The chit-chat went swimmingly at the dinner in Moscow in early December. Not everyone at the table spoke the same language, but it didn’t matter.
Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin was there to meet his star prospect, Kirill Kaprizov. His agent at the time, Dan Milstein, and Wild scout Ivan Nepriaev translated the conversation from English to Russian and back again. Guerin absorbed enough to get a read on the young man unofficially dubbed the Best Pro Hockey Player Outside The NHL Today. Guerin decided quickly that he liked the kid.
“He has a good sense of humor,” Guerin said. “We laughed a lot. A couple jokes here and there. He was not shy. He’s got a great personality, and I think he’ll do fine.”
“Fine” might be an understatement, and it’s not just because Kaprizov has a charismatic personality and commands the English language “more than he gives himself credit for,” as Guerin puts it. “Fine” isn’t nearly enough to describe what Kaprizov has accomplished since June 27, 2015. That was Day 2 of the NHL draft, when the Wild scooped him 135th overall. At the time, he was a project, a slick-handed but unassuming 5-foot-10, 178-pound left winger from southwestern Siberia. The following winter, he appeared in Future Watch 2016 as Minnesota’s No. 6 prospect and didn’t crack the top 75 league-wide. Since then, he’s slowly become more dominant by the day, week, month and year. In 2017, he captained the Russian squad at the World Junior Championship and broke the country’s tournament record with nine goals in seven games. A year after that, he scorched the 2018 Olympics on a line with Pavel Datsyuk and Nikita Gusev, winning gold representing Olympic Athletes from Russia as a 20-year-old. A year after that, Kaprizov led the KHL in goals, set a single-season league record with 11 game-winners and won the Gagarin Cup with CSKA Moscow. This season, he led the KHL in goals again. Across the past two seasons, he posted the two highest points-per-game marks by an under-23 player in KHL history.
Kaprizov, who turned 23 in April, has gradually volcanoed in the past half-decade, from late-round flier…to steal…to the Wild’s top prospect…to the best non-NHLer in the game today. He’s peaked as a prospect just in time for his KHL contract to expire. It’s no coincidence, then, that Guerin, months after getting hired as Wild GM, flew to Moscow to see Kaprizov. This franchise hasn’t picked in the top 10 since 2012, hasn’t picked in the top five since 2005 and has drafted at best one true star forward in its 20-year history: Marian Gaborik at third overall in 2000. Slotted 24th in Future Watch 2020’s farm-system rankings, Minnesota yearns for a game-breaker like few other teams do. Only four Wild players have put together a 70-point campaign, and just two have ever breached 40 goals in a season. No wonder the front office is fly-to-Moscow giddy over Kaprizov’s ceiling.
But is he everything he’s hyped to be? Supposed Nashville Predators blue-chipper Eeli Tolvanen smashed a bunch of KHL records as a teenager a couple years back, and he’s struggled to even look like a star AHLer, let alone a viable NHLer, since coming to North America. Why, then, is everyone who talks about Kaprizov so supremely confident he’ll be a monster?
“To me, it’s a combination of the hockey sense, hands and skating,” said Guerin, who compares Kaprizov’s speed and 10-2 skating style to Jeff Skinner’s. “He’s got everything. A lot of guys have tools, but maybe they don’t have the thought process to go with it. He seems to have a really good amount of everything.”
Naturally, Guerin is biased toward his own player, but scouts who’ve seen a lot of Kaprizov in recent years love what they see, too. TSN scout Craig Button puts Kaprizov in a class of players who make the game look easy at times.
“They’re getting from point A to point B, understanding not only where they have to get to, but when they have to get there, so they become very difficult to mark, because they’re not giving you any type of signal of where they’re going,” Button said. “Patrick Kane says this all the time: ‘Yes, the game is faster, but you still have to be able to slow it down.’ The only way you can slow it down is by having a fast brain. It sounds counterintuitive, but that’s what Kaprizov does. He’s got a magnificent, magnificent hockey mind.”
