Wild rookie Kirill Kaprizov’s Minnesota presence for the past five years has been virtual, almost solely in the form of YouTube videos that show off his sneaky speed, incredible hands and a once-in-a-generation shot.
His ability to make opposing players look silly back home in his native Russia captivated Wild fans nearly 5,000 miles away, as did his clutch game-winner in the gold medal game at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The legend of Kirill Kaprizov continued to grow with each highlight-reel goal, so much so that there might as well have been a state holiday when the Wild officially signed the 23-year-old winger to an entry-level contract last summer.
Long viewed as the savior of the franchise, Kaprizov instantly became the most popular player on the Wild before he ever set a blade on the ice. He couldn’t possibly live up to the hype, right?
Well, if Kaprizov’s training performance was any indication, he’s well on his way to becoming the player Wild fans hope he will be.
Just ask goaltender Cam Talbot, whom Kaprizov turned into a statue with a nifty shootout move in practice, or goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen, whom Kaprizov completely undressed during a scrimmage before effortlessly sliding the puck into the back of the net.
Now, doing it in practices and doing it it games are completely different things, and Kaprizov is looking forward to proving himself in Thursday’s season opener against the Los Angeles Kings. He’s also trying his best to ignore the hype surrounding his NHL debut.
“I’m really focused on the things that I can control,” Kaprizov said through a translator. “Things like that are on American websites anyway, so I don’t see a whole lot of that. Obviously, it does feel good that people think highly of me. I know I need to step up and perform and do well. I just try not to think about that too much.”
For now, Kaprizov will skate on the top line alongside new center Nick Bjugstad, who joined the team in a trade with Pittsburgh, and opposite veteran winger Zach Parise. That trio has developed chemistry throughout camp and has the potential to put up big numbers. Parise has been the Wild’s most consistent scorer since arriving as a free agent in 2012.
“It’s been great,” Kaprizov said. “We are starting to come up with our own way of communicating and picking up on the things that each other bring to the table just to gain some consistencies among ourselves. It’s going to continue to get better and better. I’ve enjoyed playing with both of them so far. They are both really smart players and elevate my game.”
Those feelings are mutual. Asked about Kaprizov early in training camp, Parise raved about the things he can do around the net, while Bjugstad vowed to get him the puck and stay out of the way as much as possible.
“You can see he’s got a knack for scoring,” Parise said. “He’s going be an exciting player for us for a long time.”
Meanwhile, coach Dean Evason has tried to temper expectations at every turn, maintaining that Kaprizov is no different than any other player on the team, even if some of the plays he makes prove that isn’t the case.
Frankly, Kaprizov has pulled off moves in practices that his new teammates couldn’t even dream up. Where does that creativity come from?
“It just comes to me,” Kaprizov said with a laugh. “I try to make the best possible play and try to think of something on the spot. It tends to work out.”
That answer itself shows that Kaprizov is different. He can’t even explain some of the things he does because the game has come so naturally to him since the first time he laced up the skates as 4-year-old in Novokuznetsk, Russia.
“I loved it from the moment I stepped on the ice,” he said. “My brother quit after a week and went to play soccer. I kept playing and kept loving the game. The rest is history.”
Still, Kaprizov’s skill alone didn’t get him to this point in his career. He has a unmatched work ethic, too, evidenced by the fact that he was the last player off the ice following Wednesday’s practice at TRIA Rink. A little more than 24 hours before making his NHL debut, Kaprizov wanted to get a couple of shots on goal. That’s who he is.
“I think the biggest thing with him is he’s coming in here and he’s worked hard,” winger Marcus Foligno said. “Even in the skates before training camp where we got to go out there with him, he worked really hard, and we could tell that he wants to be the best. That’s what we need on this team.”
There’s still a language barrier that Kaprizov is working through. He sits between center Nick Bonino and winger Mats Zuccarello in the locker room at TRIA Rink and has made it a point to chat with teammates as much as possible after practice. He’s trying, and what matters to his teammates.
“He’s a good kid, man,” defenseman Matt Dumba said. “I love his energy. Even though there is a language barrier, he tries to fight through it and he doesn’t really care what kind of spews out. It’s nice to have a guy like that because then we can work with him. I’m sure his English is going to get a lot better this season.”
Asked last week about making his NHL debut, Kaprizov admitted he will probably have some nerves in the hours leading up to Thursday’s 9 p.m. puck drop against the Kings in Los Angeles. That’s understandable considering the expectations that will come with it.
It’s been a long time coming for Kaprizov, to say the least, and as soon as the puck is dropped, everything becomes real — for him and the fans that have been waiting for him since the Wild chose him in the fifth round of the 2015 Entry Draft.
“I’m sure everyone goes through nerves and everyone overcomes them,” Kaprizov said. “I’m excited to get out there and to get his first game under his belt. I’m just focused on doing my job right now and fitting in and doing his best.”