Wave 1 of the Minnesota Wild’s great prospect infusion is basically wrapped up. The State of Hockey saw Matt Boldy grab a spot and hold it down for the last year and a half. Marco Rossi and Calen Addison struggled at times, but saw NHL minutes and are looking to majorly improve next year. Brock Faber arrived at the end of the season and looked like he belonged.
We’ll see how the latter three establish themselves in big seasons next year (should they still be around, but that’s a different story), but we’re already taking our eye on Wave 2. That second phase of the prospect pool is scheduled to arrive next summer.
The Wild expect Jesper Wallstedt to build on last season’s success in the AHL and make a case to grab a backup spot in the 2024-25 season. Minnesota is also looking to import a trio of prospects from Europe once their contracts wrap up. Liam Öhgren, Danila Yurov, and Marat Khusnutdinov all see their deals expire at the conclusion of the 2023-24 season.
It’s a promising look for Wave 2, which will be counted on to contribute affordably for the duration of their Entry-Level Contracts. But Khusnutdinov has to be the player they’re perhaps most desperate to bring to North America.
The 2020 second-rounder had enjoyed a breakout season of sorts in the KHL, scoring 11 goals and 41 points for SKA Saint Petersburg. That’s great enough to hear on its own, but here’s the biggest reason Minnesota’s eagerly anticipating Khusnutdinov’s arrival: He’s a center. A real center.
Many times, a prospect will get listed at center despite having no real projection of playing down the middle in the NHL. Cole Perfetti and Seth Jarvis are some players in Rossi and Khusnutdinov’s class that fall into this category.
But that isn’t the case with Khusnutdinov.
He averages more than 10 faceoffs per game in the KHL, and won 350 of his 671 draws (52.2%) during the regular season. Khusnutdinov might eventually transition to wing. But for now, he’s playing in the second-best league in the world as a center, acquitting himself defensively and in the dot.
The question is more: Can he score at an NHL level? Funny you should ask that. Let’s consult Khusnutdinov’s Hockey Prospecting player card and see who pops up.
You might recognize “Kirill Kaprizov” from his role in “Absolutely destroying everyone the Wild face for the last three seasons.” Now, Kaprizov’s per-game scoring numbers (40 points in 46 games) eclipse Khusnutdinov’s (41 in 63 games) by a substantial margin. Accounting for ice time, Kaprizov got 3.24 points in all situations at age-20, compared to Khusnutdinov’s 2.47 points in all situations.
The gap is a bit closer than that when comparing points per hour at even strength (3.05 to 2.50 in favor of Kaprizov), but it’s safe to say that Khusnutdinov won’t be quite on that level. Still, he should have a high floor, and his ability to contribute on both the power play and the penalty kill makes him someone who could challenge for that No. 1 center spot.
But let’s say he doesn’t quite pan out, either by moving to wing at the NHL level, or not an impact player altogether. After all, he and Rossi produced similar numbers in their leagues, and look how happy the Wild are with Rossi.
There’s reason to believe he’ll endear himself to Minnesota better than Rossi has thus far, though. For one, he’ll be 22 years old when he hits stateside, probably having played around 150 KHL games. The front office isn’t forced to be patient for him to get ready, they’re patient for him to get over. That can create a massive difference in perception, as we’ve seen this year.
From a stylistic standpoint, Khusnutdinov has speed and is willing to be a pest despite being 5’9”. That arguably makes him more of a Bill Guerin/Dean Evason type of player than Rossi, whose defense relies more on a quick stick and smart positioning.
If you take the pulse of the fanbase going into the summer, the everlasting pursuit of a No. 1 Center is probably going to be at the top of the wishlist, even as Minnesota doesn’t have the cap room to add, well, anyone. But it’s important to consider: Is the State of Hockey going to still feel that need next season?
Ryan Hartman is slated as Kaprizov’s center. It's a spot he’s occupied for two-plus years and has, paradoxically, seemed at once capable and stretched in the role. But next summer? What if Rossi finds his footing in the NHL just as Khusnutdinov arrives? You’d almost have too many options. Don’t forget about Joel Eriksson Ek, whose broken out over the past two seasons and just put up a career-high 61 points.
Who do you go with, then? The bigger two-way stalwart in Eriksson Ek who shows on the power play and at 3-on-3 that he’s comfortable playing with the superstar? The most skilled of the bunch in Rossi? Or do you line him up alongside his countryman and fellow 5’9” Russian Rocket in Khusnutdinov? It’s a happy thought, and a much better problem to have than what the Wild are facing currently.
However, a lot has to go right for this to become a pressing issue. Because of this, it might still be a smart move to target a center in the draft in June. After all, it’s true that you can never have enough centers. And if you do find yourself with “too many” centers, at least to fill out a depth chart, the Dallas Stars just showed Minnesota the value of having centers pushed off to the wing in Roope Hintz and Tyler Seguin.
The Wild need help, but help might be on the way. Best of all, it might be the exact help they need to surround Kaprizov with what he needs to turn Minnesota’s fortunes around.
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