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Great expectations: Kirill Kaprizov’s past success means he should have immediate impact

Russia Hockey Channel One Cup
Finland’s Juho Lammikko, right, battles for the puck with Russia’s Kirill Kaprizov during the Channel One Cup ice hockey match between Russia and Finland at the Gazprom Arena soccer stadium in St.Petersburg, Russia, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Elena Ignatyeva)

The Wild brass are certain to tamp down expectations when it comes to Kirill Kaprizov’s rookie season in the NHL, but then the Russian right winger scores a goal like he did in Friday’s scrimmage at Xcel Energy Center and it becomes clear he’s as good as advertised. Maybe better.

The play begins with defenseman Ryan Suter taking a pass from behind his own goal in the left corner and then banking the puck off the boards before it settles on Kaprizov’s stick just over center ice. The uber-talented Kaprizov races past helpless defenseman Louie Belpedio and stickhandles toward goalie Kaapo Kahkonen. Kaprizov stops in front of Kahkonen as he slides to his left and calmly deposits the puck past the goalie’s right pad and into the net.

Kaprizov made it look so simple that only a replay could confirm how impressive his stickwork had been.

The leading goal scorer in the Kontinental Hockey League the past two seasons, Kaprizov put his head down and skated away as if the goal was no big deal. Yes, it came in a scrimmage but this was the type of goal Wild fans have been longing to see in any type of situation. The franchise, celebrating its 20th season in 2021, had the extremely skilled Marian Gaborik for the first eight seasons of its existence but not much since when it comes to elite-level talent at forward.

Winger Kevin Fiala broke out last season with a team-leading 54 points, including 23 goals, in 64 games, but it has been Karprizov’s arrival that has been eagerly awaited by the Wild and their fans almost since he was drafted in the fifth round in 2015 by then-general manager Chuck Fletcher.

The stops and starts on when Kaprizov would join the Wild finally came to an end in July when he signed his two-year entry-level contract. Now that he is in Minnesota, it’s fair to set expectations at a much higher level than one would for most rookies. Kaprizov, who is 5-9, 185 pounds, is already 23 years old (only a year younger than Fiala) and spent the better part of six seasons playing in Russia’s top professional league, including the past three with CSKA Moscow. He led the KHL with 30 goals in 57 games two seasons ago and had 33 in the same number of games last season.

Wild coach Dean Evason has Kaprizov skating on the team’s top line with Zach Parise on the left and Nick Bjugstad at center. It’s likely those three will be together on Thursday night when the Wild opens their 56-game regular-season schedule against the Kings in Los Angeles.

“Our expectations are that he’s a great teammate and he works his butt off every shift,” Evason said of Kaprizov early in camp. “We know he’s going to have a special talent, a special skill level, and we’re obviously excited about that, but we want him to conduct himself like we ask of anybody.”

Evason might expect Kaprizov to work his rear end off, but, truth be told, he will be expecting the newcomer to do so much more. With Kaprizov on the first line and Fiala on the second, the Wild actually have offensive weapons. This will be especially helpful on the first power-play unit, where it’s expected Parise will play center with Fiala and Kaprizov on the wings. Kaprizov’s opportunities should make him a leading candidate to win the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.

The competition will be a step up but we’re talking about a player who had 113 goals and 117 assists in 293 career regular-season games in the KHL, and who scored in overtime against Germany to win gold at the 2018 Olympics. Kaprizov has excelled on a big stage before and there’s no reason to think he won’t do it again from day one in the NHL.