'Kirill the Thrill' Has Been Exactly as Advertised

Kaprizov has made the Minnesota Wild a better team in the early days of his NHL career. His arrival took a while, but it's been absolutely worth every second.
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Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

It was a painful wait for Minnesota Wild fans, but it was totally worth it.

The WIld had to wait six years for their prized prospect to finally make the trek over to North America. An Olympic gold, KHL championship and 230 points later, Kirill Kaprizov has made his mark in the State of Hockey and is changing the way we all look at a team that's been generally labeled as a boring, mediocre franchise - whether it's fair or not. 

So it's fitting that a young prospect tagged 'Kirill the Thrill' has been viewed as the team's savior for the past half-decade and that he's been everything the team wanted early in his NHL tenure.

Did you see Minnesota remaining a true threat in the West Division two months into the season? Not likely. But the boost that Kaprizov has brought to the Wild has made them a fun group to watch, with the young Russian tallying six goals and 19 points in 21 games to lead the team in scoring. 

It's not like he's racking up his points on the man advantage or anything, either: Kaprizov's 16 5-on-5 points are good for 13th in the NHL, just five shy of Chicago's Patrick Kane for the league lead - and Kane is considered one of the top choices for the Hart Trophy.

Just to give a bit of history: Kaprizov played on a line with Nikita Gusev and Pavel Datsyuk that made the rest of the teams at the 2018 Olympics look silly en route to gold. Across the past two seasons, he posted the two highest points-per-game marks by an under-23 player in KHL history and only three players - KHL stalwarts Nigel Dawes, Vadim Shipachyov, Linus Omark - had more points than Kaprizov in the final three years of his time back home.

Kaprizov's transition to the NHL has been seamless, despite the complications to actually hit the ice for the first time. Kaprizov signed his entry-level contract last Summer and wasn't loaned back out to the KHL while the NHL season was on pause due to COVID-19.

So while his old teammates were out battling for a shot at the Gargarin Cup, Kaprizov was sitting, waiting, for the chance to hit the ice with his new team. Unlike rookies most years, Kaprizov didn't get a rookie tournament or a proper training camp with pre-season games to get moving. So his first time donning the Wild's dark green uniforms was the season opener against Los Angeles in January - and with a three-point night, including the game-winning goal, he proved he was ready for the task ahead.

"Honestly from the first game we saw (what he's capable of), Wild coach Dean Evason said last week. "Just his ability to escape from people and his confidence to try to make plays.

"We talked before about him playing pro hockey and he's played against men for a while now. It wasn't a shock to him to get pushed on, leaned on by men, and heavier men. His separation from people is clearly special. Combine that with his attitude, his team-first mentality - it's exciting for us as an organization."

Without Kaprizov, the Wild would be in trouble. Kevin Fiala has fallen back to earth with just 10 points in 19 games, going from the first line down to the third line while Zach Parise faced a recent scratch after posting just 10 points in 21 games. 

Other than his 3.24-points-per-60 at five-a-side, Kaprizov's advanced analytics are nothing special, even among rookies. But everything about Kaprizov's play on a team that would struggle for offense without him can't be ignored and is a big reason why he's one of the top options for the Calder Trophy.

What is it that makes Kaprizov so enticing as a player? Watch how Patrick Kane uses his soft hands and quick skating to create scoring chances, and then watch Kaprizov do that every single evening. End-to-end goals weren't a rarity for Kaprizov in the KHL because he was able to assess the situation, realize he's better off making the play himself, and then make it happen. 

While his smaller size hurts him from time to time along the boards, he'll go to the dirty areas to make something happen if it's the best decision, but he's got a shot worthy of accurate one-timers and his quick hands make him a challenging player to read when he's looking to set up a play. At 5-foot-9, Kaprizov lacks a bit in the vertical department, but he makes it up with his strength. At 201 pounds, Kaprizov isn't afraid to throw the body along the boards and engage physically - think Vladimir Tarasenko, but shorter.

“To me, it’s a combination of the hockey sense, hands and skating,” Wild GM Bill Guerin told THN's Matt Larkin last year. “He’s got everything. A lot of guys have tools, but maybe they don’t have the thought process to go with it. He seems to have a really good amount of everything.”

That type of impact player is something the Wild have been missing since the Marian Gaborik days. The type of guy who could wow the masses but be consistent and valuable on any given night. So far, that describes Kaprizov precisely, and that's what scouts and others involved in the game have been predicting for years.

Now let's see where he can take this team.

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