Barring some unforeseen, inexplicable force of nature, which we’ve all learned these last 12-14 months never to rule out, Wild left winger Kirill Kaprizov will finish this abbreviated 56-game season as the NHL Rookie of the Year.
Headed into weekend play, Kaprizov led rookies in scoring (6-11—17). And though this may sound silly, his goals and assists aren’t all that important. Numbers, unless they’re drastically beyond standard range, are just numbers — no doubt important, but not necessarily defining.
What makes the 23-year-old Kaprizov truly unique, so exciting, is his skating. It’s fluid. It’s fast. It’s mesmerizing. It catches the eye the way some Bruins watchers will remember when Bobby Orr showed up here, 50-plus years ago, and commanded the sheet with his beguiling blend of speed, attack, and stickhandling like no one the game had ever seen.
Edmonton’s Connor McDavid is astounding, lightning quick off the hop and faster than a bullet train out of Tokyo when rolling down the track. Kaprizov is fast, and while not McDavid fast, separates himself from other skaters when he shifts into his dynamic edge work and defies the standard laws of skating physics when zipping around the offensive zone. Then the 5-foot-9-inch, 185-pound dynamo becomes Shipstads & Johnson meets David Copperfield.
“The old 10-and-2s,” said Wild GM Bill Guerin, referring to the positioning of Kaprizov’s skates when he’s flashing the edgework. “I played with guys that did that a lot — Ulf Dahlen comes to mind. But I’ve never seen somebody do it like this, where he actually accelerates when he does it. Really, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Jeff Skinner, now struggling to stay in the Sabres’ lineup, has a similar style. Ex-Bruin Ryan Spooner, currently in career recovery with KHL Minsk, often slipped into 10-and-2 mode. Two other great Russian skaters, Sergei Fedorov and Alex Kovalev, mixed flashes of it into their repertoires. But none of them ever worked the sheet like Kaprizov.
“It’s almost like a little shot of energy when he comes out of it,” said Guerin, as if describing a stone shot from a slingshot. “It’s different.”
The game’s truly great skaters, those who marry offensive numbers to their speed, are gifts to the game. Some of the great ones in recent decades have included Denis Savard, master of his trademark spin-o-rama in his Chicago days, and defensemen Paul Coffey and Scott Niedermayer. Wayne Gretzky, of course.
“Textbook skater, Coffey,” noted at admiring Guerin. “If you wanted to be a skater, it’s Coffey, such ease . . . he could skate all night. And I’ll tell you another one, J.R. [Jeremy Roenick]. I remember him from our younger years. It was like he wasn’t even touching the ice, the way he’d float around. The glide was just incredible.”
In recent years, Chicago right winger Patrick Kane, his size and build very similar to Kaprizov’s, has been among the game’s most dynamic skaters.
Like the budding Russian star, all of them could produce at speed.
“It’s crazy,” said Guerin, who played 17 NHL seasons, including nearly two full seasons with the Bruins. “And I don’t think it’s something either that you can really work on when it’s that much a part of it. That’s just how he skates.”
In other words, we take certain skills to be gifts, granted through the serendipitous alignment of genetics, or from forces beyond, be they spiritual or divine. Great skaters are stardust, billion-year-old carbon, and golden.
“No, I don’t,” said Guerin, when asked if, say, even just one of 100 excellent skaters could train to reach Kaprizov’s dynamic level. “I don’t think somebody can go to a skating instructor and say, ‘I want to skate like Kirill Kaprizov.’ I think that’s just the way he started doing it when he was younger. And like, straight line, A to B, it doesn’t look like he’s gonna actually get there . . . but when he does get there, and he starts in the tight areas, or going around in circles, that’s when it’s, wow, really something to see.”
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy also adheres to the “either you got it or you don’t” philosophy of truly dynamic skating.
“I may be dating myself here a bit,” he mused, “but it’s like asking why aren’t there more 9.8-second runners in the 100-yard dash,” he said. “There’s only so many guys that have that elite [skill].”
Cassidy believes the great ones mix in an abundance of fast-twitch muscles, balance, and strength.
“They’re just special players,” he added. “Yeah, of course they’ve worked at it. But I know guys that have worked on the ice and skated, you know, hours and hours and hours, and they’re not going to have that ability to change speed, or have open-ice speed. Call it God-given. Call it parent-given, genes, and I just think it separates the very elite from the elite, right?
