Wild

What If Kirill Kaprizov Had Come Over Earlier?

Photo Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the summer, so the State of Hockey is enjoying the kind of activities they only get to do three months of the year. Stuff like boating, non-ice fishing, camping, kayaking, and wondering what the hell is going to happen to Kirill Kaprizov just can’t be done once the temperature drops. So Minnesota Wild fans everywhere are slapping on the sunscreen and following the latest Kaprizov saga.

For years, the question was When is this dude finally coming over? In the summer of 2020, the question became Is he even going to be allowed to play in the bubble playoffs? (No.) The next year, it became Is this contract going to get done by training camp? And now, we wonder if he’ll be able to return to the United States from Russia in the midst of their geopolitical turbulence.

It’s a shame, too, because when the other drama fades away, Kaprizov gives the Wild the good kind of drama. In just 136 games, he’s scored almost nothing but clutch goals. He has eight game-winners, four more go-ahead goals in the third period, and 10 game-tying goals in the third period. That’s almost 30% of his goal output where he’s contributing when he’s needed most.

Can you imagine a world where Kaprizov was just some dude from, like, Sweden? One who followed a more typical route to the NHL? A player who came over at age 19 and grew into a superstar in St. Paul rather than in the KHL. What did Wild fans miss out on with his lengthy KHL stint?

We’re going to imagine that today. Get ready to feel some stomach punches at the thought of what could’ve been.

Here’s a good question to start with: How can we figure out what he would’ve done at ages 19-22? The short answer is that we can’t. At least, not for sure. But we can make an educated guess. To do that, I took everyone’s age 23-24 seasons and stacked them up against each other in terms of per-game production. Here are the players most similar to Kaprizov during that stretch of their careers:

  • Kaprizov, 2021-23: 0.54 Goals/Game, 1.17 Points/Game
  • David Pastrnak, 2019-21: 0.58 Goals/Game, 1.21 Points/Game
  • Nikita Kucherov, 2016-18: 0.51 Goals/Game, 1.20 Points/Game
  • Mikko Rantanen, 2019-21: 0.52 Goals/Game, 1.14 Points/Game
  • Marian Gaborik, 2006-08: 0.60 Goals/Game, 1.09 Points/Game

We’ll use these four guys to make a composite player, drop Kaprizov in the NHL at age 19, and then basically guess our way into figuring out his impact on the Wild. Is it scientific? Only just barely, and only if you don’t really understand math or science. Will this stop us? No way. This train left the station.

Age 19, 2016-17 Season

Stats: 70 GP, 22G-23A-45P

This was probably the most difficult year to project. Only two of the players in our composite, Gaborik and Pastrnak, were in the NHL for any real time. Rantanen played nine games before being sent back to dominate the AHL rather than burn a year on his contract. Kucherov was still in Russia and wouldn’t arrive until the next season. The Wild had a deep team at forward, which made the decision of whether to play Kaprizov in the NHL or not difficult.

Except, it wasn’t. Time’s a-tickin’ for this Wild team. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are 32. Mikko Koivu is 33. The previous wave of prospects — the Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle group — haven’t asserted themselves. Four years into this new era of Minnesota hockey, this team has two wins past the first round. This team isn’t here to mess around. They’re playing this European star.

Chuck Fletcher brought in Bruce Boudreau, who immediately is impressed by Kaprizov’s tenacity in training camp. New coach Boudreau gets what he wants. After starting Kaprizov on the fourth line with Zucker, they quickly get promoted. Zucker finds his typical spot alongside Granlund and Koivu. Kaprizov finishes the season with power play time and a 5-on-5 spot with Parise and rejuvenated No. 1 center Eric Staal. However, Coyle perhaps fills in during defensive situations.

In Game 1 of the playoffs, Jake Allen is standing on his head, keeping the St. Louis Blues locked into a 1-1 tie in the third period. Instead of Coyle going into Allen on a third-period breakaway, Kaprizov has the puck, and he punches Allen in the mouth, giving Minnesota a 2-1 Game 1 victory. Knowing Allen won’t steal a series from them, the heavily-favored Wild roll St. Louis in five games. Kaprizov adds two assists during the series, both on Parise goals.

Pekka Rinne proves tough to beat in Round 2, but the Wild’s depth wins a war of attrition against a low-offense Nashville Predators team in five games. This leads Minnesota to a Conference Finals matchup with the Anaheim Ducks, who fired Boudreau last year. A couple of bad games by Devan Dubnyk keep Anaheim around in the series for seven games, but Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry have weak series overall. Without their young players, Rickard Rakell, Ondrej Kase, Nick Ritchie, and Hampus Lindholm stepping up, the Ducks fall.

