Despite lofty expectations heading into his rookie season, it’s safe to say Kirill Kaprizov has somehow still managed to exceed those expectations.
Kaprizov leads the Wild in goals (27), primary assists (17) and points (51). Kevin Fiala is second in both goals (20) and points (40), trailing the rookie by a good margin in both. Kaprizov sits ninth league-wide in goals and is tied with Max Pacioretty, David Perron and Ryan O’Reilly for 19th in points. He sits 12th in 5-on-5 point rate as well. He’s the type of high-end, bring you out of your seat player the Minnesota Wild have been missing up front for years.
He didn’t need much time to adjust to the NHL after spending the previous six seasons in the KHL either, as he scored the overtime winner in his NHL debut to cap off a three point performance.
As it turns out that debut was a sign of things to come as Kaprizov continues to rack up the points and the memorable moments with his exhilarating flair for the dramatic.
“He is just already one of the most exciting players in the league. There are those types of players where when the puck is on their stick, you expect something great to happen, to be created out of thin air. Kaprizov has that energy, the aura, the vibe — it’s just so electric. He’s just so damn fun to watch with how he skates the puck up ice, handles it, and finds his teammates for an exciting chance. And then there’s the moments he just creates on his own.” - Dom Luszczyszyn, The Athletic, #1 Minnesota Wild Fan
As Dom so eloquently lays out, Kaprizov is best described as an “electric” player, due both to his obvious high-end talent and the passion and joy he plays with.
The above goal is a perfect microcosm of this, as he dances around Los Angeles Kings’ Mikey Anderson and scores, followed by that now familiar ear-to-ear grin.
Kaprizov loves to create off the rush like this which is a very welcome wrinkle to add for a Wild team that has long been the exact opposite of that. Unsurprisingly, Kaprizov and Fiala are the only Wild forwards who like to attack off the rush with regularity. This matches the eye test as they stand out as the most dynamic, up-tempo players by a good margin in every game I’ve watched.
“Kaprizov has singlehandedly made the Wild watchable. Everyone loves the bring you out of your seat stuff. But for me, he’s got two qualities that I love.
He sees the play developing at an advanced pace from a lot of his peers. He identifies spaces and vulnerabilities of opponents better than most. The second element is that once he finds those vulnerabilities, he has no fear. He attacks them like a shark in a feed frenzy. He’s fearless when he sees even the smallest opening and uses his skill set to capitalize on it. The ability to identify and attack without fear is rare. The fact he’s able to execute is why he’s been so successful. He may not be as successful as teams figure him out, but the ability to identify and attack fearlessly is a very dangerous combo.” - Rachel Doerrie, Staff and Graph Podcast
The notion that Kaprizov has singlehandedly made the Wild a fun team to watch has been an oft-repeated one. Rachel’s above comment on Kaprizov’s ability to identify and attack even the most miniscule vulnerabilities in a defender is a big part of the excitement he brings.
In the goal in the above clip, Kaprizov, who is again attacking off the rush, pulls the puck into his outside foot as if he’s about to shoot. St. Louis Blues defender Torey Krug buys it, stopping his backward motion in an attempt to get into the shooting lane. As soon as Krug commits, Kaprizov chips the puck forward again and catches Krug flat-footed. Kaprizov finishes it off by slinging a quick wrister short-side that finds its way through Blues’ goaltender Jordan Binnington’s armpit. By the way, Kaprizov can really shoot it, too.
“His shot is extremely fast. Like, I haven’t seen another Wild forward be able to control and shoot as quickly as he can. It’s kind of nuts. Based on our models I’d say he already has an elite shot in the NHL. He is 5th overall in our xGAR’s shooting component, and the eye test backs that up imo.” Josh and Luke, Evolving-hockey.com
Kaprizov is anything but a one-trick pony, though, as he’s no slouch at creating chances off the forecheck and the cycle.
