Kaprizov Is Making the Leap From "Budding Superstar" To Superstar

Photo Credit: Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

Kirill Kaprizov needed less than five minutes to record his first NHL assist when he made his long-awaited debut with the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 14 of last year. By the end of regulation, he had tacked on a second. Then in overtime, the Wild’s prized prospect intercepted a dropped puck, went in on a breakaway, and beat the two-time Stanley Cup champion Jonathan Quick to score his first NHL goal and give the Wild a 1-0 start to their season.

It was a long time coming.

The Wild had drafted Kaprizov over a half-decade earlier, in the fifth round (135th overall) of the 2015 NHL Draft. And so, after six years of patiently waiting, he didn’t just give Wild fans a well-played debut. Instead, he had three points and an overtime game-winner. The franchise’s first true superstar had finally arrived.

A Calder Trophy-winning campaign and off-season summer of drama later, Kaprizov signed a contract only superstars get: A 5-year, $45 million deal that will keep him in Minnesota until at least 2026. It was seen by many as a risky move given the small sample size. Kaprizov had played in just 55 games. Was that really enough to justify such a significant deal? GM Bill Guerin obviously thought so and made a statement with the contract that he too believed Kaprizov had much more in him.

Kaprizov’s sophomore campaign kicked off less than 30 days after the ink dried on the deal. But unlike his freshman season, 2021-22 got off to a slow start. He didn’t have a goal in the first eight games and only had six assists. Not even a month into his contract, concern washed over much of the Wild fanbase. Would Kaprizov take a step back from his auspicious debut season?

The answer turned out to be a resounding no.

Kaprizov went on a tear in November and hasn’t looked back since. He’s had one of the best seasons in the NHL, and he has built on his first season by improving virtually every aspect of his game. Last year, Kaprizov finished 8th in goals and tied for 22nd in points. He’s 11th and 8th, respectively, through 60 games this year. Beyond the scoresheet, he’s a player who can turn it up late in the third period and overtime. He plays a scrappy style for his size and isn’t afraid to stand up for himself.

It’s fair to say that Kaprizov has started his NHL career as a budding superstar. But has he done enough to establish himself as one of the league’s best? Can we drop the “budding” and call the Russian-born 24-year-old a “superstar”?

Kaprizov has only played 116 games. He’s still weeks away from completing a full NHL season. How long does it take to get a big enough sample size to draw these kinds of conclusions? Add to that the subjective nature of what constitutes a “superstar,” and what you get is a debate with several solid points.

The best way a player can cast aside any doubt is for them to establish themselves in big moments. That’s where good players turn into great players. It’s where players earn adjectives like “clutch” and “legendary.” It’s where budding superstars become superstars. Kaprizov will have an opportunity to experience and capitalize on these kinds of moments this spring.

The Wild are coming off the busiest trade deadline they’ve had in many years. They’ve added depth, size, and a future Hall-of-Fame goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury. Despite two significant slumps this year, they’re on pace for one of their best seasons in franchise history and have a decent shot at making a deep playoff run.

Kaprizov hasn’t been great in his only NHL postseason experience. To be fair, he was up against Fleury when the Vezina Trophy-winning goalie was in Vegas. But the best skaters find ways to get pucks past even the best goalies. To truly solidify himself as an NHL superstar, Kaprizov will have to far exceed his three-point performance in last year’s seven-game first-round series.

It’s often said that depth wins championships, and that’s absolutely true. You need contributions from all lines and every player to go deep in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But you also need your star players to carry the team when that production just isn’t there. When the game is in overtime, and the ice is slanted against your team, your star players need to make big plays and score big goals. Kaprizov can carry the momentum he’s built this season and do just that.

If he does, it will finally be fair to say with certainty: The Wild’s long-awaited superstar has arrived.

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