All the while, Kaprizov is doing just enough to contribute, but not quite in a starring role. He picks up a goal and an assist in Round 2, followed by three goals in Round 3. Parise is doing his usual postseason heroics, while both Koivu and trade-deadline pickup Martin Hanzal are shutting down the opposition. The famous Zucker-Koivu-Granlund line catches fire in the second half of Round 2 and the early part of the Western Conference Finals.

This is Minnesota’s year to go on a deep run, and they do just that. But the Pittsburgh Penguins have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel. The Wild just can’t match that star power yet and fall in six games.

Having Kaprizov, who’s protected by the Expansion Draft rules, allows Minnesota to be comfortable with losing a forward in the Expansion Draft. Fletcher protects four defensemen (Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, and Matt Dumba) and four forwards (Parise, Koivu, Jason Pominville, and Granlund). Vegas selects native son Zucker, leaving Coyle and Nino Niederreiter in the fold, getting no compensation in return.

Erik Haula still leaves as a free agent, signing with Vegas. The Wild will also let go of Hanzal and trade Pominville and Marco Scandella to Buffalo for Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis.

Age 20, 2017-18 Season

Stats: 75 GP, 27G-32A-59P

Kaprizov enters his sophomore season with one fewer linemate and big shoes to fill. Parise gutted out last year’s Finals run but goes under the knife in the offseason. He starts the year on a line with Staal and Coyle, with Zucker’s void being filled by Ennis alongside Koivu and Granlund. Neither works out, Kaprizov starts the season in a slump, prompting Boudreau to move Granlund alongside Kaprizov and Staal by mid-November.

Once this trio is together, everyone takes off. Kaprizov and Granlund match each other’s creativity, zipping passes back and forth. Granlund hits the 75-point mark, and Staal racks up 42 goals, tying a team record. Losing that second line hurts Minnesota, but the contributions from that top line power Minnesota to a playoff spot and a first-round date with the Winnipeg Jets.

In Game 1, the Wild are down 1-0 in the second period when Dustin Byfuglien gets called for roughing. Kaprizov converts on the ensuing power play, tying the game on their only opportunity of the game. Matt Cullen and a back-in-action Parise put the game away in the third period as the Wild win Game 1, 3-2.

They split the series in Winnipeg, then sweep both home games. Kaprizov scores a goal and adds an assist on Alex Tuch‘s go-ahead power-play tally in a 2-1 Game 4 victory. The Wild shake off a bad loss in Winnipeg and then take the series in Game 6. Round 2 features a re-match between the Wild and Predators. Nashville’s top line puts up a much better fight, but Kaprizov puts on a Round 2 performance the Wild haven’t seen since Gaborik’s 2003 and overwhelms them in seven games.

As magical as Kaprizov is being in the playoffs, they’re no match for the magic in Vegas. Zucker, who scored 33 goals alongside Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson in the Vegas Golden Knights’ inaugural season, proves to be a thorn in Minnesota’s side. Marc-Andre Fleury shuts down Kaprizov as Vegas sweeps the Wild on the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Wild fans everywhere bemoan losing Zucker, who has five goals in the series, and wonder if there was any way they could’ve held onto him.

Age 21, 2018-19 Season

Stats: 82GP, 30G-51A-81P

The Wild made two consecutive deep playoff runs, but this is where the wheels start falling off the bus for Fletcher and the Wild. Tom Wilson charges into Dubnyk, starting a slump in November that Minnesota can’t quite get out from under. Despite Kaprizov’s best efforts, Granlund and an aging Staal struggle to put the puck in the net.

By January, the Wild are sixth in the Central, and it’s clear that Boudreau has lost the locker room. Craig Leipold requests that Fletcher fire him. Fletcher sees the writing on the wall and resigns his post rather than fire the coach that propelled him to two Conference Finals.

Interim GM Brent Flahr takes over, with Bob Woods replacing him as the coach. A second-half surge from Kaprizov narrowly nudges the Wild ahead of the Colorado Avalanche for the second Wild Card spot. But Dubnyk falters in the playoffs, and only Kaprizov scores more than a goal as the Calgary Flames sweep them.

In the meantime, Leipold and the Wild faithful are dying to win the Stanley Cup after getting so close twice. So in early April, Leipold grabs the man he believes can transition from the aging Parise/Suter core to one built around Kaprizov and Tuch. That man’s name? Paul Fenton, who gets a front-row seat to folks like Granlund, Niederreiter, and Coyle disappointing in the playoffs.

