When you think of blue-chip rookies, you think of 19-year-old phenoms with a decade of runway ahead of them to fulfill lofty expectations. The sky’s the limit. By that same token, patience is the key to their development.
They’re still teenagers after all.
As such, it’s no shocker that a 23-year-old is leading the Calder Trophy race right now. What is surprising is just how well this player has performed without prior experience in North America or the benefit of a full training camp. On the heels of a brilliant stint in Russia, Minnesota Wild winger Kirill Kaprizov (19 points in 21 games) has lived up to his billing by topping this season’s freshman class in scoring.
Beyond his total production, he ranks 10th leaguewide in even-strength points. Factoring in his ice time, he sits sixth in the NHL in points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5…ahead of Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Patrick Kane. He’s stepped right in and asserted himself as one of the deadliest and most creative weapons in the game.
Frankly, Kaprizov is the most exciting player Minnesota has iced since the glory days of Marian Gaborik. Even then, Gaborik was a straight-line burner. Kaprizov can’t keep pace in that regard, but he holds the upper hand in vision, touch and flair. He’s infused the Wild with just plain fun—a trait this organization has basically never been associated with. As odd as it sounds, Minnesota is putting forth fan-friendly, can’t-miss hockey.
Of course, there’s a ton of substance to accompany that style. What Kaprizov lacks in pure wheels, he makes up for in shiftiness and hockey sense. He can fend off defenders with terrific lateral movement and has an uncanny knack for spotting open teammates in scoring areas. It’s like he has eyes in the back of his head.
Unfortunately, Minnesota struggled to find him the right linemates early on. He’s played at least 25 even-strength minutes alongside Victor Rask, Kevin Fiala, Nick Bjugstad, Zach Parise, Joel Eriksson-Ek, Marcus Johansson and Nick Bonino—and none of them were on the same wavelength as the rookie. Kaprizov looked stellar in a vacuum, but the lack of chemistry was palpable. There was no rapport there. They were merely playing on the same line rather than playing together. The Wild clearly weren’t getting the most out of their young star.
Enter Mats Zuccarello.
Upon returning from offseason arm surgery, he’s joined Kaprizov on the first line, and head coach Dean Evason is now reaping the rewards. Since Zuccarello’s debut on Feb. 16, Minnesota is 7-2-1 and tied for the third-highest points percentage over that span. During this stretch, the Wild have averaged a league-best 3.70 goals per game.
These are not your father’s Minnesota Wild. In addition to their longstanding stinginess, they now boast a dynamic duo that can power them to victory. Zuccarello’s craftiness and instincts have slotted perfectly next to Kaprizov’s superb playmaking. In 10 games together, the former has registered 13 points and the latter has put up 10 of his own. They don’t necessarily dominate proceedings (50.8 xGF%), but they can conjure something out of nothing in the blink of an eye—even with a near-useless Rask as their center.
Look at this feathery saucer pass:
Kaprizov displays tremendous hand-eye coordination on the following sequence, first tipping a lob right onto Rask’s tape and then batting the puck out of midair on a rebound opportunity. Once he recovers possession, he settles into a quiet area, draws a defender (Blake Lizotte) toward him and feeds Zuccarello a sumptuous behind-the-back pass:
After looking like a balanced offensive force in the KHL, Kaprizov has adjusted to the competition level and emerged as a top-tier setup man. Through 21 contests, he’s averaged the highest rate of primary assists in the NHL. Very few players are driving their line’s offense the way Kaprizov has so far.
Much of that is due to how well—and quickly—he processes the game. He continually makes the right split-second decisions, putting himself in position to inflict damage before opponents can react to his designs.
That’s become particularly apparent on faceoffs:
To the dismay of his opponents, there’s more. At 5’9” and 201 pounds, Kaprizov has the core strength to really dig into and explode off his edges as he shields the puck from defenders. And with such a low center of gravity, players are finding it very difficult to push a seemingly undersized forward off the puck. He almost thrives off that contact, which allows him to manufacture space, wheel around the offensive zone and apply a ton of pressure on the opposition.
Watch him battle a resurgent Drew Doughty along the boards before eventually potting home a nifty wraparound:
Here, he bounces off 6’5”, 233-pound Kurtis MacDermid before feeding Zuccarello in the slot:
When Kaprizov puts his entire skill set to work, it’s…eye-popping. He just leaps off the screen. Against the Colorado Avalanche, he picks up a bobbling puck with one hand, bullies Samuel Girard to buy time and swivels to his forehand for a spectacular pass to Ryan Hartman:
On Friday night, he embarrasses Arizona Coyotes pivot Nick Schmaltz. Kaprizov begins by shrugging him off in the corner to retrieve the puck. After exchanging quick passes with Matt Dumba, he absorbs a cross-check near the blue line and detects Zuccarello in the middle of the ice. The veteran slap-passes the puck back to him, and Kaprizov proceeds to dance around Schmaltz and hit Bjugstad with the old Evgeny Kuznetsov special:
That is why Kaprizov can already throw his name into the “best playmaker” conversation. Moreover, he’s the biggest reason why the Wild can finally get excited about their future. Sure, Fiala, Eriksson-Ek and Jordan Greenway have developed nicely, while recent draft picks Matthew Boldy and Marco Rossi look like sure-fire pros. Kaapo Kahkonen (2.30 GAA, 91.8 SV%) is inspiring confidence between the pipes too.
But Kaprizov brings another dimension—potent, electrifying, pro-caliber offensive wizardry. Following far too many years of drab hockey in Minnesota, a rookie has jolted the Wild back into relevance.