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Kirill Kaprizov Needs A Friend

Kirill Kaprizov
David Berding/Getty Images

It's easy to feel good about your team's chances when Kirill Kaprizov is playing over 20 minutes a night. Time and again over the last few weeks, the Minnesota Wild's star left winger has contributed goals in big moments. On Jan. 19 versus the Hurricanes, he opened the scoring midway through the game by taking advantage of some extra space on the power play, descending on a loose rebound like Flaco the owl on a Central Park rat. Five days later against the Lightning, he showed some razor-sharp reflexes on a deflection off the goalie's pads to give the Wild a 2-1 lead. Eleven days ago at Arizona State, he again opened the scoring in the second by finishing a one-timer off a turnover and subsequent fast break. He cut into a 2-0 deficit against Vegas a few days later, then tied the Panthers 1-1 with a brilliant combo of skating finesse and shooting accuracy. And on Wednesday against Colorado, he did this in the third period to bring the game within 3-2.

There's a small problem, though: The Wild lost every single one of those games. Even as the boyish virtuoso who's never cold does his best to replicate last year's 47-goal thunderbolt, Minnesota has slipped down the standings with an ugly month where they've won just three of their last 11, with none of those victories coming in regulation. Before this slump, they appeared to be a reliably good if unspectacular playoff-bound group—you know, the classic Wild. Now, they're hanging perilously on the very edge of the wild card, and time is running out to come up with a fix.

The Wild's Kaprizov Era has been as much about two players who aren't in Minnesota anymore as it's been about Kirill. Because of the dead cap money they have tied up in the Bonillaesque contracts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild have continued to be a perennial first-round loser as they've been forced to dull the supporting cast around this meteoric talent. After the franchise's best regular season ever last year, followed by another early exit at the hands of the Blues, a cap crunch led the Wild to let go of their second-most productive forward, Kevin Fiala, and that austerity won't be a one-time thing. They'll still be dinged a combined $15 million annually for Parise and Suter until the 2025 offseason.

In the first half of this year, the Wild built a respectable record thanks to the emergence of young Filip Gustavsson as a superior shot-stopper to presumed number-one Marc-Andre Fleury. But with the exception of Kaprizov, the flaws in the forward group over the past month have overwhelmed everything else. In addition to losing Fiala, Minnesota has also been for all intents and purposes without Ryan Hartman, who scored 34 in an out-of-nowhere 2021–22 season but has failed to come near that as he's battled injury. Hotshot sophomore Matt Boldy is still developing and is off his points pace from last year, Mats Zuccarello isn't going to show any new tricks at age 35, and Joel Eriksson Ek is a steady presence but has nothing to blow your mind unless you've never seen Swedish last names before.

On the power play, where Kaprizov can disproportionately affect the game, the Wild have been as good as almost anyone, even in this dire stretch. But at five on five, they're a pile of firewood after a monsoon. From a pure possession standpoint, they acquit themselves, firing more pucks toward the bad-guy goalie than they get in return, but when it comes to creating high-quality chances, and finishing on those chances, it's like they're playing a rigged boardwalk game. In the four weeks since they really started crumbling, the Wild are converting on just 3.01 percent of their five-on-five shots, which is half what the next-worst NHL team is hitting, and as a result they've been outscored 25 to eight in those situations. While some of those lopsided numbers can be chalked up to bad luck and great goaltending, the Wild are also lacking the creativity and ruthlessness needed to deliver real challenges to opposing netminders without a man advantage.

Not you, Kirill. In fact, I bet you even have some advice for your teammates.

If only it were that easy. The Wild can still bounce back from the worst of this misery, and in a weirdly mediocre West they'd still pose a threat to anyone they might meet in the playoffs. But given how they've handcuffed themselves with their current balance sheet, it's very troubling how reliant they are on a small-town Russian their scout only discovered because smog delayed his flight. I shudder to think what this team would look like if our society cared for the Earth.

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