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Zulgad: Wild GM’s willingness to play waiting game pays off as Kirill Kaprizov finally signs

NHL: Vegas at Minnesota Wild
May 5, 2021; Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov (97) skates with the puck against Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Nicolas Hague (14) in the second period at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

If Kirill Kaprizov wanted to play professional hockey this season, his only choice was to do it for the Minnesota Wild. But that didn’t stop many from getting nervous as the talented Russian winger and his agent, Paul Theofanous, played contract hardball with Wild general manager Bill Guerin all offseason.

At one point, Theofanous tried to put it out that his client would return to the KHL if he didn’t get the deal he wanted. Then the Kaprizov camp seemed to drag its feet, or skates, as a five-year, $45 million offer sat in front of a player who was a restricted free agent with zero ability to sign elsewhere.

Guerin patiently waited for Kaprizov and Theofanous to come to their senses. That happened on Tuesday when the Wild announced that Kaprizov had signed what is a fair contract for both sides. The Wild originally wanted Kaprizov to sign a maximum eight-year deal but he didn’t want to lock in for that long. Kaprizov wanted three years, a term that would have walked him into free agency.

The contract that made the most sense was the one Kaprizov signed coming off a fantastic but shortened rookie season. The first Wild player to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year, and the most talented player this franchise has had since it came into existence in 2000, Kaprizov led the Wild with 27 goals and 51 points in 55 games during the pandemic-shortened season. He set several franchise rookie records.

Kaprizov showed both goal-scoring and play-making ability that exceeded what anyone could have expected during the long wait for the fifth-round pick in the 2015 draft to arrive. He had only two goals and three points in the Wild’s seven-game, first-round playoff loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, but the 24-year-old isn’t the first player to discover just how different the postseason can be in the NHL.

Kaprizov certainly was taken care of financially. The $9 million average annual value of his contract gives him the largest salary-cap hit in Wild history and, according to Michael Russo of The Athletic, Kaprizov will enter his second season with the highest average annual value with the fewest number of regular-season games played since the NHL adopted the salary cap in 2005-06.

The question now is when will Kaprizov join his teammates on the ice for training camp? Players will report on Wednesday and skate for the first time on Thursday. Kaprizov reportedly has returned from Russia and will be in Minnesota on Wednesday, but it’s unclear what his vaccination status is and how long he might have to quarantine.

What is settled is that Kaprizov will have plenty of time to get ready for the Oct. 15 regular-season opener in Anaheim and won’t be an unrestricted free agent until he’s 29 years old. Kaprizov will be expected to be the most dynamic player on a team that should add at least two more big-time prospects this season in center Marco Rossi (the ninth-overall pick in 2020) and winger Matthew Boldy (the 12th-overall pick in 2019).

With the Wild set to absorb salary-cap pain for three seasons beginning in 2022-23 because of the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts, Guerin and coach Dean Evason will need their young core to help carry them.

Kaprizov figures to be the most important piece of that core and he won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Guerin made sure of that by showing patience in the spring and summer that now should pay off this fall and for years to come.