Kirill Kaprizov was on the ice Thursday morning at Tria Rink in St. Paul for the first practice of Wild training camp, participation that shouldn’t have been notable.
The star forward has played only one season of a plump five-year, $45 million contract, and his next release is highly anticipated after his previous record-breaking performance.
But Kaprizov’s ability to rejoin the Wild was questioned over the summer as uncertainty increased for Russian NHLers while the war in Ukraine continued, ambiguity that was eventually cleared up when the 25-year-old returned to Minnesota in August.
“We’re just glad that he’s here,” General Manager Bill Guerin said. “We’re glad that he’s safe and healthy and ready to go, and he’s excited.
“That’s behind us.”
Speculation about Kaprizov’s whereabouts and whether he could travel to the United States intensified in July leading up to the NHL draft after a report out of Russia said Kaprizov came to the US in the aftermath of Philadelphia prospect Ivan Fedotov getting taken to a military base in Russia because his name was linked to fraudulent military identification.
At the time, Guerin denied that report, telling reporters Kaprizov was in Russia with friends and family and “doing fine.” But Kaprizov’s status remained unclear until he arrived back in the Twin Cities on Aug. 2. Kaprizov needed a work visa, and Guerin said the Wild had “some very, very special people” helping secure that.
“It was more difficult than we thought it was gonna be,” Guerin said. “We just had some issues getting him back in the US We did get help from some friends in Washington DC, and we’re extremely grateful for that.
“Kirill was really patient. Did exactly what he had to do. It was just a really tough time for him.”
With his linemate Mats Zuccarello by his side, Kaprizov was asked after practice Thursday about the situation, but Zuccarello was first to respond, “We’re not going to talk about that. We’d only like hockey questions.”
Kaprizov, however, did mention through an interpreter that he wasn’t worried about making it back for the season before eventually saying, “If we could just keep the questions to hockey-related topics at this time, I think that’d be best .”
While Guerin said he didn’t believe Kaprizov was in a position that was “life-threatening or anything like that,” he did acknowledge the Wild didn’t know about Kaprizov’s safety initially. Guerin said he wasn’t sure if this would remain an issue for Kaprizov.
“As long as he’s here, he’s fine and things are good,” Guerin said. “Just let him focus on hockey.”
Based on what Kaprizov has shown so far, the hockey should be captivating.
After getting crowned the NHL’s top rookie following his debut season with the Wild, Kaprizov was even more impressive in his encore: 47 goals, 61 assists and 108 points, all team records and production that made him the Wild’s first 100-point player and a top-five scorer in the league. He even received some MVP consideration, finishing seventh in voting for the Hart Trophy; never more did he look the part than in the playoffs when he had seven goals in six games against Central Division rival St. Louis.
His line with Zuccarello and Ryan Hartman, who are also coming off their best seasons with the Wild, was reunited at camp, and the trio figures to be key in the Wild’s pursuit to fix the glitch that saw the most successful regular season in franchise history fizzle into yet another first-round exit. Not since 2015 has the team advanced.
“Every season, I want to be better and better all the time,” Kaprizov said through an interpreter, “like team results and myself.”
What’s better than 100 points?
“Two hundred,” Zuccarello said.
The quip elicited laughs, but the idea that Kaprizov and everyone else who had career years can avoid becoming a one-hit wonder is tangible to the Wild.
“The challenge has been issued,” Guerin said. “We need you to do it again. Let that be the standard for your game because if you do it once, you can do it again.”
When it comes to Kaprizov, another one-up might be more realistic.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the most from Kirill,” Guerin said. “He’s a special player.”