It's a bad time to be a Minnesota Wild fan. There's currently somewhere between little and no hope for the team to make the playoffs. Minnesota has very few pieces they can trade at the deadline. Even if they open up a spot or two, most of their top prospects are in Europe, Canadian Juniors, or the NCAA. It's fair to wonder why you'd tune into this team down the stretch.
On Tuesday, we got a potential answer from The Athletic's Joe Smith and Michael Russo. In their mailbag, Russo dropped that he was "sensing" the Wild could sign their second-round pick from 2020 "after his season ends Feb. 25, burn the first year of his entry-level contract, and start him right away in the NHL."
Oh, yeah. That will be appointment television for fans in the State of Hockey desperately looking for a reason to care.
Given that Khusnutdinov is an undersized Russian player, Kirill Kaprizov is the lazy comparison. Of course, that's unfair. Kaprizov is arguably a top-5 player at his position, and those are enormous expectations to put on anyone, much less a player slated to make his NHL debut before turning 22.
Players rarely have Khusnutdinov's career path, but they're three-for-three in terms of turning into stars. Kaprizov is one, along with fellow Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov and Wild Legend (mostly legendary for being The Guy They Traded For Dany Heatley) Martin Havlat.
Again, those are massive skates for a 21-year-old. Just because he looks like those players doesn't mean he'll become them or that he's a bust if he doesn't fulfill that kind of role. But it's on the table. Khusnutdinov would be a thrilling addition to the Wild roster if he looks like any of these players, even the "worst-case" scenario of Havlat, a former 30-goal scorer with 470 points in 548 games during his 20s.
It's not uncommon to see a top prospect get a short stint at the end of the season. 2023-24 Calder Trophy contender Brock Faber got two games at the end of the regular season last year. When Jordan Greenway finished his career at Boston University in 2016-17, he played six regular season games, plus playoffs. In 2011-12, the Wild played Jason Zucker in six games after the end of his season at Denver University.
Still, it's rare to get such an extended look at a young top prospect aside from AHL prospects, whom teams can easily call up at any time. Once Khusnutdinov's season ends on February 25, the Wild can bring him over as soon as February 27's home date with the Carolina Hurricanes. Maybe that's an aggressive timetable, but it'd make sense to give the paying fans at home an extra reason to come out.
Let's say he makes his debut on February 27. The plane lands at MSP, Kaprizov takes the new rookie to Kramarczuk's, and then they zoom to the Xcel Energy Center. That'd give Khusnutdinov potentially 24 games in a Wild sweater before the end of the season. Even if they push his start date back to March 2 and scratch him two games for rest, we're still talking 20 games of Khusnutdinov in a Wild uniform. That's a quarter of an NHL season of hockey, which few expected to see at the start of the season.
But what kind of hockey should Wild fans expect from the young Russian? The hope entering the season was that Khusnutdinov, who had a breakout season of sorts with 41 points in 63 games for SKA St. Petersburg, would be able to build on that success. That wasn't the case this year.
Some of it appears circumstantial. Russian teams are notorious for holding back young players whose contracts are set to expire. Just ask Khusnutdinov how SKA handled this situation two years ago. So, if you're looking for a reason why SKA suddenly had no room for a 40-point 21-year-old in their lineup last year, that's probably it. After averaging nearly 16 minutes a night with SKA last year, Khusnutdinov only drew into the lineup six times, getting about 10 minutes a night.
Mercifully, SKA traded him to HC Sochi, where Khusnutdinov would find himself playing with Matvei Michkov, one of the best prospects in the world. Still, his numbers haven't taken off. Despite averaging almost 18 minutes per game, Khusnutdinov has only six goals and 16 points in 40 games.
Does this mean he's in for a tough go in the NHL? Maybe. But we'd bet Khusnutdinov shows a bit better in the NHL than he is for Sochi. For one, Khusnutdinov is stuck on a pretty awful team despite Michkov's presence. Those 16 points are seventh on Sochi, despite Khusnutdinov drawing into 40 of their 56 games. There's a reason his season is likely to end in February.
Khusnutdinov's production with SKA last year likely better indicates his capabilities. Why? Because SKA had several NHL-caliber players. Maybe Dmitrij Jaskin couldn't quite land a full-time role once he got to his late 20s. Still, he has 315 games of NHL experience. Nikita Gusev only played two years in the NHL, but he was talented enough offensively to be there. Alexander Nikishin is a top defenseman prospect who could play in the NHL today.
That will be the caliber of player, at minimum, that Khusnutdinov will play with in the NHL. He could easily slot into a third-line role alongside Ryan Hartman and Marcus Foligno, trading off at wing and center with Hartman.
Or the Wild could aim even higher. Why not audition him with Matt Boldy and Joel Eriksson Ek and see if his speed provides the complement they saw from Marcus Johansson down the stretch last year? Or maybe look into what kind of chemistry he has on his countryman Kaprizov's wing, with the ability to speak Khusnutdinov's language helping the rookie along?
It can often be touch-and-go for young players to get along with their coaches, especially for Russians, who can be unfairly stigmatized as uncoachable. With Khusnutdinov, that feels very unlikely to be a problem. He's renowned for being a heart-and-soul guy, and despite his 5'9" stature, he plays a Bill Guerin-type game. He uses his speed to disrupt opponents, works hard, and plays a "North-South" style. He's captained Team Russia at the World Junior Championships and even wore a letter at times for SKA, who were Gagarin Cup contenders last season.
If the Wild indeed can bring in Khusnutdinov for an extended look this month, that shapes up for a much more interesting final quarter of the season than expected. Along with Faber and Marco Rossi, fans will see another big part of their youth movement and could find themselves as high on Khusnutdinov as they are on their other rookies. Bring it on.
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