Kirill Kaprizov is already among the top players in Minnesota Wild history. Kaprizov has the record for most goals and points in a single season in only three seasons with Minnesota. Since he arrived in North America, Kaprizov ranks 12th in total points and 14th in points per game league-wide. The Thrill has been a force. It’s as simple as that. But while he’s been terrific, is there another level Kaprizov can reach?
Kaprizov is undoubtedly the best scorer on the Wild and a dominant player. Still, he’s not in the same category as players like Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk, and Sidney Crosby. So, what would Kaprizov need to do to elevate his game and place himself among the game’s elite? Can he even do that? Well, let’s dive in.
Kaprizov, 26, will be his fourth NHL season. He’s in the heart of his prime as an NHL forward. An SBNation study shows that a scorer peaks around the age-24 to -27 seasons. Kaprizov is at the end of that spectrum.
However, the graph above doesn’t account for this being only Kaprizov’s fourth NHL season. Lucky for us, there’s an obvious comparison for Kaprizov. Artemi Panarin played in the KHL during his early 20s. Panarin was 26 in his fourth season (2018-19), his last in Columbus, and he put up 87 points in 79 games. It would be disappointing if that’s the stat line Kaprizov puts up next year. So was Kaprizov’s age-24 season, where he put up 108 points, the highest point total he’ll have?
Don’t count on it.
Panarin was not an elite player with the Columbus Blue Jackets that season, but the following year was different. Panarin suited up for the New York Rangers and put up over 92 points in the next four seasons or scored at a ridiculous 1.38-point-per-game pace. So, Panarin is a bit of an exception to this rule. But there is no reason to think Kaprizov can’t do the same.
There’s a pivotal piece to this. The Rangers gave Panarin a significant upgrade beside him in the lineup. Pierre-Luc Dubois (48 points) was the next-highest scorer next to Panarin in Columbus when Panarin was the leader in points. He had Mika Zibanejad in New York, and his 1.3 points per game. That’s a serious step up, allowing Panarin to reach another level of his game.
We’ve seen what Kaprizov can do with his buddy Mats Zuccarello. Kaprizov has been able to help Zuccy age gracefully – he lined up next to Kaprizov in his best seasons. While Zuccarello is an excellent fit stylistically with Kaprizov, it’s also clear that Kaprizov is elevating Zuccarello’s game.
The same goes for Ryan Hartman, who’s a solid option to center the top line. Kaprizov did a ton of his damage with Hartman at center. But instead of Hartman elevating Kaprizov’s game, Kaprizov elevated Hartman’s. Before Hartman paired up with 97, he was a journeyman depth forward. Now, he plays a valuable role for the Wild.
But Minnesota can give Kaprizov the kind of upgrade that Columbus could not. While it may not happen immediately, Marco Rossi should be in the lineup every night. Eventually, he will get his chances between Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello if his play merits it.
Stylistically, Rossi is an excellent fit between Kaprizov and Zuccarello. Rossi’s playmaking ability and hockey IQ could mesh beautifully with the top-line wingers. The Wild also has some cap space opening up next summer. So there’s a chance that a prolific center could make their way to Minnesota by way of a free agent signing or a trade.
Matt Boldy has also flirted with playing center. While the Boston College product is an excellent winger, there have been thoughts by many media members and fans about Boldy playing center. Boldy at center could become a reality if the Wild run out of options that work between Kaprizov and Zuccarello. If all other options are exhausted, then there is a chance Boldy will line up at the center position. Joel Eriksson Ek is also Minnesota’s best center, but he has not seen a lot of time at even strength with Kaprizov and Zuccarello outside of the power play.
Kaprizov doesn’t have Jimmy Craig syndrome. There’s not anything holding him back. Kirill has faith in his game and believes he can reach another level. In a preseason game, Kaprizov scored two goals – and wanted more. There’s no doubt Kapriov is rearing to get this season underway.
Kaprizov is so good at nearly everything, so it’s hard to know precisely where Kaprizov could improve. His shooting percentage is at 16% over the past three seasons. That’s pretty typical among top players in the NHL. It’s easy to say, Just score more, but it’s not that simple.
Panarin’s development provides a blueprint for how Kaprizov can elevate his game. Kaprizov is in the middle of his prime. A potential center is waiting in the wings or could be joining the team sooner than later. The offensively dynamic center could help him offensively and allow him to continue to break records during his tenure in Minnesota.
All stats and data via HockeyDB and Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise noted.
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