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It’s All Smiles for Kirill Kaprizov and the Wild

The 24-year-old NHL phenom signed a five-year, $45 million deal to become the face of the franchise last month. Can the good vibes translate to playoff success?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Late last month, 50-year-old Minnesota Wild general manager (and former NHL All-Star) Bill Guerin sat at a press conference next to 24-year-old Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov, both of them extra buoyant as they discussed some big news. After several years’ worth of international back-and-forth between the franchise and the Russian athlete, Minnesota had signed Kaprizov to a new five-year, $45 million deal that was finalized in Miami’s South Beach near the end of September. “Kirill and I had a chance to look across the table at each other,” Guerin told reporters of the process, which came together agonizingly slow and then merrily fast and culminated in the richest contract in NHL history for a player entering his second season in the salary cap era. Guerin described the face he’d seen looking back at him: smiling pretty much the whole time, he said. And watching Kaprizov during the press conference, that wasn’t too hard to imagine.

Kaprizov, who has a short, stocky build and a lion’s mane of thick hair and who has played in only one pandemic-shortened NHL season, answered the media’s questions through a translator, occasionally giving direct responses in his own combination of English and physical gestures. When asked if he felt a lot of pressure going into this season, considering that he is now the Wild’s highest-paid player, he said: “Nonono, it’s not pressure.” Signing the new contract, Kaprizov explained, pantomiming the act of signing with his hand, had made so many of the distractions on his mind fall away.

His palpable air of relief was ostensibly relatable to some Wild fans who had followed, with varying ratios of restlessness to chagrin, the will-they-or-won’t-they drama between Kaprizov and the team ever since Minnesota took a flyer on the kid (“What about your guy, the little Russian guy?” one former Minnesota executive remembered then-GM Chuck Fletcher suggesting) in the fifth round of the NHL draft in 2015. “Now, I just wanna play,” Kaprizov said. “It’s like”—here he paused and gave an exaggerated, cleansing, full-body exhale, one that would please any yoga teacher, and then he swept his hands in front of him as if clearing off a workspace to prepare for a brainstorm—“just hockey.”

Kaprizov may have been in the NHL for only a short while, but for him “just hockey” has long equated to major success. In his native Russia, where Kaprizov grew up in a small coal-mining town in southwestern Siberia, he distinguished himself enough to be drafted first overall in 2014 into the Kontinental Hockey League, where at one point he averaged nearly a point a game despite being a teenager among men. By age 22, he was the youngest KHL player to reach 100 goals in a career.

In 2018, the 5-foot-9 phenom scored the gold medal–winning goal in overtime for Russia at the Pyeongchang Olympics. (Sure, NHL players weren’t competing, but no one was more aware of that than Kaprizov himself: “What could I do about it? It wasn’t my fault,” he said in an interview in 2018. “I really want to play against Canada,” he added. “I want to have a look at Connor McDavid.”) In 2020, five years after the Wild had acquired his rights in the draft, Kaprizov finally signed with the team.

He spoke almost no English when he arrived in Minnesota. (According to a documentary episode put together by the team, most of what Kaprizov knew of the region came from an American KHL teammate, Ryan Stoa, who had said to him: “Whoa, Minnesota! I’m from Minnesota!”) Kaprizov would ultimately make his NHL debut in January 2021, at the start of the league’s 56-game season. On the road in Los Angeles, he called a team executive in a panic for some pregame assistance tying his tie, and then he went out and contributed two assists and a game-winning overtime goal in his first NHL appearance. Back in Minnesota, fans called him “Kirill the Thrill.”

He maintained a franchise-record-breaking pace throughout the season: In the last month alone, he scored 11 goals and added six assists. He played with a delightful confidence, frequently carrying the puck into the zone or chasing the other team’s dump-ins, never being afraid to try something a little dipsy-doodle. In the race for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the league’s best first-year player, he received 99 out of 100 first-place votes. His acceptance speech was prerecorded; during the actual awards, he was off on a remote fishing trip in Siberia.

In the jovial press conference with Guerin a few weeks ago, Kaprizov recalled how he and his family eventually celebrated the Calder back in Russia by cheersing with beers. He dispelled the rumors that had swirled during the negotiation process that he was on the verge of leaving the NHL altogether to return to the KHL, where a reported one-year deal for $10 million awaited. “No chance,” Kaprizov said, as Guerin laughed beside him. “You shouldn’t answer that,” the GM chirped. “You’re going to blow it for the next contract negotiation.” It was good that Guerin could joke about this, because just a week earlier he had been a bit more emo. “I will say this, we are at a point where we feel we’re being extremely fair,” he told The Athletic in a tone described as “exasperated-sounding” on September 13. “How far apart are we? Not very, but sometimes those can be the things that take a while.”

It had been something of a grueling offseason for Guerin. The Wild fell in seven games to Las Vegas in the first round of the playoffs, the fifth time since 2015 that the team failed to advance past their opening postseason matchup. In July the team chose to buy out the contracts of forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, cutting ties with two players that had, for better and worse, defined the organization for most of the past decade, ever since they signed twin 13-year, $98-million deals in the heady days of 2012. The move gave the Wild a little extra flexibility and also signaled a clear pivot toward a new future. Now, with Kaprizov signed, that future has become far smilier.

The Wild begin their NHL season on Friday, and thus far during the preseason, Kaprizov has demonstrated a return to form—even if, joked coach Dean Evason to The Athletic’s Michael Russo, that form could be described as “chunky.” Before the deal was hashed out, Kaprizov got vaccinated and flew from Russia to Florida in order to preemptively begin his required quarantine, a good-faith effort that enabled him to get up to speed immediately rather than be set back for what could have been weeks. (While the Florida trip was meant to be kept secret, Guerin said his sources had hipped him to it almost immediately.)

Now, playing on a creative and intriguing first line with Mats Zuccarello—another diminutive wizard—and the also-recently-resigned 24-year-old Joel Eriksson Ek, Kaprizov continues to demonstrate why he was worth the wait. In his press conference a few weeks ago, he said that while he’s comprehending the English language way better than he did even a year ago, there’s still plenty that he’d like to be able to say.

“I understand better, better,” Kaprizov said, twirling his finger up near his head to convey the process of wheels turning in his mind, but still sometimes “can’t say what I want to.” On the flight from Miami to Minnesota after signing the new deal, Guerin said, Kaprizov spoke English the whole time, with only occasional visits to Google Translate required. But if Kaprizov’s past is any indication, his contributions to the Wild this season won’t leave much that needs interpretation. On the ice, Kaprizov knows how to say it all.