Wild Took a “Flyer” on Kirill Kaprizov
Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold recently told Sports Headliners the story of how luck impacted the drafting of Kirill Kaprizov in 2015. The rookie sensation is a finalist for the 2021 NHL Calder Memorial Trophy honoring the league’s best first-year player and he has the potential to become the most decorated performer in Wild franchise history.
Six years ago Chuck Fletcher was the Wild’s GM and his scout in western Russian couldn’t get out of the region on a flight because of smoky skies. With planes neither going out nor coming in, the scout had time to attend local games he wouldn’t have otherwise watched. Leipold said that’s when the scout saw Kaprizov, while other NHL teams didn’t. Although the Wild never scouted him again in person the franchise decided to take a “flyer” on the young forward in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft.
“We would have liked to have had him come on our team a couple of years earlier but that didn’t work out that way,” Leipold said during a phone interview. “We’re so excited about his future and the things that he can do for our team and our market.”
The 24-year-old Kaprizov captivated the State of Hockey this year with his offensive skill set and electric play, providing Minnesota with long sought scoring while energizing a jaded fan base in search of a hero. He led the Wild and NHL rookies with 51 points in 55 games last season. The 5-foot-11, 201-pound forward also led the team and league rookies in goals, even-strength goals (19), power-play goals (8) and shots on goal (157).
Leipold owned the Nashville Predators prior to buying the Wild franchise. In 23 years of ownership this is the most excited he’s been about a player. “I’ve never seen a player with that kind of vision,” Leipold said.
Kaprizov has impressed with his personality, too. He laughs and smiles a lot, and despite his considerable physical talents is humble. “We’ve got a great kid here,” Leipold said. “I think he’s going to be able to handle the stardom that he is going to get. Our objective is to sign him as long as we can.”
By NHL policy Kaprizov is entitled to a new contract this offseason, although he can’t go to another team like two other forwards of importance to Minnesota, Kevin Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek. Those two are official NHL restricted free agents, with the Wild unlikely to lose control of them.
“There’s no way that we aren’t going to get them (all three players) signed,” Leipold said. “I think the question is how long will the term be. We’re shooting for the longer the better. We’d like to lock these guys in.”
The Wild had an impressive regular season record going 35-16-5 and although the club had another first round exit from the playoffs, there is a vision about the franchise’s future that sees this team as special. “I really like our position,” Leipold said. “I’ve never felt as positive about any team moving forward as I do about this one.”
Leipold looks at his team and is enthusiastic about the mix of young and veteran players. That group includes 33-year-old goalie Cam Talbot who helped turn around the team after GM Bill Guerin added him to the roster as a free agent last October.
The club’s No. 1 priority during the offseason will be re-signing the three players referenced above but after that the to-do list will include looking for a proven center. Other than the goalie position, NHL teams covet a terrific center. “I say that’s probably pretty high on the shopping list that Billy has, but they don’t come easily and they don’t come cheap,” Leipold said.
It might require the Wild giving up a key player like Fiala to bring a high profile center to Minnesota. That could make passionate Wild fans wince but it’s also the cost of doing business.
Because of the pandemic and restrictions on fans attending games, NHL teams have lost a lot of money. Leipold declined to say how much red ink his franchise has absorbed but emphasized it’s a mega number. Still his position is that the Wild will“look at all the options, whatever it takes to make us a better team.”
The financial losses are mitigated by the $20 million expansion fee that each NHL team is receiving from Seattle. What will be painful, though, is giving up a quality player in the expansion draft. “They’re gonna take a player and they’re gonna get a great player because we are deep,” Leipold said.
Leipold wouldn’t speculate who the Wild will leave unprotected in the expansion draft. Could it be a talent like defenseman Matt Dumba? “Matt Dumba is a great player,” Leipold said. “He’s got a cannon of a shot. We’d like to keep him on our team if we could.”
It will be interesting to see who will be on the roster next season, with a lot of talk about 36-year-old forward Zach Parise. He wasn’t allowed to suit up for three playoff games (a healthy scratch). Leipold is taking a diplomatic approach about the aging star who he signed in 2012 to a 13-year $98 million deal. “I love Zach. I am not going to get into Zach. His work ethic is incredible. I am a Zach fan, but Billy will deicide what players are on the team and (coach) Dean (Evason) decides who plays. …”
The Wild roster last season could well have included center Marco Rossi who was chosen as the ninth player in the first round of the 2020 NHL Draft. Instead the talented Rossi was hit hard by COVID and sidelined. “We knew that he was one of the few players in the draft last year that would have been ready to play this year,” Leipold said.
Rossi’s playmaking could mean he is the Wild’s center of the future but first he faces recovery from COVID. He needs to build strength and stamina, but is known for his work ethic. “We think that will happen,” Leipold said. “It won’t be easy but he’ll make it happen.”
In Evason’s first full season as coach, he proved he deserved the job. Leipold hired Guerin in 2019 and he’s brought changes that turned the team in a better direction including making Evason coach. The pandemic has prevented Leipold from getting to know Evason. “(But) as long as he (Guerin) tells me he’s happy with Dean, I don’t need to pull the onion back anymore. If he’s happy I am happy. And I am happy with Billy so I think I am in a very fortunate situation.”