Kaprizov lives up to the hype
by Andy Potts|15 JAN 2021
Kirill Kaprizov celebrates a goal with his Russian teammates during the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
The NHL is back – and there’s a new superstar in the show. Kirill Kaprizov enjoyed a dream debut for the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night, collecting two assists before potting an overtime winner in a 4-3 thriller at the Kings.
Team-mate Matt Dumba came up with Kaprizov’s latest nickname after the 23-year-old Russian delivered a Hollywood finale in Los Angeles. The defenceman got a close-up view of the game-winning goal after getting an assist on the play. “He gets a puck on a break and you see what he does,” Dumba said. “Everyone who’s watching the game can see that he’s a special talent and that’s why they call him Dolla Dolla Bill Kirill.”

As for the man himself, he’s keeping quiet. Footage from the locker room after the game shows a beaming Kaprizov almost embarrassed by his place in the limelight. The youngster is still learning English – when asked about the many nicknames for the new boy, Nick Foligno joked: “We just keep making them up because he doesn’t understand any of them. We’ll just keep switching them up on him, and he’ll just keep laughing at it.” When presented with the bucket after the game, his response was short and shy: “I don’t know how to say it ... Good job, guys!”

More than just a scorer

Kaprizov became the first man to score three points on his Wild debut and only the third player to score a debut goal in overtime. He joins Nick Knott (Brooklyn Americans, 1941/42) and Tim Sweeney (1990/91, Calgary Flames) on that roll of honour.

But it wasn’t just his offensive contribution that got Kaprizov’s new team excited. “He obviously did the right things offensively,” said Wild coach Dean Evason. “But systematically is what we are more excited about because that is playing to the team game. He didn’t beat people 1 on 1 and go end to end. He was doing it with his team-mates.”

Kaprizov’s evening started with an assist on Jonas Brodin’s opening goal late in the first when he cut to the middle and left the defence trailing in his wake as the Swede gathered a loose puck to score. Then, after the Los Angeles Kings jumped to a 3-1 lead in the second period, the newcomer played his part in the recovery when he won his battle in the corner and sent a dish for Victor Rask to score Minnesota’s second. And there was the small matter of that winning goal.

But there was also a solid display all over the ice, chasing loose pucks, creating plays and showing no fear when up against bigger, heavier opponents such as Anze Kopitar or Jeff Carter. And it was that hard graft that caught the eye of line-mate Zach Parise, just a much as the scoring feats.

“Sometimes there can be that reputation for the Russians, and I think it's unfair ... but that they can focus a little too much on offence and leave the defence to other people,” Parise said. "I thought that he did, and he's done a really good job all camp, but I thought once we got into the game, he did a good job of competing without the puck, doing what we could to get it back and not at all being a liability in our own zone.”

Forged in Novokuznetsk

This was an instant impact that is five years in the making. The Wild drafted Kaprizov back in 2015, a fifth-round pick in a year when the hype was all about Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. At that time, Kirill was an unassuming kid making his first steps in the pro game with his home-town Metallurg Novokuznetsk in the KHL. His World Junior debut was still a few months away.

The hype train began to pick up speed in 2015/16 when Kaprizov tallied 27 points in 53 games for a Metallurg team that struggled at the foot of the KHL. The following season he exploded at the World Juniors in Canada, scoring 12 (9+3) points in Toronto as he captained Russia to a bronze medal. Back home, he’d stepped up in class, joining Salavat Yulayev Ufa and scoring 42 points in 49 KHL games.

Next came an even bigger overtime winner in the gold medal game at the PyeongChang Olympics, where Kaprizov finished with five goals as the Olympic Athletes from Russia dramatically won a long-awaited gold. By now, Kaprizov was playing for CSKA Moscow and in 2019 he helped the Army Men win the Gagarin Cup for the first time, returning Russia’s most titled team to the top of the domestic hockey tree. His final two seasons with CSKA saw Kirill lead the KHL in goals scored – 30 in 2018/19, improving to 33 in the curtailed 2019/20 campaign – before he finally crossed the Atlantic.

The long build-up was always part of Kaprizov’s plan. Back in 2015, making his U18 Worlds debut, he looked ahead to the upcoming NHL draft with modest ambitions. “As long as I get picked, I will be happy, no matter which round,” he told IIHF.com. “In any case, I would want to spend the next few years in Novokuznetsk and focus on making the team here.”

Next season, ahead of his World Junior debut, Kaprizov reflected on the importance of Metallurg in his progress. “Metallurg believed in me since I was a child and it all took off from there,” he said. “I worked hard and the coaches started inviting me to train with Kuznetskie Medvedi in Russia’s junior league. Then I got the chance to link up with Metallurg. In our city we have a lot of young guys who deserve a chance to prove themselves and it turned out that one of those chances came to me.”
The Russian players celebrate Kirill Kaprizov after scoring the overtime goal in the Olympic final against Germany in 2018.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
The natural humility endured even after bagging an Olympic golden goal. Rather than talking up his own scoring prowess, Kirill focused on the more established stars on the Russian roster in 2018. “I learned a lot from Datsyuk at this tournament,” said Kaprizov. “He can play anywhere on the ice. I’m thrilled that Pavel and Ilya Kovalchuk finally won their gold medals. I’m happy for everyone, but from them in particular because it’s their fifth Games. I’m only 20, and I still have a lot to strive for in my career.”

‘A great example to other young players’

Back home in Russia, Kaprizov’s dream debut has been making the front pages as well. Sovietski Sport’s lead story was headlined: ‘The Messiah comes to Minnesota. His name is Kirill Kaprizov’. That’s a rapid elevation in status, even compared with the Wild fan who tweeted ‘Kirill for President!’ after the game-winner hit the net.

Several pundits also rushed to talk up Kaprizov’s impact. Leonid Vaisfeld, who was the GM at Salavat Yulayev when Kaprizov joined the club, told RIA Novosti: “It’s no surprise, I’m pleased for him. It’s clear that Kirill was the key player in the game and it’s obvious that he will be a contender for the Calder Trophy. He’s one of the older players in contention for the prize and that will help him. There’s a lot of hype, but this is a man who scored the winning goal in an Olympic final so it’s nonsense to suggest he will be distracted by that.”

Alexei Badyukov, twice a Gagarin Cup winner with Ak Bars and now a popular commentator in Russia, believes that Kaprizov’s success is due to his decision to develop in Russia rather than crossing the Atlantic at the earliest opportunity.

“Kaprizov’s story shows that it’s better to go to the NHL when you are a fully-developed player,” he told Championat. “Kirill is doing all the right things. He’s a great example to other young players, an example of why you need to follow your own path. Kaprizov took his great talent and improved on it. He won everything at CSKA and he has already done a huge amount for our national team. Now his dreams are coming true in the NHL.”