Age 22, 2019-20 Season

Stats: 69 GP (COVID-shortened), 31G-43A-74P

In Fenton’s press conference, he stressed the need for making tweaks over big changes. But Fenton immediately abandons that mantra when he sees opportunities to improve his team. In that year’s draft, he trades Coyle to the Philadelphia Flyers for the rights to move up three spots to select winger Matt Boldy at 13th overall. The move baffles the State of Hockey, as the last year of Coyle’s contract was affordable for a good player.

But Fenton’s weekend wasn’t over yet. On Day 2 of the draft, Gary Bettman announced a trade. Coming off a disappointing 56-point season, Granlund headed to Nashville for Kevin Fiala. No picks were exchanged in the deal for the forward coming off an 11-goal, 36-point season. Furthermore, Fenton handed Fiala, the restricted free agent, a lucrative contract. Fiala signs an eight-year deal worth $6 million per season.

Later that day, Minnesota targeted Hunter Jones at pick 59. But instead of trading a pick, he gave the Carolina Hurricanes Niederreiter for the privilege, taking back Victor Rask, a center coming off a 10-point season with three years left on his deal.

Then Fenton went into free agency, acquiring Mats Zuccarello to a 5-year, $30 million contract armed with a no-move clause. The dizzying speed of these changes were disorienting in itself. But the aloof, poorly-spoken Fenton poured gasoline on the fires of confusion and outrage. He compared Zuccarello to a lizard while praising Boldy, Jones, second-rounder Vladislav Firstov and fourth-rounder Michal Teply for their height — and nothing else.

But thanks to Kaprizov, this all somehow seemed to work. Kaprizov follows in Auston Matthews‘ footsteps that summer, extending for five years at $8.5 million per season, and Kaprizov and Zuccarello find chemistry alongside Staal. Kaprizov was on pace to set a new franchise points record before COVID shut the world down. Fiala’s playmaking ways complimented Tuch and Joel Eriksson Ek, a duo who formed a size-skill combination new coach Dean Evason fell in love with, in the second half.

Having to rely on backup goalie Alex Stalock was a bit of a limiting factor, but this team was good enough for the sixth seed, giving them a date with the Arizona Coyotes in the bubble. Kaprizov, Fiala, and Tuch stomped Arizona in three games and advanced to play Colorado’s similarly young, brilliant core. Minnesota put up a fight, with Kaprizov notching an overtime winner on a 4-on-4 feed from Fiala, but ultimately fell in six games.

Still, a core that appeared to be heading to a sunset got some new life. Say what you want about Fenton, an alienating personality who seems like an idiot-savant, but this is the most exciting Wild team fans had seen in a long time. Surrounded by a front office of people who know him and know how to manage him, maybe the mad king will be okay.

Today

We know pretty well what happened to Kaprizov and the Wild in the past two seasons. Would this change their trajectory over that time? Probably.

At the very least, Kaprizov would have scored more in the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season. Our composite Kaprizov trajectory suggests he would’ve had 32 goals and 64 points if he hadn’t needed to do rookie adjustments.

Unfortunately, this does not affect the weight of the Parise and Suter contracts. The two players, now heading towards their late 30s, are taking up $15-plus million in cap space. There will need to be corresponding moves, with Kaprizov and Fiala taking up another $13 million.

One move involves flipping Parise to Lou Lamirello’s New York Islanders in exchange for Andrew Ladd‘s contract and post-hype prospect Kieffer Bellows. Spurgeon is another cap casualty — the Wild simply cannot afford him. The hope is that Dumba and Brodin can carry the load and that Fenton can find a suitable partner.

Under this alternate reality, Kaprizov is already one of the best players in Wild history. Assuming his 2021-22 season stays stable, he would have 189 goals and 431 points in 433 career games. He’d be the fourth-best goal-scorer in franchise history, behind Gaborik, Koivu, and Parise. He’d be just seven points away from passing Gaborik for second all-time in points (behind Koivu).

Maybe the Wild’s future wouldn’t be much, if at all brighter. Fenton is a good talent evaluator, but it’s hard to see him matching the murderer’s row of prospects Minnesota has now. But damn it, the past would’ve been much, much brighter. There’s a really good chance Wild fans could’ve seen a deep Cup run or two instead of having nothing to show for the Parise/Suter era. Kaprizov’s delayed path to the NHL robbed the State of Hockey of so, so much. If it happens again next year, it will show that the Hockey Gods are 1000% committed to inflicting maximum cruelty on Minnesota.

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