The Minnesota Wild must be exhausted waiting for their KHL prospects to come over. Waiting for Kirill Kaprizov was enough for one lifetime. Once Marat Khusnutdinov re-signed with SKA, a sense of here we go again washed over the fanbase. Then the attention on another top Wild prospect from Russia quickly shifted from Khusnutdinov to Danila Yurov this summer. Don’t worry. All is forgiven. Yurov is a talent worth getting excited for.
But let’s not forget about Khusnutdinov. It doesn’t have to be a situation where the team has to choose which of the two is the better investment. If all goes to plan, they won’t have to.
Khusnutdinov’s contract goes through April 2024, meaning he’ll be 21 years old when he comes over. The Wild have Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Jordan Greenway as the only players signed through 2024. Minnesota will conceivably have five forward spots open up for grabs in 2025. That is, once players who are expected to sign extensions like Connor Dewar, Matt Boldy, and rookies Marco Rossi and Adam Beckman get added in. Perhaps more importantly, barring a contract extension, Minnesota is in-line to lose Mats Zuccarello, Kaprizov’s favorite running mate.
Ideally, the Wild have enough of the right prospects to turn the roster over by then. Could Khusnutdinov, a play-making speedster, be enough to assuage the loss of Zuccarello? It’s a real possibility.
What does Kaprizov need most on his line? He needs a partner who thinks as creatively as he does and can shoot occasionally. But most importantly, he can carry the puck from the defensive zone into the offensive zone. Being efficient helps all players on the ice offensively, but when you have the third-best winger in the league on the line, it only enhances their abilities. That’s what Zuccarello does best. Per Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones tracking project, Zuccarello was the second-best forward on the Wild in successful zone exits and fourth-best in controlled zone entries. When the time comes to replace Zuccarello, replacing that part of his valuable skill set will be tough.
That’s where Khusnutdinov comes in. His transition game is one of his best assets. “He’ll relentlessly backcheck as play transitions towards the defensive zone,” Elite Prospects said about the Russian forward in his draft year. “Khusnutdinov is also proficient at carrying the puck into the offensive zone.” Brock Otten of McKeen’s Hockey echoed his abilities to play in transition: “He is the type of player who can force turnovers routinely, which helps his line spend the majority of their shift in the offensive end.”
Khusnutdinov can also match Kaprizov’s creativity. In the play below, Khusnutdinov is quarterbacking the power play from the goal line. He pivots his feet quickly to get the weak side defenders to move their sticks into the center passing lane. Marat Khairullin (No. 61) has an uncontested lane to the net as he crashes down. Khusnutdinov then has a wide-open passing lane across the crease for an easy tap-in goal. It’s like a football quarterback looking off the free safety to fire a pass away from double coverage. In this case, his footwork really sold the pass away from the goalmouth before the quick strike at the net.
He also can use his skating to catch up to a puck along the boards. Khusnutdinov recognizes that Dmitrij Jaskin has his man beat in the neutral zone. Rather than put the puck on his tape, where Jaskin might have to slow up to avoid being offside, the pass is off the boards and to an area where Jaskin can receive the puck in stride. It’s a simple play, but it takes hockey sense on a level to attempt the play and still execute it. These simple plays that Kaprizov and Zuccarello complete every night add up to career seasons for both of them.
Regardless of suppressed numbers last year, there’s still a ton to like about the kid. Like Kaprizov, he’ll be an older prospect when he finally jumps to the NHL. And from the KHL to the NHL, it should be. The following two seasons for Khusnutdinov with SKA must be viewed as if he was playing two seasons in Des Moines. Both leagues feature competition alongside and against older men. The talent is comparable as well. However, the KHL is arguably the second-best league in the world. And if he’s getting enough important minutes, there’s little reason to suspect he’d need more time to ripen in the AHL.
It’s tough to predict precisely what Khusnutdinov will do when he arrives in North America. Heck, it’s nearly impossible to know who he will play alongside in the Wild lineup. Maybe Zuccarello gets re-upped in two seasons for a really team-friendly deal. Luckily for Minnesota, they won’t feel forced into deciding on Zuccarello without a decent backup plan like Khusnutdinov.