Minnesota Wild star Kirill Kaprizov hasn’t been a secret in the NHL since he ran away with the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year last season.
But it becomes clearer with each game that the 24-year-old forward has become the obvious focal point for every team that plays the Wild this season. On any given night, he can expect to see increased attention, not to mention extremely physical play from opposing players, sometimes even after the whistle. It’s like foes’ scouting report says: Neutralize Kaprizov — and nothing else.
Take this week’s game against Winnipeg, for example, as the Wild had their hands full protecting their star. Whether it was Kaprizov having to shake off a couple of heavy hits early on, or Jets center Pierre-Luc Dubois legitimately taking a run at him later in the game, the young Russian had someone in his face seemingly at all times.
The best sign for the Wild? Not once did Kaprizov back down. While winger Marcus Foligno stood up for him by dropping the gloves with Jets defenseman Brenden Dillon, Kaprizov also proved more than capable of standing up for himself.
“He tried to chop down a big tree out there,” Foligno said, referencing how Kaprizov threw an errant elbow at 6-foot-7 Jets defenseman Logan Stanley early in the game. “You love to see that ticked off Kirill. It’s pretty scary once he gets going. That’s who he is. That’s who we’re going to see for a long time. That’s special.
“We want to protect guys like that, for sure, and that’s part of my job,” Foligno added. “But there’s no one on the bench thinking, ‘Oh no, he’s going to get hurt out there.’ He’s a big, strong kid. We just love to see that out of him.”
That’s something center Joel Eriksson Ek has come to expect out of Kaprizov. They practice against each other every day, and Eriksson Ek is constantly surprised with how much strength Kaprizov packs into his 5-foot-10, 205-pound frame.
“You battle him in practice and feel how strong he is on skates,” Eriksson Ek said. “He’s a special player. And I think he handles (the physical play) really well.”
Still, the Wild don’t like opposing players messing with their budding superstar. Heck, even when Kaprizov wanted to engage with the Jets the other night, his teammates would constantly race in after the whistle and go to battle for him.
“I think that’s for everyone,” said Mats Zuccarello, who has taken Kaprizov under his wing since he arrived in the Twin Cities. “It doesn’t matter who it is. We have guys that step up for each other.”
It’s unlikely that Kaprizov will go unnoticed at any point in his career moving forward. He’s going to face constant pressure night in and night out.
If the 6-5 win over the Jets was any indication, though, Kaprizov is up for the challenge. He finished the game with a career-high three assists, including a perfect pass on Eriksson Ek’s game-winner in overtime.
“I hope lots of teams want to poke him because he gets better and better,” Wild coach Dean Evason said. “You keep poking him and he doesn’t shy away from it. He engages it and he moves forward. He got better as the game went on, and we couldn’t get him enough ice time at the end.”