MINNEAPOLIS - Kirill Kaprizov does his best to stay away from the hype, but all it takes is a quick look at his Instagram for the Minnesota Wild rookie to see his impact both locally and in the National Hockey League.
Kaprizov has one KHL title and an Olympic gold medal under his belt. In a few short weeks, one of the top rookies in the NHL will be hitting the ice for his debut in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The current hot topic of conversation surrounding Kaprizov? The Calder Trophy, which goes annually to the top rookie in the league.
Right now, it’s a two-horse race between Kaprizov and Jason Robertson of the Dallas Stars.
"I’m constantly getting messages, I see it everywhere so it’s hard not to notice it. Personally I don’t think about it too much, I don’t stress about it. Obviously it’s always great to win something, but for me, the team performance is first and any personal accolades come after that," Kaprizov said Tuesday through an interpreter.
It took a few years for the 2015 draft choice to get to the NHL, but it’s been worth the wait. Coach Dean Evason knew what kind of talent he had in Kaprizov during training camp, and even earlier. Then, Kaprizov started his NHL career with the game-winning goal in overtime in their season-opener.
Kaprizov now leads the Wild with 41 points, including a team-high 22 goals. Both have surpassed Marian Gaborik in the Wild record book for rookies.
"He was so good right at Game 1. His skillset and his awareness offensively is as high as it gets. He clearly works on his offensive game and he’s got God-given talent clearly in that area," Evason said.
Wild fans saw the latest jaw-dropping sequence last Friday night in the team’s 4-2 win at the L.A. Kings. Kaprizov got the puck, beat a defender by handling the puck between his own legs and beat Calvin Petersen for his 20th goal of the season.
Kaprizov said he’s made the move before, but it’s never resulted in scoring.
"I was in the right place at the right time, the move was there, I did it. It’s not something I regularly practice, it’s kind of just instinctive," Kaprizov said. "I definitely watched the replays and yeah it was pretty cool."
Amid all the hype and the drive to get better every day, there’s one constant that remains: The team comes first. Scoring is great, attention is nice, but none of it matters if the team isn’t succeeding.
Behind Kaprizov’s standout rookie season, the Wild has already clinched a playoff spot with nine games to play. They’re in the No. 3 spot in the Honda West, one point behind the Colorado Avalanche and five behind the Vegas Golden Knights.
The Wild has won seven straight, and is 8-1-1 in its last 10 games.
"We still have nine games to go. We need to continue to play at a high level and get ourselves prepared and ready so that we can come into the playoffs hot. That’s really the focus right now," Kaprizov said.
He turned 24 on Monday, so what did he do? It was an off day for the team, so he stayed home. That’s life being an athlete during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay home, stay healthy for your team.
"This season is very much rink, home, sleep, travel, eat, repeat," Kaprizov said.
His 41 points lead NHL rookies, and his 22 goals are 10th in the NHL. Wild fans are witnessing history, and a star blossoming in his first season. How can he get better? Kaprizov says he has a long way to go.
"Every aspect of my game. I think if you ask any player, there’s always room for improvement in every aspect. That applies to me, every single aspect of my game needs to improve," Kaprizov said. "You just have to work hard, continue to get better and hopefully everything works out."