Cкорость is the Russian word for speed. Pronounced “skorost’,” Russians also use скорость to describe velocity, rate, pace, rapidity, and quickness. Скорость is as mysterious as it is descriptive. Is that a lower-case “b” at the end? Why do they capitalize the “T”? Why is the “K” so wiggly?
Cкорость is also the perfect description for Kirill Kaprizov. In his first three seasons, Kaprizov was quicker than his opponents. He played at a mind-melting pace and rapidly became one of the NHL’s best players. He’s the Minnesota Wild’s first bona fide star since Marian Gaborik and drove winning in back-to-back 100-point seasons.
Kaprizov was also mysterious. The Wild drafted him 135th overall in 2015, between Matt Schmalz and Pavel Karnaukhov – two players who never reached the NHL. Minnesota drafted him when he was playing for his hometown team in Novokuznetsk, the second-largest city in the oblast. To an American audience, the Siberian cherub came out of nowhere to dominate the world’s best hockey league.
But Kaprizov hasn’t had his cкорость this year. He only has seven goals in 22 games. The Wild shut him down for maintenance before the Sweden trip. After Minnesota fired Dean Evason, he revealed that Kaprizov was “still in recovery mode” and that “it’s a hard injury to recover from.” The Wild may be 3-0-0 under John Hynes, but he’s not a miracle worker. He coaxed a hat trick out of Connor Dewar in Nashville, and Minnesota crushed the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks.
Kaprizov has looked more like himself, but he doesn’t have his cкорость fully back.
Had the Wild retained Evason and continued to spiral, they may have shut Kaprizov down. It would be the wise thing to do. Why risk further injury in a lost season? Minnesota could have stealth-tanked. They probably wouldn’t have ended up with the first-overall pick, but maybe they could have grabbed a skilled winger to put on Matt Boldy’s line next year.
In the meantime, Evason could have turned the Wild into a one-line team. Boldy would have gotten first-line minutes with Marco Rossi, who’s having a sensational rookie season, and Mats Zuccarello in Kaprizov’s absence. He could fill the other three lines with grinders and hoped to win games 2-1. It’s not a winning formula, but it’s a viable way to finish out a losing season.
Hynes hockey has been a little more fun. They’ve scored 13 goals in three games, snapped the Nashville Predators’ six-game win streak, and buried three division opponents. Filip Gustavsson and Marc-Andre Fleury look like themselves gain. The Wild feel like they’re a “completely different team.” They’re benefitting from the proverbial “new coach bump.” Hynes has vanquished the demons that haunted their locker room, and Minnesota has a new lease on life.
But how long will it last? Hynes has a mixed track record as a head coach. He probably hasn’t unlocked another level in this team so much as removed them from a vicious cycle. At best, he’ll get them to revert to the team they were before this season.
Judging Guerin’s Wild is challenging because they hired him in 2019, a year before the pandemic shortened two seasons. However, they made the qualifying round in 2019-20, had 75 points in 56 games the following year, and earned 100-plus the past two seasons. Still, they lost in the first round of the playoffs each season. At its core, Minnesota is a successful regular-season team that needs to find a way to get out of the first round of the playoffs. That’s where Hynes picks things up.
Hynes has coached three 90-win teams in New Jersey and Nashville, and he got the Predators into the playoffs after they hired him mid-season in 2019-20. However, he has a 4-15 career playoff record and has never gotten out of the first round. In many ways, the Wild and Hynes’ fates are married. Minnesota’s core and coach must prove they can be more than a fun regular-season product.
But the playoffs are still a ways out. So far under Hynes, Minnesota looks like they’re the 100-point team they were the past two seasons. However, their opponents will test them on their four-game road trip. The Vancouver Canucks game on December 7 and a matchup against the red-hot Edmonton Oilers a day later loom large. The Wild don’t return to St. Paul until December 14, when they’ll play two games before heading to Pittsburgh and Boston. Things will even out soon enough for them. We’ll discover who they truly are once the new-coach smell disappears.
Guerin went with his gut in hiring Hynes, a longtime friend. Through three games, things have worked out. The Wild are winning, and look like they’ve picked up where they left off. But Hynes still has to prove that he can turn them into the team they were the past two years and that they can win the playoffs. And he’ll have to do so with Kaprizov at half speed. The Russian superstar still doesn’t have his cкорость back, and it’s not something that a new coach can change. It’s the kind of affliction that grounds a team in reality, even during a euphoric win streak.
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