Kaprizov living up to Wilds expectations heading into Winter Classic

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“There is 100 percent a comparison of their enthusiasm, their excitement, their joy for the game,” Wild coach Dean Evason said.

Evason should know. He had a front-row seat for Ovechkin’s emergence in the NHL as an assistant with the Capitals from 2005-12, the forward’s first seven seasons. Ovechkin has gone on to become the fourth-leading goal-scorer in NHL history with 754, 140 behind all-time leader Wayne Gretzky, who scored 894.

Evason has had the same view in Minnesota since Kaprizov arrived from the Kontinental Hockey League last season, watching the forward make an impact on the Wild that no other player has since Marian Gaborik played with them from 2000-09.

Kaprizov will have a national spotlight to showcase his talent Saturday, when the Wild play the St. Louis Blues in the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic at Target Field (7 p.m. ET; TNT, SN1, TVAS, NHL LIVE).

The 24-year-old leads Minnesota with 36 points (12 goals, 24 assists) in 30 games after scoring 51 points (27 goals, 24 assists) in 55 games last season to lead all rookies in scoring, winning the Calder Trophy, voted as the NHL rookie of the year.

“You see the smile on Kirill’s face, you see he’s beaming, that was the exact same thing as Alex Ovechkin was the first year, two years in the National Hockey League,” Evason said. “It was an infectious excitement level that he had. His teammates loved it. Obviously, the fans loved it.”

Video: Get to Know: Kirill Kaprizov

The Wild selected Kaprizov in the fifth round (No. 135) of 2015 NHL Draft, but he continued to play in the KHL in his native Russia. From 2014-20, he was a five-time KHL All-Star, a Gagarin Cup champion and a two-time goal-scoring leader.

His future Minnesota teammates took notice of what Kaprizov was doing in Russia. They had a feeling the wait for him would be worth it.

“You would see something on Instagram or you’d see highlights … and you’re like, ‘Man, I hope he can just come over here and do the same stuff, that’d be a huge help to our team,’ ” Wild defenseman Matt Dumba said. “Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened. He went from ‘Dollar, Dollar Bill Kirill’ to ‘Big Bill Kirill’ in a matter of a year.”

Kaprizov signed a two-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2020 and his arrival in Minnesota last season finally answered the question of when, if ever, this great Russian hope was going to appear.

“When you hear about it for so long, seeing him play in the Olympics [in 2018] and obviously the stuff he’s done over in the KHL, you’re excited for him to come,” Wild captain Jared Spurgeon said, “but it’s always a change when you come to a different league, whether it’s a young guy coming to the NHL or junior to the NHL. It’s different and you want to see how they adapt to it. But he works so hard, takes so much pride in being that top guy that he wasn’t going to let anything stop him from being that.”

The 2019-20 season counted as the first year on his contract, but Kaprizov didn’t play for Minnesota in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers a few weeks after signing, so it essentially turned into a one-year contract, which really was a one-year tryout.

Kaprizov became a revelation.

The Wild finished third in the Honda West Division with 75 points. He won the Calder Trophy. Minnesota gave the Vegas Golden Knights all they could handle in a seven-game loss in the Stanley Cup First Round.

“It seems like it’s fit in well and my style of play has been suited for the NHL,” Kaprizov said through a translator. “I’ve done well. But no matter what level you play at, if you can just play your game and play it well it’ll come to fruition. I just need to continue to work hard, play my game and continue to grow as a player. All the success will come if I keep doing that.”

After some rumors about a potential return to the KHL after last season, Kaprizov signed a five-year, $45 million contract (average annual value $9 million) with the Wild on Sept. 21.

He thanked Minnesota for believing in him, making it a no-brainer for him to sign a contract that will take him through his 29th birthday.

“I like everything,” Kaprizov said. “I love the stadium. I love the coaching staff. I love the organization. I love the fans. I love everything about the team. Everyone has been great to me. Everything about the organization has been awesome.”

Kaprizov’s production with the Wild correlates with that of Gaborik, who scored 437 points (219 goals, 218 assists) in 502 games with Minnesota, an average of .87 points per game. Kaprizov’s points-per-game average is 1.02.

Nothing about Kaprizov’s grand entrance into the NHL has surprised the Wild, particularly Evason.

He remembers watching highlights of Kaprizov playing in the KHL and marveling at how hard he competes on the puck and away from it.

“We saw it right away,” Evason said. “It’s not just with stick battles in front of the net to get the puck, but in the corner, he wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in there and win that puck battle and then get that offensive opportunity because of it. I know that was the biggest thing that stood out for us as a coaching staff. 

“The goals are beautiful. His two and 10 as he gains speed without moving his feet is wonderful. But you need to compete and get the puck to do all that first when you don’t have an opportunity to get a pass from a teammate, and he does that. I think that’s what sets him apart.”

Video: Kirill Kaprizov comes in at #7 for Stories of 2021

Evason said Kaprizov’s motor on the ice told him a lot about the type of player he could be. He praised Kaprizov’s unselfishness, especially because his skillset would allow him to play a selfish game.

“When we watched him, say on the power play, you didn’t see him always on the half wall,” Evason said. “You saw him in the middle position, the bumper position, or the guy in front of the net. It told us that he was an unselfish player. The passes that he makes, helping his teammates, all that stuff, when you see that and then see that compete level, you know there are some character positives in that type of a person.”

Dumba said the foundation to Kaprizov’s game is his skating ability. He said he’s not the fastest skater, but his intangibles — explosiveness, quick first step, powerful stride, strong legs — allow him to outwill the opposition.

“Say you’re putting that pressure on him, making it hard for him, he’s so smart and just understands his edges so well that he can use that against you,” Dumba said. “You push on him one way, he’s going to use the momentum the other way. It’s a constant game of trying to contain him. It’s hard to stop him. You see some of the best defenders in the NHL try and they think they’re right there. 

“I think back to the goal against [the Los Angeles Kings] where he had [Drew] Doughty swimming behind the net. Doughty is right there. Drew is one of my favorite defenseman and we’re buddies. I know how competitive he is and how he defends and puts everything into it. He’s doing that against Kirill. He didn’t take his foot off the gas, but when Kirill puts his foot on the gas there’s not many people that can stop him.”

On top of that are the demands Kaprizov puts on himself.

“He wants to be that top player and he’s willing to do anything to get to that point,” Spurgeon said.

Said Dumba, “No one holds themselves to a higher standard than he does. I honestly think every time he shoots the puck he truly believes he should score. I have never seen anyone work like him. It’s contagious.”

Kaprizov is what the Wild hoped he would be, what every adjective used to describe him said he would be, from dynamic to electric to energetic to passionate.

“Seeing the things he can do on the ice and how he can make everyone around him so much better, it definitely brings a different element to our team,” Spurgeon said. “The energy he brings, it bleeds into everyone.”

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