For Button, the blend of hockey IQ, creativity, hands and finishing ability calls to mind Artemi Panarin as a comparable. But the body? Think Vladimir Tarasenko. Kaprizov had reached his full height when drafted, but he’s since gained 23 pounds. At 5-foot-10 and 201 pounds, he’s a bulldog. NHL scout Tom Thompson, a former Wild assistant GM who was an amateur scout for the New York Rangers during the 2015 draft year, describes Kaprizov’s legs as tree trunks and singles out his strength on the puck.
“In the Olympics, he was tremendous in those 1-on-1 situations,” Thompson said. “So he not only wins the battles, but he comes out balanced, and he’s head-up, and he’s ready to do something right away. I think he can be a star.”
So Kaprizov has Panarin’s mind, Tarasenko’s power and, according to Thompson, hand speed comparable to Soviet legend Sergei Makarov’s. Geez. It’s no wonder the Future Watch panel likes Kaprizov so much. But he’s not the first prospect showered with hyperbole, and they don’t always pan out. Surely, there’s a hole in his game. But that’s the strangest thing: ask anyone who studies Kaprizov what he needs to fix, and you’re met with shrugs. One scout sums it up with, “Well, there isn’t…I mean…he’s, uh…he’s that good.”
No one can identify a single glaring weakness, unless you count Thompson joking, “In a perfect world, would you like him to be the same height as Jaromir Jagr? Yeah.” Kaprizov doesn’t even have the defensive shortcomings that often accompany sublime scoring skill in young players. He “mirrors the play” and goes to the right areas on the ice every time, Thompson said, comparing that awareness off the left wing to Brad Marchand’s.
But there is a potential roadblock in Kaprizov’s path to stardom. It’s not him. It’s the company he’ll keep. As Button says, Guerin’s biggest challenge is to find a center Kaprizov can play with, because Kaprizov could step in right now and already be the team’s most skilled forward – and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Kaprizov is a potentially deadly scorer but “isn’t Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby,” Button said – in the sense that Kaprizov isn’t going to elevate every player in his orbit and can’t be a one-man show.
“When Evgeny Kuznetsov came over, he got to play behind Nicklas Backstrom, and he had Alex Ovechkin there,” Button said. “There was skill around him. The lack of high-end skill the Minnesota Wild currently have is going to be the biggest impediment to Kirill Kaprizov being that top-end player for them.”
The Wild boast only three top-100 prospects, and Kaprizov is one of them. Among their internal top 10 prospects, two are centers. At the NHL level, their best pivots are aging vets Eric Staal and (pending UFA) Mikko Koivu and graduated prospects Joel Eriksson Ek and Luke Kunin, who don’t look like they will hit the ceilings they were expected to when they were drafted in the first round.
The Wild are positioned to replenish their prospect pool soon, however. By trading veteran left winger Jason Zucker to Pittsburgh in February for a package including a 2020 first-rounder, Guerin will get to pick twice in the first round (barring the Penguins missing the playoffs, which won’t happen in virtually any return-to-play tournament scenario). The Wild have only done that one other time in their history. They have an opportunity to add at least one if not two talented forwards this June. That’s important because, while Matthew Boldy shows serious potential, he’s also a left winger and thus doesn’t project to be a Kaprizov linemate.
Regardless of whether he has a good supporting cast waiting for him, Kaprizov should start 2020-21 in a Wild uniform. Minnesota made a concerted effort not to tamper with CSKA Moscow or distract Kaprizov from the KHL playoff push, so Guerin wouldn’t confirm anything on the subject during the season, but Kaprizov had spoken publicly in the past about his desire to play in the NHL. It was easy to read between the lines when his contract ended. The only question left to answer is whether he’ll be eligible to join the Wild to finish out 2019-20 or have to sign for 2020-21, but it’s the latter scenario for now, as we’ve seen with Alexander Romanov and Grigori Denisenko.
What Guerin was willing to confirm emphatically, even months ago, is that, whenever Kaprizov officially crosses the Atlantic, “he’s coming right to the NHL.”
This is an updated version of a story that appeared in The Hockey News 2020 Future Watch Issue. Want more in-depth features, analysis and opinions delivered right to your mailbox? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.