Bruce Boudreau remembers the hype surrounding Kirill Kaprizov. Though the 24-year-old Russian existed more in the abstract during Boudreau’s tenure in Minnesota, the former Wild coach knew the kid was something special.
Every single general manager during Boudreau’s time with the franchise — Chuck Fletcher, then Paul Fenton, then Bill Guerin — flew to Kaprizov’s native Russia to meet him in person.
You don’t do that for some middle-of-the-road prospect.
“They all came back saying the same thing, ‘This guy was going to be great,’ ” Boudreau recalled. “As coaches, we always think the hype is overblown. It clearly wasn’t here. He turned out to be exactly what everybody said he would be. That’s an exciting thing for the people of Minnesota.”
As the Wild prepare for the first round the NHL playoffs, starting Sunday in Las Vegas, there is a palpable excitement among hockey fans. After more than 20 years of waiting, the Wild finally have a star in the making, and everyone is starting to take notice.
Never mind that Kaprizov has only played against teams in the West Coast division during this year’s condensed 56-game schedule. He’ already has rewritten the Wild record books this season with 27 goals and 24 assists, and according to NBC analyst Pierre McGuire, even casual observers know who Dolla Bill Kirill is at this point.
“Everybody knows how good he is,” McGuire said. “The fact he’s playing in multiple time zones also helps a lot. He’s playing the Central time zone. He’s playing in the Mountain time zone. He’s playing in the Pacific time zone. He’s just getting exposed to more people.”
Even if fans haven’t been able to watch Kaprizov in person or on television, they haven’t had to go far to find highlights of him on ice. He has been a mainstay on the NHL’s Twitter account with a different GIF popping after almost every game. He also has forced NHL Network to pay closer attention to the Wild on a nightly basis.
That hasn’t always been the case, as NHL Network host Jamie Hersch can attest. She hails from the Twin Cities and knows firsthand that the Wild have long been viewed as a boring team on the national stage.
“Working in New York like I do, not everyone thinks about the Wild,” Hersch said with a laugh. “It’s been fun to go to work this season and have everyone asking me about Kirill Kaprizov. It used to be that nobody really asked me about the Wild. Now everyone is like, ‘Hey Jamie, they are actually a really fun team to watch.’ ”
That change in perception has directly impacted Hersch’s work. She hosts the nightly highlights show, On The Fly, and in the past found herself having to push for Wild highlights to move up in the broadcast. That’s no longer an issue with Kaprizov taking the league by storm.
“I remember the Wild used to get lost in the C Block, which is basically the middle of the show, because they were middle of the road with no flashy players,” Hersch said. “He’s made them headline material. We’ave had the Wild in the A Block more times this year, I think, than my previous six seasons at NHL Network combined.”
There have countless snapshot moments from Kaprizov throughout his rookie season. He scored the game-winner in overtime of his NHL debut. He skated literal circles around the entire Colorado team, circling the Avalanche goal like an animal hunting its prey. He seems to have run away with the Calder Trophy, with Dallas Stars rookie Jason Robertson a distant second place.
All the while Kaprizov still continues to dazzle on a nightly basis.
“Look, I’m not saying he’s Connor McDavid (of the Edmonton Oilers),” McGuire said. “But the thing that separates Connor McDavid from a lot of players is his feet move fast, his hands move fast, and his brain can keep up. And Kirill Kaprizov is very similar in that his feet move fast, his hands move fast, and his brain can keep up.
“There are a lot of players that have the feet and the hands and don’t have the brain to keep up. Or they have the hands and the brain and they don’t have the feet. Or they have the feet and the brain and they don’t have the hands. The elite players have a combination of those things, and Kirill Kaprizov clearly has that.”
That said, it’s not only Kaprizov’s immense skill with the puck that makes him a generational talent. Minnesota hockey legend Lou Nanne says the way Kaprizov competes away from the puck is equally as impressive.
“He’s consistently winning these board battles,” Nanne said. “You don’t expect that because of his size. He’s not 6-foot-4. He’s not even 6-foot-2. He might be 5-foot-10 in high heels. He doesn’t have the same leverage as some of those bigger guys, yet he always seems to come away with the puck. Then obviously, there’s not many guys that can create the type of goals this kid can create. He’s not going to stop doing that. He’s just going to keep getting better.”
It’s safe to say Kaprizov has become an overnight celebrity in the Twin Cities. You can’t walk into a local Target store without seeing a Dolla Bill Kirill shirt, and his No. 97 jersey is already among the most prominent among fans in the stands at the Xcel Energy Center.
“He’s the type of player that can change a franchise,” Hersch said. “We talk about that all the time with top draft picks. It’s a completely different thing to see a guy actually live up to the hype and embrace that spotlight. He reminds me of a Sidney Crosby or an Alex Ovechkin or a Connor McDavid. Those guys relish being in the spotlight and take it as a personal challenge. He’s done that. He’s already the face of the franchise.”
Maybe the scariest thing for the rest of the league is it looks like Kaprizov is only getting started.
“Everybody knows who Kirill Kaprizov is,” Boudreau said. “Every fan that watches hockey can’t wait for Minnesota to come into their building next year because of him. He’s the real deal. I believe for the next 10 years-plus Minnesota is going to have a real superstar. And usually, Stanley Cups follow superstars.”