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Zulgad: No debate: Whether it’s fair, Kirill Kaprizov is the NHL’s Rookie of the Year

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Los Angeles Kings
Apr 23, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Minnesota Wild left wing Kirill Kaprizov (97) shoots on goal against Los Angeles Kings goaltender Calvin Petersen (40) during the third period at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Kirill Kaprizov did it again Friday night.

It wasn’t that the Wild winger scored two goals in a 4-2 victory over the Los Angeles Kings, it was how he scored his first goal that left your jaw on the floor. Every time Kaprizov scores one of these goals, Wild coach Dean Evason tell us we shouldn’t be surprised, but to not be wowed by Kaprizov’s superhuman efforts would be to act like we’ve seen this before from a player in a Wild jersey and that’s not the case. See for yourself.

The Russian born Kaprizov only does the occasional interview, so he wasn’t made available to discuss his latest display of greatness but it’s safe to say there was a message behind it.

A debate has broken out about whether Kaprivoz is a shoo-in for the Calder Trophy, as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year, or if Dallas winger Jason Robertson has a chance to overtake him.

There are a few reasons for this. The first is that Robertson has made a late surge and had 10 goals and 20 points in his past 19 games entering Saturday. Robertson is second to Kaprizov in the NHL in points among rookies (40 to 36) and goals (21 to 14). Robertson has three more assists than Kaprizov (22 to 19) and has the edge in plus-minus (plus-13 to plus-7).

Kaprizov became the franchise leader in goals and points for a rookie earlier in the week, and on Friday he scored for a fourth consecutive game as the Wild won their sixth in a row to tie their season high.

But this isn’t really about stats so much as it is about the feeling that the soon-to-be 24-year-old (his birthday is Monday) Kaprizov shouldn’t be considered a rookie considering his previous experience. A fifth-round pick of the Wild in 2015, Kaprizov spent six seasons playing in the Kontinental Hockey League. That league is considered the second best in the world by some.

Robertson, a second-round pick by Dallas in the 2017 draft, is 21 and spent the 2019-20 season playing in 60 games for the Stars’ AHL affiliate. He also played in three games for Dallas.

Robertson is an emerging player; Kaprizov is a superstar. Is it fair that Kaprizov is eligible for the Calder? Who cares? He’s eligible for it and any member of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association who doesn’t put him atop his or her ballot shouldn’t be voting. This is coming from a person who isn’t a Minnesota homer and often looks for the faults in the local teams — because there are plenty that need to be pointed out.

But Kaprizov is a special player and deserves everything that is coming to him. This debate could have been cleared up long ago, but it wasn’t. In 1979-80, Wayne Gretzky tied Marcel Dionne for the NHL scoring lead with 137 points but because he had played a full season in the World Hockey Association the previous year he wasn’t eligible to win the Calder.

Why? Because to be eligible for the award, the criteria states a player cannot have played more than 25 games in any single proceeding season, nor in six or more games in each of any two preceding seasons, in any major professional league. The issue is that the NHL does not consider the KHL a major professional sports league. That’s why the Blackhawks’ Artemi Panarin won the Calder in 2015-16, despite having played six seasons in the KHL and being 24 years old.

The rule could have been changed — since this exact debate took place at the time — and it wasn’t.

The debate about Kaprizov and postseason awards should be focused on how many votes he will receive for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP. He isn’t going to win it — Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Toronto’s Auston Matthews are the likely favorites — but he also can’t be dismissed.

Kaprizov not only has turned the Wild into a must-see team, he also has the Wild three points behind Colorado for second place in the West Division. Minnesota holds an 18-point lead on fourth-place Arizona, which is sitting in the final playoff spot in division. It’s not a stretch to say that without Kaprizov the Wild would be battling for the fourth playoff spot.

Kaprizov is that impactful. He scores spectacular goals when none of his teammates can get near the net, he has the ability set up plays that leave you thinking he could play center and he wins puck battles that are usually won by guys far bigger than Kaprizov’s list 5-9, 185 pounds. I’m sure I’m missing a few things.

This isn’t the first time the issue of a Russian player (other than Panarin) stepping into the NHL and winning the Calder has come up. In fact, the rule was adjusted after the North Stars’ Mike Modano did not win the Calder in 1989-90. Sergei Makarov, who had been a star on the Red Army team in the Soviet Union, had 322 goals and 710 points playing overseas when he arrived with the Calgary Flames. Makarov was 31 years old and the fourth-oldest player on the Flames but still considered a rookie.

He had 24 goals and 86 points, giving him five fewer goals but 11 more points than Modano. Makarov easily won the Rookie of the Year (204 votes to 120 votes). The Calder voting rules were then changed so only players who are no older than 26 by Sept. 15 of their rookie season are eligible.

Stars fans and voters can debate whether Kaprizov’s experience in the KHL gives him an unfair advantage and they can point to the fact he’s nearing his mid-20s. But what they can’t debate is whether Kaprizov qualifies for the Calder Trophy. He does and that means there is only choice for who wins it this season.