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Why the Minnesota Wild May Sign Kirill Kaprizov, Even Though He Cannot Play This Year

Photo credit: Geoff Burke (USA TODAY Sports)

Offense comes easy to Kirill Kaprizov. He does work hard, using his Zach Parise-like motor to get to the scoring areas. But getting the puck past goalies? Making highlight-level plays? That’s nothing to him. It’s the reason why Kaprizov has more hype behind him than any Minnesota Wild prospect since Mikael Granlund.

But getting him under contract? That’s been the tricky part.

The Wild selected Kaprizov in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft. He started out in relative obscurity, but started producing as a teenager for Metallurg Novokuznetsk of the KHL. Kaprizov is now a star on the Red Army team in Moscow. He’s led the league in goal-scoring twice and lifted a Gagarin Cup last season. All by his 23rd birthday.

Most any other prospect of that stature would already be in North America. But the Wild have had a lot of trouble in luring Kaprizov to St. Paul. Former general manager Chuck Fletcher took a hands-off approach to enticing Kaprizov to come over. Perhaps Fletcher trusted the allure of the NHL would be enough to sign the star prospect.

Kaprizov took Fletcher’s lack of communication as indifference. Kaprizov 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 (translated here). “What round was I picked at? The fifth? I think that they forgot about me immediately after the selection.”

Minnesota put much more effort into building a relationship with Kaprizov after that. New general manager Bill Guerin has kept in regular contact with Kaprizov. And good news! All indications are that Kaprizov wants to come to Minnesota as soon as this summer.

Just one last snag, though. The NHL isn’t allowing Kaprizov to play.

We’ve discussed this at Zone Coverage in more detail, but here are the basics. The NHL claims that allowing teams to sign players after the regular season got shut down is an unfair advantage. Typically, that’s true — unless that player started the season on the team’s Reserve List (which Kaprizov was).

This is not a once-in-a-lifetime situation, either. Placing overseas or college prospects on the reserve list, then playing them in the playoffs is a standard practice.

This puts Minnesota and Kaprizov in a tough spot. Without these (arbitrary and underhanded!) rules changes, Kaprizov would be signed and playing in the playoffs. Instead, Kaprizov is facing the prospect of not playing in Minnesota in the 2020-21 season. And with the playoffs taking place in the summer and coronavirus still not under control in the United States, who knows when that season will start?

If Kaprizov doesn’t sign this summer, there’s no telling how much longer the State of Hockey will have to wait for him. Will he choose to play in the KHL next season, and try arriving again once their season ends? It’s possible.

But there’s still one more twist. The Athletic’s Michael Russo reported Wednesday night that the NHL and NHLPA may allow players in Kaprizov’s situation to sign for the 2019-20 season while still remaining ineligible to play.

While this seems paradoxical and ridiculous, it would likely be enough to entice Kaprizov to sign. Why? We gotta look into some boring CBA things to find out.

Any player younger than 25 can not enter the NHL without signing an Entry Level Contract (ELC). It’s like a rookie deal in the NFL or NBA, or pre-arbitration years in the MLB. They’re signed to a deal which caps their earnings for a given amount of time.

The length of an Entry Level Contract is determined by age. Players under 21 have it last three years, those ages 22-23 for two, and players aged 24 for one. Once the ELC expires, said player can enjoy the right of restricted free agency, and a higher payday.

Allowing Kaprizov to sign for the 2019-20 season would “burn” a year off that ELC. That would mean his ELC would effectively be one year, setting him up for a rich contract next summer. Burning that ELC year is enormously valuable, and would almost certainly get Kaprizov to sign.

But Russo raised a big question in the report: What’s in it for the Wild? Would they want to agree to such a deal? After all, they’re theoretically giving up a year of Kaprizov at a cheap price, and not even getting his playoff eligibility in return.

It’s easy to understand the hesitation, but there’s no way around this. The Wild must sign Kaprizov as soon as humanly possible. They have no choice.

Signing Kaprizov now puts him under team control. He can’t decide to go back to Moscow and wait until next spring to sign with Minnesota. A signed ELC guarantees that Kaprizov will start the season in St. Paul.

You could argue that Minnesota should just sign Kaprizov in the offseason and get the second ELC year out of him. And true, that would be great for Minnesota. But Kaprizov has leverage here. He could easily say “Sign me for 2019-20, or I’ll go back to Moscow for another year.”

He would be 24 by the time the KHL season ends, meaning his ELC would then be one year. And if he played any NHL games in the 2020-21 season, he would burn that year and become an RFA in Summer 2021 anyway. Minnesota would be in the same spot, but without the benefit of getting even one full ELC season from Kaprizov.

Minnesota’s job isn’t going to end when Kaprizov signs on the dotted line of an ELC. They’re going to want to see him hit the ground running. They’ll want to lock up their new star long-term. And that’s not going to happen if Kaprizov feels slighted and unwanted once he finally arrives in St. Paul.

You may not like the thought of Minnesota burning an entry-level year for no strategic reason other than to make a player happy. The team may not even like the idea of doing that. But that’s the cost of having a star player on the team. Their job is to be stars and to produce and to win. The team’s job is to keep them happy enough to stay around so they can keep producing and winning.

The Wild already know what happens when the relationship between them and Kaprizov isn’t strong. Kaprizov stays in Russia, and Minnesota remains without a dynamic player. It isn’t the time to squeeze every drop of value out of an ELC. It’s time for a show of good faith by the team and the start of a long, productive, prosperous relationship between Kaprizov and the Wild. If the NHL allows the Wild to sign Kaprizov for the 2019-20 season, then they must do so, whatever the cost.

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Drafting Kirill Kaprizov was a Low Risk, High Reward Proposition for the Minnesota Wild

Photo credit: Geoff Burke (USA TODAY Sports)

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