“Because I mean there are some guys McDavid skates away from that are elite skaters in this league. So it just tells you he’s in a category by himself.”
Ditto Kaprizov, who was chosen 135th by the Wild in the 2015 draft, after a humble first year in the KHL (31 games, 4-4—8) with his hometown team (Novokuznetsk) in southwest Siberia (again, kids, if you’re good, they’ll find you, no matter where you’re hiding). Unlike most draft picks, he opted for a slow track to the NHL, despite repeated offers from a string of GMs, including Chuck Fletcher, Paul Fenton, and Guerin.
Finally, last summer, after three highly productive seasons with Red Army (leading CSKA in scoring last season), Kaprizov signed his NHL deal. To guarantee Kaprizov would be here this season, Guerin made it a two-year pact that included burning last season as time played. All of which means Kaprizov will be back in a matter of months for what promises to be a very lucrative second contract.
“When he got here, I texted Chuck Fletcher,” said Guerin, noting that Kaprizov was drafted during Fletcher’s tenure there as GM. “And I just said, ‘Chuck, I don’t know how you did it, but you guys drafted one hell of a player . . . I just want you to know this kid is spectacular.’ One great piece of drafting right there.”
Sutter’s style sure to light a fire
Darryl Sutter was named the Flames’ coach on Thursday night, replacing former Bruins assistant Geoff Ward. Bruce Cassidy was still in his mid-20s when he came under Sutter’s coaching watch in the minors, first in Saginaw and then Indianapolis, both of them working their way up the ladder in the Blackhawks system.
“He really drilled down on habits away from the puck,” recalled Cassidy, who was part of Sutter’s 1990 IHL championship squad in Indy. “I was an offensive puck mover, so for me it was a bit of a shock because I was used to just getting rolled out there.”
Such details, such as shot blocking and full-sheet defense, are “not always fun,” noted Cassidy, and he wasn’t enjoying the game as much as he had in the past. Until the winning. Victory brings its own pleasure.
“All of a sudden, you have success as a team, you feel you’re building your game . . . we end up beating a team that was probably more talented than us,” he added. “So you walk away, and you take away some of that in the moment, but years later you realize that he saw a championship — even though in the minor leagues — he saw the ability to win by playing the right way.”
In retrospect, said Cassidy, Sutter instilled accountability in each player and showed how it helped the team at large.
“Then as a coach,” said Cassidy, reflecting on now Sutter’s style influences his own, “how do you relay those messages and details to your players, while getting them still to enjoy the game? Which is the challenge, because usually it’s not fun to tell a guy some of the hard things to do, the checking, the things that don’t necessarily show up on the scoresheet. And how to build your team into a cohesive group.”
Sutter could be gruff, which is woven deeply in the Sutter family DNA, and those lessons came “with some tough love,” said Cassidy.
“I think Darryl has a big heart, always wants to do right, and has the players’ interests at heart,” he said. “Gruff coming across with his message, but as you get to know him, he is one of the funnier, wittier guys I’ve ever been around — hopefully for him and Calgary they can get to where they want to get to.”
Flames management no doubt is banking on that tough love shaking a mediocre (11-11-2) team from the doldrums. Unvarnished truth can be a tough sell with today’s players.
“There are some things, in how society and the game have changed, that maybe you could get away with back then,” said Cassidy. “I don’t know if ‘get away with’ is the right word, because I don’t want to paint Darryl with the wrong bush — I don’t think he did anything inappropriate. It’s just different messaging, how you got through to guys [30 years ago] is a better way to put it. He was by himself. There wasn’t use of video. So there was a little more hard work in practice to get to and more direct conversation.”
Lucic joins select company from Bruins
Milan Lucic, a man whose particular set of skills no doubt will be appreciated by the new guy behind the Flames bench, next month should become only the 14th draft pick in Bruins history to reach the 1,000-game plateau.
Looch, the 50th overall pick in the 2006 draft, on Saturday night was scheduled to play career game No. 982 with the Flames in Edmonton.
The affable-yet-menacing Lucic also stands as the last Bruins draft pick to crack 1,000 penalty minutes (1,143). Terry O’Reilly (2,095) wins that category — lock, stock, and sin bin.
The next Boston draftee to crack 1,000 games should be David Krejci (928 after Friday’s matchup with the Capitals).