The passion in Kaprizov’s game mentioned earlier shows itself when he’s on the forecheck. He’s not a big guy, but he’s quick, tenacious, strong on his feet and really good on his edges. He’s able to use all these tools to go get the puck back in the offensive zone on a consistent basis, as Corey Sznajder has Kaprizov retrieving dump-ins at the second-highest rate on the team, behind only the much bigger and stronger Jordan Greenway.
A player who is lethal off the rush who is also a puckhound on the forecheck makes for a player who is constantly dangerous when on the ice. That’s how you become the type of player who consistently creates chances seemingly out of thin air.
Once he gets the puck on the cycle, he’s very slippery down low. Even with Drew Doughty climbing all over him and pulling him down behind the net in the clip below, Kaprizov is able to wrap the puck around the post into the net while Doughty’s stick looks like it’s in the way.
Kaprizov likes to use his speed and strong edges around the net, often getting the inside lane and cutting tight around the net forcing the defender into taking an awkward lane and giving up valuable time and space. The goal below is a good example of just that.
This is all before mentioning that Kaprizov is just as likely to create offence with a pass, as only Fiala and Mats Zuccarello are in his stratosphere in terms of shot assist rate on the Wild.
“The first thing I noticed was how he would make passes that would catch his teammates really off guard. As in, he would see a passing lane that his teammate did not see and they’d have to change direction to try and catch the pass... even though it was an opening. If that makes sense. At first, I think his teammates weren’t really ready for what could happen when he was in the offensive zone. I think he’s kind of adapted so that doesn’t happen as much, but he’s been playing with Zuccarello who is also kind of like that so they feed off each other well I think.” Josh and Luke, Evolving-hockey.com
This quote hits on something Rachel also mentioned in her quote, which is Kaprizov’s special ability to see the ice and also to execute quickly when he sees a lane open up.
Naturally, this leads Kaprizov having tendency to put some flair on his assists too, whether it be creating a goal with a spin pass when there seems to be no passing option available due to an ongoing line change.
Or wheeling the puck around the perimeter against tired defenders before playing a give and go and gifting Nick Bjugstad one of the easiest gives he’ll ever score.
Or getting the jump on the defense, retrieving the puck on the forecheck and teeing up the trailer for a one-timer.
Kaprizov’s play-driving impact has been good, though significantly less impressive than his individual production.
It’s difficult to parse out how much weight to put into that for a couple reasons. The first is obviously that he’s a rookie and so we don’t have a historical precedent to look to for him. The second is that he’s a winger and although he definitely seems to be driving the bus on his line, it’s significantly harder to make the kind of impact an equally good center is able to make. To add to that, Kaprizov has played more than half his 5-on-5 minutes playing with Victor Rask as his centreman while often facing the opposition’s top players. He’s forced to carry the load in transition and on the forecheck, score most of the goals and try to set up Rask and Zuccarello. While both are fine players, Zuccarello is a pass-first player and Rask isn’t exactly known for his elite finishing ability.
On the defensive side of things, I’m not sure how to project him going forward. He’s got the speed, the tenacity and the strength to become a really solid two-way winger, as well as playing for a team that’s historically been stingy in the defensive department. I think this is relevant because considering the raw tools he possesses, if you can teach him to simply be in the right place on a consistent basis when defending, he’ll get his hands on the puck more often. The more Kaprizov has the puck on his stick for the Wild, the better.
Kaprizov, despite a late push from Jason Robertson of the Dallas Stars, is still a no-brainer for the Calder Trophy awarded to the rookie of the year in my view. He’s also precisely what the doctor ordered for the Minnesota Wild and a franchise cornerstone piece for years to come. Kaprizov has been a treat to watch in his rookie season and the Wild are going to need him to be an absolute game-breaker in the playoffs to have any shot at knocking off whichever one of the Colorado Avalanche or the Vegas Golden Knights they face.
Whatever happens, I have a feeling he’s going to put on a show.