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  • Kaprizov Somehow Found An Extra Gear To Carry the Wild

    Tony Abbott

    With so many losses, whether by absence (Kevin Fiala), regression (Marcus Foligno), or both (Ryan Hartman), it was likely going to take an MVP-caliber performance from Kirill Kaprizov to keep the Minnesota Wild in contention.


    And in contention, they are, even if it's only for a Wild Card spot at the moment. The Wild are sitting at 11-9-2 — a "true .500" team — which is good enough to be tied with the Nashville Predators for the last Wild Card spot. The reason they're even there is all due to Kapriov, who has somehow found a way to take his game to the next level.


    It's hard to find anyone who can build on a 108-point season. Kaprizov's only one of 14 players to reach that total in the Salary Cap Era. Yet, he's on pace to hit that mark for a second straight season, joining Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, Leon Draisaitl, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Joe Thornton as the only players to do it twice in that time.


    Look at him now, though. After a three-point effort against the Edmonton Oilers that was the difference in a 5-3 win, Kaprizov has 14 goals and 30 points in 22 games. Keeping this up for the remaining 60 will put him at... 52 goals and 112 points. You want to talk about players who hit both those marks this century? That list is just three: Ovechkin, Jagr, and Joe Sakic.


    What's more, he's doing this on a team that is scoring significantly less than last season. Last season, Kaprizov had a goal or primary assist -- that is, a direct hand in scoring -- on 86 of Minnesota's 305 goals. If you're keeping score at home, that's 28.2% of Minnesota's goals. That's a lot, but as you remember, the Wild scored even more.


    This season, Kaprizov's combined goals and primary assists are at 25. That accounts for 37.9% of the Wild's 66 goals. Only McDavid (42.7%) and Draisaitl (41.4%) can boast of having a larger share of their team's offense.


    Why is Kaprizov putting up those numbers? Because he's taking on more of the burden of creating offense off his stick. Kaprizov's rookie season saw him shoot 2.85 times per game, which is fairly frequent, even if he occasionally got criticized for not using his shot enough. Last season, he deployed this weapon more, going up to 3.57 shots per game. That's just inside the Wild's top-10 in franchise history, tied for eighth with Brian Rolston in 2005-06 and Rolston in 2007-08.


    And now, he's found another level with his shooting. With 94 shots on net in 22 games, Kaprizov is at 4.27 shots per contest. That's the most in Wild history, with only Marian Gaborik hitting the 4.0 mark. Think of how much Zach Parise loved to shoot. Kaprizov is eclipsing his best Wild season (3.79 in 2012-13) by half a shot per game.


    You'd think that shooting drastically more, especially when Kaprizov shoots so much already, would lead to lower-quality shots and a lower shooting percentage. Incredibly, that fear is pretty unfounded. Kaprizov's shooting percentage sits at 14.9%, not substantially lower than his 16.2% career mark. At the very least, his increase in shots is more than offsetting any loss in shot quality.


    The longer this continues, the more proof that we'll have that Kaprizov is one of the best shooters in the NHL. And not just of his era. He's looking like an all-time great volume shooter. Of all the players who averaged 3.0 shots per game or more in their careers, here are the top-10 in shooting percentage (minimum 150 games):


    Mike Bossy, 21.2%

    Mario Lemieux, 19.0%

    Tim Kerr, 18.6%

    Jason Robertson, 18.0%

    Wayne Gretzky, 17.6%

    Pat LaFontaine, 17.6%

    Steven Stamkos, 17.0%

    Dino Ciccarelli, 16.4%

    KAPRIZOV, 16.3%

    Tie: Matthews, Eric Lindros, 16.1%


    Any time you're looking down at a list that includes the likes of McDavid, Crosby, Ovechkin, Brett Hull, Teemu Selanne, Steve Yzerman, and other all-time greats, you're doing something special.


    What's especially mind-blowing is that Kaprizov's probably leaving even more scoring on the table.


    This point gets beaten to death all the time with Kaprizov's accomplishments, but look at his supporting cast! Yes, having Mats Zuccarello (22 points in 22 games) at 5-on-5 and Matt Boldy (18 points in 22 games) on the power play helps.


    But at 5-on-5, his two most prominent centers have been... Freddy Gaudreau and Sam Steel. There's no need to bash the players; they are what they are and do their best in a role that stretches them. But it's clear that Kaprizov misses having Hartman down the middle this season.


    Hartman's slow start and injury might have helped Wild fans forget, but he was a big reason Kaprizov was such a big 5-on-5 force last season. Hartman may not have been the platonic ideal of a top-line center, but he pushed the pace for Kaprizov, giving him many chances in the offensive zone. Their heat map together says it all: they got to the slot, and they picked apart goalies.


    [caption id=attachment_139422" align="alignnone" width="1184]Screen-Shot-2022-12-02-at-8.08.58-AM.png Courtesy of HockeyViz.com[/caption]


    His centers this year, by contrast, have ground Kaprizov's pace down to a halt. Again, we can see it in the heat maps. Chances in the slot absolutely died with Gaudreau centering Kaprizov.


    [caption id=attachment_139423" align="alignnone" width="1268]Screen-Shot-2022-12-02-at-8.11.16-AM.png Courtesy of HockeyViz.com[/caption]


    Steel's done a bit better, but large swaths of the scoring areas are deserts of blue, with the bulk of the offense coming from the perimeter.


    [caption id=attachment_139424" align="alignnone" width="1228]Screen-Shot-2022-12-02-at-8.12.13-AM.png Courtesy of HockeyViz.com[/caption]


    Because of this, Kaprizov's season is a topsy-turvy version of last year's. Last season, Kaprizov put together incredibly 5-on-5 numbers and was held back only by an ineffectual power play. This year, his power play prowess is carrying him, and weak 5-on-5 stats are holding him back.


    How dominant has that power play performance been? According to Evolving Hockey, Kaprizov is second in the NHL in goals per hour on the man advantage, with 5.91. Only Arthur Kaliyev has an edge on him. That's not due to a crazy streak of luck behind it, either. Only Robertson, Timo Meier, Kaliyev, and Nathan MacKinnon shoot more frequently than Kaprizov's 26.6 shots per hour.


    So imagine what he'd be on pace for if he had, say, last season's 5-on-5 stats or anything approaching them. Among 305 forwards with 200-plus 5-on-5 minutes, Kaprizov is 111th in points per hour with 1.95. There's something just so wrong about seeing him sandwiched between off-brand NHLers like Sean Kuraly and Calle Jarnkrok.


    It's early, but it's way down from last season's eighth-place ranking with 3.23 points per hour. And a big reason is that snail-like pace not providing Kaprizov with the shooting opportunities he usually gets. Last season, he shot 9.8 times per hour at 5-on-5. Now, it's a mind-bogglingly low 7.4 for him. He shot more frequently at 5-on-5 in his rookie season (7.7 per hour).


    So what does a season where Kaprizov puts it all together and clicks at 5-on-5 and the power play? Back-of-the-napkin math says that at last year's 5-on-5 rates, he'd have another three goals and seven points today. Throw those onto his current paces, and you're looking at a theoretically "perfect" peak season of 63 goals and 138 points, totals so ludicrous that it's hard to take seriously.


    But hey, even with his 5-on-5 game lagging, Kaprizov is putting up a monster season that's single-handedly keeping his team in the playoff picture and is one of the only sources of fun on an otherwise tough-to-watch team.


    Whether he gets the Wild to the playoffs or gets serious MVP consideration, or not, you have to sit back and enjoy watching him step up his game and throw this team on his back as he has.

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