Where’s Kirill Kaprizov? That question was the No. 1 thought on the State of Hockey’s collective mind at the start of the season. No one could say Kaprizov was a disaster. Even after going goalless through October’s eight games, he still led the Minnesota Wild in assists. But there was no denying that Kaprizov looked less dynamic than usual. He’d gone from an uncontainable threat to bottled up on a near-nightly basis.
After Friday’s game, everyone in Minnesota knew where Kaprizov was. That was center ice, acknowledging the crowd as the First Star of the Game following a four-point night. For the second time in as many home games, he treated the Xcel Energy Center to dazzling performances where he was clearly the best player on the ice.
The Wild got through October with a respectable 5-3 record. But to compete for the top of the Western Conference, they needed their superstar to step up.
He’s done just that in November. Through 12 games, Kaprizov has six goals and 16 points. But perhaps more importantly, he’s looking much more like the Kaprizov fans saw last year. He’s hounding pucks and using his skating and stickhandling to find patches of daylight to generate scoring chances. The human highlight reel is returning, even when it doesn’t bring results.
Why is that? Like last season, his points started taking off with an increased commitment to shooting, specifically shooting from in-close. Kaprizov averaged 10.1 shots per hour in all situations during his first eight games. That’s a good amount of shots, but they were almost entirely from the perimeter. He generated only 0.64 expected goals per hour, tied for 195th among forwards.
Kaprizov solved that problem this month. He’s slightly increased his shots to 10.7 per hour but nearly doubled his expected goals to 1.14 per hour with improved shot selection. That’s just outside the Top-50 for the month, but right about where he was for all of last season (1.13).
The result is that Kaprizov has been one of the best players in the NHL this month. After Friday’s game, Kaprizov was tied with Matt Duchene for fifth-most points in November. Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid, Nazem Kadri, and Alex Ovechkin, the only players ahead of him.
Even accounting for the whole season, Kaprizov is proving that his stardom last year was no fluke. He’s sitting at 3.38 points per hour in all situations, tied for 17th among 295 forwards with 200-plus minutes. His 15 5-on-5 points eclipse all but Ovechkin, Draisaitl, and Johnny Gaudreau. Even with a shooting percentage that’s still below 10%, Kaprizov is one of the most dominant forwards in the league.
Furthermore, Kaprizov is producing at a pace never seen in Wild history. He’s currently on pace for a 90-point season. That would not only make him the franchise leader, but he’d become only the second player to even crack 80 in a season, with Marian Gaborik only having done it once. As frustrating as his slow start was, we’re still witnessing something special.
In fact, with Kaprizov raining assists on opponents on a nightly basis, one has to wonder if opponents will change their game plans against him. Vegas restricted space for him last postseason, opening up chances for Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello, who couldn’t convert. That’s not a problem this year, as eight Wild players have scored off Kaprizov’s assists. This includes four goals from Joel Eriksson Ek, three from Zuccarello, and two from Hartman.
Coach Dean Evason noted this extra space for teammates after Friday’s game. “He can’t get free,” he said, “but he understands that the opening might not be there for him, but maybe that’s why he’s getting other people those opportunities because they’re concentrating on him.”
Kaprizov elaborated on this. “That’s been the way the game is going right now,” he said. “The opportunities have been there to make assists. The same thing can happen with goals, they’ll start coming in numbers, so I’m not worried about that.”
And they might if teams decide it’s not worth shadowing him if it means exposing themselves in other areas. He may have struggled with it early this season, but now he’s using his skating to find little ways to create separation and puck protection to buy time for his teammates to get open.
There’s a reason teams don’t throw all their manpower at stopping Ovechkin from scoring goals. For one, teams know that it leaves them too vulnerable to the Niklas Backstroms and T.J. Oshies of the world. And beyond that, they know Ovechkin’s going to get his goals anyway.
Now Kaprizov’s showing that he can make opponents pay for focusing on him, as well as find ways to score himself. With six goals in his last 12 games, Kaprizov is finally starting to crack the code of the defensive strategies thrown at him. Whether or not this forces opponents to back off him and give him more room to operate remains to be seen. What’s certain is that through all the early-season adversity, Kaprizov’s superstar trajectory remains unaltered.