Kirill Kaprizov will finally suit up for the Minnesota Wild during the 2020-21 NHL season. Here is a look at his KHL career and how it took five years and three general managers before he finally signed his contract with Minnesota.
One of the Top Players in the KHL
The 23-year-old winger led the KHL in goals the past two seasons scoring 30 in 2018-19 and 33 in 2019-20. Kaprizov also tallied 14 points (four goals and 10 assists) in 19 postseason games while helping CSKA Moskva to a Gagarin Cup championship in 2018-19. He had his CSKA Moskva team in championship contention again in the 2019-20 playoffs before the season was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Kaprizov was a five-time KHL All-Star and ranked 6th in the KHL in scoring with 222 points in 262 games played during his five years in the league. He also holds three of the best U23 seasons in KHL history posting better numbers in that category than current NHL stars Alexander Radulov, Vladimir Tarasenko, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Artemi Panarin. The KHL is considered the second-best professional hockey league behind the NHL.
The Five-Year Journey from Draft Pick to the NHL
Kaprizov was drafted in the fifth round, 135 overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft by former general manager Chuck Fletcher. That season, Minnesota posted a strong 100-point regular season going 46-28-8 but once again struggled in the playoffs, getting swept by the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. This was when Minnesota was in a stretch of six consecutive years of playoff appearances but never making it past that second-round mark, from 2013-2018.
At the time, the Wild typically didn’t use draft picks on Russian players because of the uncertainty of signing them. Minnesota selected Kaprizov after they made a trade with the Boston Bruins to move up and select him. Fletcher knew it was a low-risk selection based on a study done by Michael Schuckers back in 2011 showed that only 21 percent of fifth-round selections ever play a single game in the NHL. That number dropped to 10 percent for fifth-round picks to play over 200 games in the big league. Fletcher thought that Kaprizov was too much of a talent and worth the risk at that spot.
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Fletcher, who was the general manager of the Wild since 2009, was fired in April 2018 after they were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round for the third consecutive year. He took a hands-off approach to sign Kaprizov that failed for three years. Kaprizov took Fletcher’s lack of communication as indifference and signed an extension with Moscow that kept him locked into the KHL until spring 2020.
“They weren’t too interested in me,” he said in a 2017 interview with Sport-Express. “What round was I picked at? The fifth? I think that they forgot about me immediately after the selection.” (From “Why the Minnesota Wild May Sign Kirill Kaprizov, Even Though He Cannot Play This Year.” – Tony The Wilderness – 07/02/2020).
Paul Fenton took over as Wild general manager in May 2018. He began a dialogue with Kaprizov that may have paved the way for his eventual signing. Fenton even traveled to Russia to meet with him and expressed his thoughts, “I’ve watched him from afar, now I’m going to look at him in a different light. We’re going to build a relationship, let him know the door is still open here.”
Fenton didn’t have much of an opportunity to finish bringing Kaprizov to the Wild, as he was fired after only 14 months on the job in July 2019.
Bill Guerin was hired as the new general manager in August 2019. Kaprizov had one year remaining on his three-year KHL contract at that time. Showing that Kaprizov was a priority once again, Guerin traveled to Russia in December to visit the prospect and to watch him play.
“I just wanted to go over and see him play and spend some time with him, a little facetime,” Guerin said. “Kind of a get-to-know-you trip because I think when that day comes, I’d like him just to know who he’s dealing with. It went really well.” (From “Wild GM Bill Guerin meets with prospect Kirill Kaprizov in Moscow.” – Star Tribune – 12/08/19).
Once his season finished in Moscow, and based on the renewed interest shown by Fenton and then Guerin, Kaprizov was ready to sign with the Wild, inking a two-year, entry-level contract beginning with the 2019-20 season. The new agreement between the NHL and the NHLPA that was signed this summer paved the way for him to be signed but it did burn his current-season eligibility and he was unable to play with the Wild in the 2020 Playoffs.
“We are thrilled to officially sign and welcome Kirill to our organization,” said Guerin. “He has exceeded all expectations in his development since he was drafted in 2015. Kirill is a smart and dynamic forward that has led the KHL in goals each of the past two seasons and we look forward to having him on our roster when next season starts.”
Wild Early Playoff Exits Fueled by Lack of Star Power
The Wild have made the playoffs nine times with a record of 27-50 since 2000. In their third season, they made the Conference Finals but lost to the Anaheim Ducks, led by Paul Kariya and Adam Oates. They made it out of the first round on two other occasions losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 2 in both 2014 and 2015.
The other six playoff appearances were all first-round exits. Minnesota has not had the firepower to match up against the other teams that have players like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews (Blackhawks), Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg Jets), Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars) or Nate MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado Avalanche).
Minnesota may finally have their dynamic duo with the signing of Kaprizov and the emergence of Kevin Fiala as a legitimate star player in the NHL. In his first full season with Minnesota, Fiala posted 23 goals and 31 assists in 64 games and came through with three goals and one assist in the four-game qualifying series versus Vancouver. There is a saying in the NHL postseason that your best players have to be your best players. Minnesota just hasn’t had the type of players to match up against the opponent’s “best players”.
There is always an adjustment period when players come from other countries to play in the NHL. Kaprizov, who is 23-years old, has the talent and proven hockey resume to perhaps be Minnesota’s first true legitimate superstar since Marian Gaborik – even if it took five years and three general managers to finally make it happen.
Rob Klein grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan playing pond hockey every winter, and watching Hockey Night in Canada on CBC every Saturday. Being able to finally watch his Red Wings hoist the Stanley Cup in 1997 was his finest NHL moment. As a fan of the NHL for over 40 years he has been able to follow many great teams and appreciate the history of this great game as well as the remarkable talent that is playing today.