Kirill Kaprizov Is The Scourge Of The Shootout
1:50 PM EST on December 5, 2022
Can I interest you in some cool NHL shootout goals? I bet I can. Though it's faded into a fairly rote tiebreaker since its introduction in 2005, the shootout remains a showcase for some of the game's quickest and most creative offensive stars, who get all the time and space they could ever need to craft a lethal surprise for opposing goaltenders. And nobody's currently doing it better than Minnesota's Kirill Kaprizov, who leads all skaters with four successful shootout attempts and hasn't missed yet this year.
Coming to the Wild from the KHL at the start of the 2020–21 season, the 25-year-old winger has managed to inject one of the league's most perennially average franchises with a little bit of magic nearly every night. He's got 16 goals and 16 assists through his first 24 games this year, marking a smooth start as he attempts to top last year's 47 and 61 even after his summer was darkened by fears that he might end up trapped in Russia amid reports that he tried to evade mandatory military service. And this weekend, as the Wild won back-to-back games via the shootout, Kaprizov continued to show just how much value he brings to the Wild both during the run of play and when he's got the goalie to himself.
In a Saturday matinee against the Ducks, both sides delivered entertaining offensive performances, with the Wild racking up 49 shots on goal while swarming John Gibson in net. The score was nevertheless 4-3, Anaheim, in the game's final regulation minutes, but Kaprizov muscled free in the slot and heroically finished a one-timer even while losing his balance.
In the shootout, after the Ducks' young star Trevor Zegras slow-played a success against Filip Gustavsson, a speedier Kaprizov deployed a convincing backhand fake before moving to his forehand and catching Gibson flat-footed.
Sunday's game against the Stars was also defined by offense, with each team scoring five goals in regulation. But instead of closing the scoring, this time Kaprizov opened it, finding daylight for a wrister on a tight angle near the goal line to give the Wild a triumphant power play. In the shootout, though goaltender Scott Wedgewood was no doubt prepared for another backhand fake, Kaprizov still executed that move with enough skill to get the puck over the goalie's right shoulder and into the net.
And lest you think he's a one-trick pony, against Chicago and San Jose in shootouts earlier this year, Kaprizov's gone to the backhand and immediately fired, catching the netminders both five-hole and over the glove. There just seems to be no limit to what he can do out there. He can score on redirects after planting himself near the crease. He can score by staying cool amid chaotic defense. He can score by maneuvering the puck through tight spaces. He can score when the wide-open ice becomes a blank canvas. He can score at any tempo and in any situation. He plays with the elegance of a finesse scorer, but without the frailty that description can imply. He skates with the intensity of a blender without a lid, like he's trying to do everything for the Wild, and maybe he can.
“It’s the same work ethic every single night with this guy. Like every single night he works like that,” his coach, Dean Evason, said after a Thursday win over the Oilers where Kirill picked up three points. “Sometimes, he’s going to hit the wall because he’s playing 20 minutes. … We understand that. But he drives himself and drives himself and wants to lead the team by his work ethic.”
For the Wild, winners of six out of their last seven after a middling start, having a forward as consistent, versatile, and goddang talented as Kaprizov is a privilege that only a lucky few franchises can enjoy at any given time. Though they possess neither marquee free agent signings nor the can't-miss prospects that arrive when you don't make the playoffs, they've scraped together enough good pieces to put themselves in contention. The ghosts of the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter contracts still haunt their payroll, but as far as the actual players still in uniform go they've gotten good value for their money. Mats Zuccarello is still productive at age 35. Skilled winger Matt Boldy, at just 21, is getting crafty with his stick and having an encouraging start to his second season. And other guys not named some variation of Matthew are making some good plays, too.
But it's Kaprizov who has elevated them to a team worth paying attention to. He needs a secondary star, and he needs more reliable goaltending, but his nightly contributions have singlehandedly pulled the Wild a good few paces away from the specter of irrelevance. His style of play is so enthralling and so game-changing that, by the time he becomes a free agent in 2026, he could already be a Minnesota legend. But only if they finally do something in the playoffs.