Why Kirill Kaprizov Is Such an Even-Strength Menace

It’s fair to say Kirill Kaprizov’s rise to stardom has been unexpected. He wasn’t deemed a blue-chip prospect in 2015. He was a fifth-round selection who improved so dramatically over his time in Russia that he became recognized as the single best player outside the NHL. When he finally debuted for the Minnesota Wild last season, he was already 23 years old.

Dean Evason’s club isn’t exactly complaining about that, though.

Kaprizov’s impressive production and undeniable talent have reignited an organization that had begun to tread water at the tail end of the Ryan SuterZach Parise era. He won the Calder Trophy after racking up 51 points in 55 games, and as has become a habit for him, he’s only raised the bar in 2021-22. He currently ranks eighth in league scoring with 53 points in 40 contests, and his consistent offensive impact has the 28-10-3 Wild looking like a serious problem for the Western Conference.

Beyond his journey to the big leagues, Kaprizov’s game itself is difficult to wrap your head around. He’s a 5’10”, 202-pound play-driving winger who welcomes physical contact rather than worrying about it. He’s actually more effective in tight quarters than he is in open ice. For a high-end winger, that seems…backwards. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that there’s a backwards bent to his skating too:

Outside of Leon Draisaitl, no forward in the NHL spends as little time facing the action as Kaprizov does. However, he doesn’t share the German’s stationary tendencies. He’s perpetually on the move, contorting his body one way or another to win the leverage battle against defenders.

Better yet, he doesn’t doesn’t sacrifice any of his speed in the process. In fact, he actually looks faster when he’s wheeling around the ice than when he’s sprinting in a straight line. Kaprizov’s explosive edge work, effortless lateral agility and knack for deception make him one of the most slippery players in the world. Opponents can barely get a hand on him before he’s left them in the dust.

Some nights, it really does feel as though he’s skating circles around you:

There’s more bad news for defensemen: If you manage to slow him down, he’ll use your momentum against you, drawing you closer and waiting for a window to shut only to immediately open another. Much like a gifted counterpuncher, he wants you to lunge into the pocket. He wants you to try to take away his time and space.

Once you commit, he springs out of your grasp. Look at how he mystifies defenders with his hair-trigger change of direction:

This allows Kaprizov to buy time, prolong attacks and cause mad scrambles. That’s vital at even strength, where time and space come at a premium. Granted, no longer playing alongside dead weight has helped as well. Evason has replaced Victor Rask with Ryan Hartman at center, and the results have been staggering. Kaprizov’s line is putting up 3.05 expected goals and 6.21 actual goals per 60 minutes, which is nearly twice as potent as the 1.85 xGF60 and 3.11 GF60 it delivered a year ago.

The upgrade in the middle of the ice has accompanied a greater comfort level for the unit’s centerpiece. Kaprizov is now more acclimated to North American defenses, understanding how they like to operate and how to exploit their weaknesses. This is evidenced by his supercharged individual metrics and more specifically his playmaking, which has climbed into the league’s upper echelon:

Thanks to his instincts and touch, he ranks third in the league in primary assists. That familiar back-to-the-play quirk comes in handy here, as he seemingly boasts 360-degree vision. If you’re open, regardless of where you think his line of sight is, he’ll put the puck on your tape.

While he’s not quite a sniper, he complements his remarkable passing with strong finishing ability and an array of inventive solo maneuvers that keep defenders guessing:

In addition to those obvious puck skills, Kaprizov is utterly exhausting to defend because of his skating skills. He puts defenders in the spin cycle over and over again. Each inside cut, each shifty pivot, each hard stop is a new beginning for the Wild’s offense. He never runs out of steam or ideas. And the harder you chase him, the sooner you’ll fall into his trap. He continually finds space that didn’t appear to exist a second ago.

As such, it’s hardly surprising that he boasts the highest points/60 rate (3.70) in the league at 5-on-5. With a 106-point pace, he’s also on track to obliterate the Wild’s single-season scoring record held by Marian Gaborik (83 points). Among active players, he was the fourth-fastest to 100 points.

Kaprizov hasn’t merely given fans a reason to tune into Wild games. Just two years into his career, he’s completely reset expectations in Minnesota.

On the strength of its superstar, this team is in it to win it.

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