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Zulgad’s Roundup: Wild coach gets the best out of Kirill Kaprizov after sending a clear message

Kirill Kaprizov
Minnesota Wild’s Kirill Kaprizov (97) is swarmed by teammates congratulating him on his goal off Dallas Stars goalie Anton Khudobin in the first period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Coming off perhaps the most uninspired performance of his Wild career on Tuesday in a loss to San Jose, Kirill Kaprizov received a clear message from Dean Evason on Thursday as the Wild coach broke up the usual pairing that has Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello playing the wings together on the team’s top line.

Evason, unlike his predecessors, wasn’t about to let his star player get away with mailing in a game, no matter how much talent he might possess. Kaprizov’s response — heck, the Wild’s response as a whole — was exactly what Evason wanted. Kaprizov, who spent the summer watching his agent play hardball in negotiations with Wild general manager Bill Guerin before a five-year, $45 million deal was signed just before training camp, had a goal and three assists to increase his team-leading point total to 15. He became only the fourth Wild player in the past 15 seasons to have a four-point game at age 24 or younger.

Despite the fact that Kaprizov opened the game playing on a line with center Victor Rask and center-turned-winger Frederick Gaudreau, he was reunited with Zuccarello at times by the savvy Evason. One such case came with the Wild leading by a goal in the first period, when Zuccarello made a beautiful pass through the defenseman’s legs in front of the goal, allowing Kaprizov to direct the puck past Stars goalie Anton Khudobin.

The Wild went on to score a season-high seven goals in a 7-2 win over the Stars, giving Minnesota its sixth victory in eight games. Zuccarello and Rask each had a goal and two assists. Rask had only played in two of the previous 10 games, but looked sharp after being reunited with two wingers whom he spent much of last season. Kaprizov, Rask and Zuccarello all were plus-4.

While Evason attempted to stay away from saying he was sending any type of message to Kaprizov and Zuccarello, Kaprizov is no dummy.

“I definitely think it was a little bit of a signal,” Kaprizov said in Russian through an interpreter. “I think both of us went out there and played our game, played the best we could, and it just so happened that both of us ended up getting some points together. So, it worked out.”

Evason’s hope now has to be that the NHL’s Rookie of the Year last season has found his groove and can return to the form the Wild saw so often in 2020. That’s not a guy who is putting up a decent amount of points and having a good season. That’s a guy who is a clear superstar and can repeat what he did on Thursday over and over again.

  • The Wild game Thursday night marked the return of defenseman Ryan Suter to St. Paul. Suter, who along with Zach Parise, was bought out of his Wild contract last summer and then signed with Dallas, received a tribute video (as did Parise when he came back with the Islanders) in the first period. The 36-year-old logged the most ice time of any player on either team (23:58) and finished as a minus-2 with three shots on goal. The fact that Suter managed to extend his ice time came as a surprise to no one.
  • Suter’s replacement, Alex Goligoski, had his best game as a member of the Wild, scoring his first goal in a Minnesota uniform, adding two assists and finishing as a plus-4 in 19 minutes. Jared Spurgeon, who is Goligoski’s defensive partner after playing with Suter in recent seasons, was a plus-5 in 23:19.
  • It sounds as if Twins owner Jim Pohlad has real concerns about his baseball decision-makers trading center fielder Byron Buxton because of the potential fallout with fans. Here’s a suggestion: If the owner of the team doesn’t think it’s a good idea to trade an often-injured but potential superstar player, and that’s what Buxton is if he can stay healthy, it might be a good idea to tell Derek Falvey and Thad Levine to get a deal done with Buxton’s agent. Buxton will turn 28 on Dec. 18 and, right or wrong, trading him will signal that the Twins are going into a significant rebuild. That takes away the already shrinking incentive for fans to buy tickets, or find a way to try to watch the team on the not-as-available-as-it-should-be Bally’s Sports North.
  • Center Marco Rossi, the ninth-overall pick in the NHL draft by the Wild in 2020, is tied for fifth in the American Hockey League among rookies with 11 points (three goals) in nine games. His point total is tied for the team lead. Winger Matthew Boldy, Minnesota’s first-round selection in 2019, has been activated from the injured list and assigned to Iowa after suffering a fractured left ankle toward the end of the preseason. Boldy could play in Iowa’s game against Tucson on Friday. Boldy is likely to be one of the first players promoted to the NHL if a winger gets injured or is ineffective.
  • Todd Downing, an Eden Prairie native who had two stints with the Vikings, is in his first season as the offensive coordinator for the AFC South-leading Tennessee Titans (8-2). Downing joined the Titans as tight ends coach in 2019 after being on Mike Zimmer’s coaching staff for a season. Downing was promoted to OC when Arthur Smith left last January to become coach of the Atlanta Falcons. The Titans, who are without standout running back Derrick Henry because of a foot injury, are fifth in the NFL in points per game (27.8) and seventh in rushing yards (131.6).
  • Tom Pelissero of NFL Network has the 41-year-old Downing on his recently-released list of potential NFL head coaching candidates for 2022. Pelissero also has a category of “others to watch in coming years,” that includes Gophers coach P.J. Fleck. Fleck would have to make significant progress in his in-game coaching to get anywhere near the NFL.
  • Aaron Rodgers, coming off a rough outing in a win Sunday over Seattle, downplayed a toe issue that landed him on the injury report Wednesday, but you have to wonder how much that might impact the Packers quarterback on Sunday against the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium? That’s not only a potentially painful injury but also could impact his mechanics and ability to move.
  • Former Vikings quarterbacks currently holding starting jobs in the NFL include Teddy Bridgewater in Denver, Trevor Siemian in New Orleans and Taylor Heinicke in Washington. The latter two got the jobs because of injuries to Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
  • Among the curious things in the Timberwolves’ 107-97 victory over Sacramento on Wednesday at Target Center was the fact that Karl-Anthony Towns only had 12 shots from the field, putting him 12 behind Anthony Edwards’ total, three behind D’Angelo Russell and tied with veteran guard Patrick Beverley. Towns finished with 22 points, four behind Edwards’ team-leading 26, but it certainly seems that Wolves coach Chris Finch should be demanding the ball gets in Towns’ hands more so he can take shots. Towns had six turnovers, including a few on fastball-like passes he insisted on throwing toward teammates. Towns is third on the Wolves in shot attempts per game, averaging 16.1, while Edwards is at 20.8 and Russell is at 16.7. That 16.1 figure ranks a far-too-low 31st in the NBA and needs to be changed.
  • Having attended the Wild-Sharks game on Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center and the Wolves-Kings game on Wednesday at Target Center, it was difficult not to notice the amount of empty seats in both buildings. That’s nothing new for the Wolves, but it’s more surprising when it comes to the Wild. The NHL has long relied on in-arena attendance and suite sales as a big part of what drives its revenue and while the new U.S. TV contracts with ESPN and TNT have to help (the two networks are reportedly paying around $625 million per year on a seven-season deal) empty seats aren’t part of the plan in markets like Minnesota.