Professional hockey in Minnesota this century has never quite seen anyone like Kirill Kaprizov. Since the Wild entered the NHL as an expansion team back in 2000, they’ve experienced their fair share of success. They’ve made the playoffs 10 times, and featured all-star players such as Marian Gaborik, Ryan Suter, and Devan Dubnyk. But now, in the 20th anniversary season of their franchise, the Wild have a budding young star in Kaprizov taking not only the local market, but the entire league, by storm.
Roughly halfway into his first season, Kaprizov’s become the runaway favorite to win this season’s Calder Trophy, awarded to the league’s top rookie. He is scoring at nearly a point-per-game pace, putting him in the company of established NHL stars such as John Tavares, Nathan MacKinnon, and Evgeni Malkin. But unlike those players, Kaprizov wasn’t a highly touted first-round pick. Instead, Kaprizov slipped all the way to the fifth round of the 2015 draft.
How could a player as blatantly talented as Kaprizov fall so far in the draft? For one, his diminutive 5’9, 185-pound stature likely plummeted his draft stock for an NHL that still valued size as much as skill. But perhaps the bigger factor wasn’t his game or his stature, but where he’s from.
Kaprizov hails from Novokuznetsk, the tenth-largest city in the Russian outpost of Siberia. His far-flung roots would have put him somewhat out of sight and mind for the NHL’s scouting industrial complex. But even for those aware of Kaprizov’s skill set, there was concern about not only when, but if he would ever take his talents to North America. The threat of Russian prospects, especially ones that aren’t likely to make the NHL quickly, staying home to make competitive money in the KHL always looms. It often causes teams that want more certainty in their draft picks to pass on taking Russians highly. Minnesota’s general manager at the time, Chuck Fletcher, decided Kaprizov was too good to turn down once the fifth round came in 2015.
Kaprizov’s rookie season is proving Fletcher’s gamble a smart one. It may have taken over five years for him to make his way to Minnesota (Kaprizov was under contract with the KHL’s CSKA Moscow), but Wild fans would certainly agree he was worth the wait.
Given the trepidation with Russian prospects, it’s no surprise that Kaprizov follows in a long line of his countrymen that were drafted well after they’re talent dictated. Pavel Bure, arguably the NHL’s first Russian superstar, was taken by the Vancouver Canucks in the sixth round of the 1989 draft. Alexander Mogilny, who scored 76 goals in just his fourth season, was taken by the Buffalo Sabres in the fifth round of the 1988 draft. Other Russian greats such as Pavel Datsyuk, Sergei Fedorov, Sergei Zubov, Alex Zhamnov, and Andrei Markov were all selected in the fourth round or later. Even two-time All Star and former Calder Trophy winner Artemi Panarin went undrafted.
The Wild must be thrilled they found their own Russian late-round gem. For a team celebrating their 20th anniversary in a hockey-mad market, the timing of his rookie season couldn’t have been better. In Kaprizov, Minnesota has their first electrifying star forward since Marian Gaborik. His emergence this year certainly bodes well for their third decade as a franchise.
By Ryan Cuneo