coming to the NHL in light of the KHL’s prominence there.

Hailing from a small village outside of the industrial city of Novokuznetsk, more than 2,000 miles from Moscow, Kaprizov didn’t expect to be drafted, finding out via text message as he readied for bed that night. He honored his commitment to the KHL but promised the Wild he’d come when he was finished, and Guerin made a trip to Russia a few months after getting the job in 2019 to further the relationship. He left with no doubt Kaprizov could handle the transition.

The pandemic created a soft launch, with mostly empty arenas and a trimmed-down schedule. League protocols also left him frequently confined to his downtown Minneapolis apartment — “This season is very much rink, home, sleep, travel, eat, repeat,” he said — and whenever he ventured out for food he wore a mask. The Wild have only arranged four formal interview sessions with the media, including last summer when he signed his contract.

He has steadily improved his English since his arrival thanks mostly to conversation with teammates. Though missing his friends and mother’s cooking from the homeland, Kaprizov has hardly been intimidated by being the only Russian on the team and clearly grown into one of the most popular players in the room.

“He’s really sparked our team,” Guerin said. “He’s an electrifying player.”

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