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A star is born: Kaprizov looks the part early in his NHL career

Rookie forward leads the team in scoring but is going about it the right way

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe / Wild.com

Kirill Kaprizov is adept at scoring goals. He sees the game as well as some of the NHL's best playmaking forwards. By all accounts, language barrier be damned, he's already turned himself into a locker room favorite with teammates. 

But according to nearly every Wild player and coach, to a man, what makes the Wild rookie forward so good is a quality that it seems every superstar player in the NHL seems to have: he works just as hard in practice as he does in games. 

Time will tell if Kaprizov will reach the heights of "superstar" in the world's best league, but 20 games into his NHL career, Kaprizov is on a path few in Wild history have been on. 

A path to being a night-in, night-out difference maker and someone who can take over a game at will. 

"Honestly, the first practice I saw him skate, I knew he was something special," said Wild forward Nick Bjugstad. "I hadn't seen him play beforehand, so I couldn't anticipate how it was going to go. But when I saw him in the first practice, I definitely saw a lot there just from his compete level.

"Obviously the skill, that's apparent, but for a skill guy like that, he works and digs and makes it hard in the corners. We kind of anticipated this. He's a level-headed kid and just a good, overall kid. So I think he's gonna have a great career and he's gonna help us a lot here."

Video: Best highlights of Kirill Kaprizov's season thus far

Kaprizov has been one of the Wild's most impactful forwards right from the drop of the puck this season. In the first game of the year in Los Angeles, he scored the game-winning goal in overtime. 

Two nights later, he fed Marcus Johansson for a one-timer that also won the game in overtime. 

Through 20 games, Kaprizov leads the Wild with 17 points, a number that leads all rookies in the League. He's tied for third with six goals and second with 11 assists. 

But more than statistics, Kaprizov has met the eye test. 

"Honestly from the first game we saw that. Just his ability to escape from people and his confidence to try to make plays," said Wild coach Dean Evason. "We talked before about him playing pro hockey and he's played against men for awhile now. It wasn't a shock to him to get pushed on, leaned on by men, and heavier men. His separation from people is clearly special. Combine that with his attitude, his team-first mentality, it's exciting for us as an organization."

All of this despite navigating the most unusual season in recent memory. Despite lockdowns and shutdowns away from the rink, Kaprizov has been able to adjust to life in the United States. He's managed to integrate himself into a locker room with new teammates. And he's been able to play quality, consistent hockey despite some weird stops and starts to the season so far.

Video: Checking in with Kirill Kaprizov

"The transition has [gone] very well. Coming in, it's very important for players to play games and not just practice and obviously there's a big hiatus before the season and then with the COVID break as well," Kaprizov said through an interpreter. "But overall, I think the team's gotten into a good rhythm and myself personally, I've also gotten into to a pretty good rhythm."

It helped that it started early.

His success in that first series in Los Angeles really helped set the table for him as an NHLer. 

Video: MIN@LAK: Kaprizov wins it in OT with first goal

"It's obviously very important for me and for any hockey player to make sure you get that confidence, that first goal and to just make sure you fit in and you belong here," Kaprizov said. "But after that you kind of get situated and you really don't think about it. You just play the game and you can play as hard as you can and you really don't think about it after that."

Now, nearly two months into his rookie season, it's clear that Kaprizov does indeed belong, and that the Wild's confidence that he'd arrive and be an impactful player has proven true.

Video: LAK@MIN: Kaprizov nets wraparound to open scoring

"He's an unbelievable player. He does it every night on a consistent basis and he's very strong. He's not just skilled and he can score goals and make plays but it's the work ethic," said Wild forward Kevin Fiala. "You see when he loses the puck, he gets it back. He does all the little things right now to make a skilled player. Just everything works. He just has to keep going. We are glad to have him."

Kaprizov is quick to credit his teammates for making him feel at home in the Twin Cities and at the rink. He's spent time at the homes of several players over the course of the winter, including Jared Spurgeon, Ryan Suter and Marcus Foligno. He watched the World Junior Championships with Matt Dumba. 

Those experiences have helped soothe any bits of homesickness Kaprizov may have had early on, but it's also helped him polish his English skills. 

Wild GM Bill Guerin has always hinted that Kaprizov has had a better grasp of the language than maybe he lets on, but even Kaprizov admitted earlier this week that he is starting to understand virtually everything that is said around him. 

"There's been a ton of progress since we've last spoken since I've gotten here. I get almost everything that's told to me and any communication with the coach and teammates, it seems to be getting along very well," Kaprizov said. "Every once in a while there will be a word or two I don't understand, but it seems every conversation I totally get. I'm not running into too many situations where I'm not getting anything."

Kaprizov did get a kick out of the 'Dollar Dollar Bill Kirill' t-shirts made and worn by teammates. It's only a small part of the attention he's received since arriving in Minnesota, but it was something he said he's not used to just yet.

Tweet from @mnwild: we don���t want to be dramatic...but this is the most perfect shirt we have ever seen. pic.twitter.com/Y5uMZhZ5Yq

"Of course I thought it was very cool. It was unexpected," Kaprizov said. "I heard some of the guys were talking about potentially making a shirt and I walked in the locker room and everyone was wearing them. Of course it makes you feel good and a little shy even. I liked it. It was very cool."

On the ice, Kaprizov admits that he is occasionally too eager to pass the puck. Especially for a player with his shooting skill, trying to score more goals is something he says has been told to him for years. 

"For me personally, I think there's a balance between shooting and passing. And at the end of the day, I just try to make the right play on the ice," Kaprizov said. "But I have been told in the past by my father and by previous coaches to shoot a little bit more and I personally, I would like to try and shoot a little more. Sometimes I can make an extra pass. But I give you my word, I'll try and shoot more so I can score more goals."

Video: MIN@SJS: Kaprizov, teammates combine for slick goal

Lo and behold, in his first game after making that comment, he tied a season high with five shots on goal Wednesday against the Vegas Golden Knights. And if not for a supreme effort in goal by the Knights' Marc-Andre Fleury, Kaprizov might have had at least another goal or two on his ledger. 

But if that's the only complaint Wild fans have of Kaprizov, that's not bad for a 23-year-old still getting his feet wet in the NHL. 

As good as the first couple months have been, there certainly seems to be even brighter days ahead as he continues to get more experience, learn more about his opponents and gets more comfortable in his surroundings. 

"We [knew] as an organization that we were getting a special player. There was no secret there. So we were excited to see him play," Evason said. "We've all watched tape on him and watched his abilities last year. He hasn't disappointed and, yes he's put up numbers, but if you watch him on a day-to-day basis with his teammates and how he is team-first, how he's as excited about somebody else scoring a goal or somebody else making a play as he is, that's what really resonates with us and with his teammates as well."

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