Russo: All-Star Kirill Kaprizov needs to find his superstar form out of the break to salvage the Wild season


Last year, it was Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid at the All-Star Game sending word to Kirill Kaprizov’s locker room that they wanted one of his sticks for their collections.

This year, it was Hart Trophy favorite Nathan MacKinnon and his Colorado Avalanche star teammate Cale Makar selecting their Central Division rival at No. 11 in the All-Star draft.

Kaprizov may be humble by nature, but he has to be starting to get a sense of how much the game’s greats respect him. And on Saturday, he’ll not only get to be on a team with MacKinnon and Makar, he’ll get to be teammates with a future Hall of Famer like Crosby.

For the third consecutive season, Kaprizov is representing the Wild in the All-Star festivities. In his nine professional seasons, he has taken part in eight All-Star games (five in the KHL). It probably would have been nine if the NHL had held an All-Star Game during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season. Remember, that was when Kaprizov was a near-unanimous choice for the Calder Trophy.

“It’s nice to go there, have fun,” Kaprizov said before leaving for Toronto.

Much to his glee, you can bet, he won’t have to take part in Friday night’s skills competition. McDavid helped the league revamp the event in an attempt to bring more excitement and frankly make it more watchable. There are only 12 players involved now, and while some might want more representation, that’s not the Wild star. Remember, last year, he didn’t want to participate in any event in part to a nagging injury. He was assigned to the fastest skater competition, but after some horse trading on the bus on the way to the arena in South Florida, got former Wild teammate Kevin Fiala to take his place.

GO DEEPER

How did Kirill Kaprizov get out of fastest skater? Inside the Wild star’s All-Star Weekend

Kaprizov also has scored zero points in his two NHL All-Star Games, with a meh showing in his first game and looking like he wasn’t putting in much effort during the three-on-three event last year. Wild boss Bill Guerin felt compelled to come to Kaprizov’s defense, telling The Athletic, “(Kaprizov) wanted to be there and was proud to represent the Wild and our fan base. But, look, you need rest, too. Most of these guys in the All-Star Game are the ones that lay it all on the line, and they need rest.”

For Kaprizov and lot of star players, the All-Star Weekend is more about the fun off the ice and reuniting with friends he doesn’t get to see a lot during the season.

Two years ago, he comically impersonated Alex Ovechkin in the skills competition right down to the tinted visor and shooting righty.

Last year, he vacationed with Igor Shesterkin and Ilya Sorokin, his former KHL teammate in Moscow, in Florida during the bye week in advance of All-Star weekend and “babysat” Ovechkin’s kids. This year, he said he was excited to hang with Shesterkin, Nikita Kucherov and Sergei Bobrovsky.

“Last year was more Russian guys at the All-Star Game,” Kaprizov said. “We have fun.”

Kaprizov, like most of his vacationing teammates, will return to the Twin Cities on Sunday for practices Monday and Tuesday before resuming the season in Chicago on Wednesday. The Wild, seven points back of a playoff spot with 33 games left, dropped their final two games before the break.

Kaprizov wasn’t at his best in the three-game homestand going into the break — after a tremendous run during the middle of December and in recent road games at Florida and Carolina in which he carried the Wild. He was a big reason for many of the wins before he sustained an upper-body injury in Winnipeg on Dec. 30.

He missed seven games, the Wild crumbled in his absence and haven’t recovered.

Six consecutive losses inside the division haven’t helped.

“It’s like (the Nashville loss),” Kaprizov said. “If we won, (we’d be) close to Nashville. Now it’s (seven) points. Especially now for us, (these are) big games against division teams, I think. … We need to focus on these games and try to take more points, win more games, come back up in the standings.”

In 23 games under John Hynes, Kaprizov has 13 goals and 27 points, is plus-15 and has 69 shots. That’s a 46-goal and 96-point pace.

But 11 of those goals, 20 of those points and 45 of those shots have come in the past 13 games (a 69-goal, 126-point pace), so the production wasn’t there in Hynes’ first 10 games, similar to his slow start this season under Dean Evason (six goals in 19 games).

If the Wild are going to rally and make a real surge toward the playoffs, they’re going to need this latest version of Kaprizov to show up on a consistent basis.

After back-to-back 40-goal seasons, including a franchise-record 108 points two years ago, this is the player the Wild have grown to expect.

“You can see the difference-maker he is in the game,” Hynes said. “I’ve been impressed with him. He’s a coachable player. We’ve had a couple of meetings and he wants feedback. And I like his mind for the game. You can show him some things and he’s receptive to certain things and his feedback is good. Practices well. He’s always tuned in.

“And, to me, he’s such a highly talented player, but what sticks out to me probably the most is just his competitiveness. Like he’s willing to compete for pucks. He’s got a second effort to his game. He plays in the hard areas. He’s not a perimeter skill player. He’s fun to coach.”

You can see why MacKinnon snagged Kaprizov for his All-Star team.

If the Wild do miss the playoffs, they will no doubt look back to those seven games Kaprizov missed as a giant reason why. After their win over Detroit on Dec. 27, the Wild had the eighth-best points percentage in the West. So, they were effectively in a playoff spot.

Kaprizov was playing at his very best, and then suddenly without him, the team went … kaput. The Wild undid all they had achieved by going 11-3 in Hynes’ first 14 games.

“Particularly with Kirill, he’s a tough guy to lose for a number of reasons,” Hynes said. “Like he’s a sparkplug for the team. He’s an offensive chance generator. He’s a guy that when he’s in the lineup it helps with team belief and things like that. So, yeah, that stretch was tough because we played some big games against some really good teams. But now he’s back and hopefully he can stay healthy. … Everybody gets a break and then we gotta get back to it and have a pretty good push.”

Kaprizov knows his injury came at an inopportune time. He was joined by a half-dozen other players going down, including key pieces like Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Filip Gustavsson, Mats Zuccarello and Marcus Foligno.

But, Kaprizov said, “I can do nothing with this. It happens sometimes. It’s always not easy when you come back, start to play better, better, and boom … injury. It’s OK now. I don’t try to think about this. Just try to play better.”

In the meantime, Kaprizov was all smiles during Thursday’s All-Star draft.

And being picked 11th wasn’t too shabby.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Drunk drafting: How the 2015 NHL All-Stars conspired to deny Alex Ovechkin a new car

Kaprizov recalled the 2015 draft, when countryman Ovechkin tried to be last so he could win a Honda Accord.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Filip Forsberg ended up being the final two selections and got cars for their trouble.

Kaprizov joked that maybe he could be picked last so he could get a car, too.

When told Forsberg actually sold the car he won, Kaprizov laughed at the idea: “Easy money.”

(Top photo: Justin Berl / Getty Images)





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