Krejci, if he signs a contract extension, next season would become only the fourth Bruins draft pick to play 1,000 games with the Black and Gold, following Ray Bourque, Don Sweeney, and Patrice Bergeron. Bergeron today is the lone draftee among the 13 to have played all of his games with Boston.
Ivan Boldirev, born in what was then Yugoslavia and drafted in 1969, did not get his name on either of the Bruins’ Stanley Cup titles in 1970 or ’72. He spent all of 1969-70 in Oklahoma City, and appeared in only two games with the talent-laden varsity the next season. He made the 1971-72 squad, but after 11 games was dealt to the California Golden Seals for Rich LeDuc and Chris Oddleifson. Combined, they played fewer than 100 game for the Bruins
The complete list of Bruins draftees to reach 1,000 games (stats as of Friday):
Name, Draft year (overall selection) . . . . . Games played (with Bruins)
Ivan Boldirev, 1969 (11) . . . . . 1,052 (13)
Craig MacTavish, 1978 (153) . . . . . 1,093 (217)
Ray Bourque, 1979 (8) . . . . . 1,612 (1,518)
Brad McCrimmon, 1979 (15) . . . . . 1,222 (228)
Don Sweeney, 1984 (166) . . . . . 1,115 (1,052)
Glen Wesley, 1987 (3) . . . . . 1,457 (537)
Stephane Quintal, 1987 (14) . . . . . 1,037 (158)
Bryan Smolinski, 1990 (21) . . . . . 1,056 (136)
Glen Murray, 1991 (18) . . . . . 1,009 (570)
Hal Gill, 1993 (207) . . . . . 1,108 (626)
Joe Thornton, 1997 (1) . . . . . 1,649 (532)
Patrice Bergeron, 2003 (45) . . . . . 1,109 (1,109)
Phil Kessel, 2006 (5) . . . . . 1,088 (222)
NHL has to pick right spot for draft
The annual NHL Draft remains a go, on the books for July 23-24 in Montreal, but some league GMs feel as if the annual talent pull would be better if rolled ahead to later in the year (November or December) or scrubbed entirely, in which case the Class of ’21 would fold into what everyone hopes will be a 2022 draft staged in June (per standard NHL programming).
The case for postponing: Many leagues — college, junior, and European — have had schedules disrupted or scrubbed this season because of the pandemic, leaving scouts challenged to get full reads on the incoming stock.
The case for going ahead as planned in July: Some portion of the 18-year-olds will have submitted solid work this season and they’re ready and eager to learn their destiny, even if only a handful have a shot at landing an NHL job in 2021-22.
As of Friday, of the 217 selections in the 2020 draft, only the Senators’ Tim Stutzle and the Rangers’ Alexis Lafreniere had played this season. Only seven picks in the 2019 draft had logged 10 games or more.
The next five weeks will be full of trade talk leading up to the April 12 deadline. One factor to keep in mind, though it could change, is that Canada insists on a two-week quarantine period for anyone entering the country. If any of the North Division’s seven Canadian clubs are importing talent, be it from the United States or Europe, they’ll have to wait to work the player into their lineup. The regular season ends May 8. No telling what it will mean in the overall trade market, but it could encourage some of the Canadian-based clubs to deal earlier, allowing more time for players to adjust to their new teams . . . Following a visit to Long Island on Tuesday, the Bruins are back on Causeway Street for another pair (Thursday and Saturday) vs. the Rangers, who look like they’ll be jousting with the Penguins for the final playoff seed in the East. Meanwhile, Rangers left wing Chris Kreider is scoring like never before, carrying a 13-2—15 line into weekend play. He had eight goals, including a pair of hat tricks, in his last five games through Friday night. The ex-Boston College Eagle, who turns 30 next month, never has topped 28 goals in a season . . . Through 20 games, the 12-5-3 Bruins compiled 367:09 in lead time, and trailed for an aggregate 334:24. Tight margins for a club with a .675 point rate . . . Interesting note by NESN, pointing out that Charlie McAvoy’s scoring (3-12—15 into Friday night), had him on pace to deliver the best punch back there since Bourque put up a 20-62—82 line in 1995-96. McAvoy’s pace, over an 82-game season, would deliver almost 62 points. Bourque that season landed 390 shots on net, second only to Jaromir Jagr’s 403. McAvoy hit the net 40 times in his first 20 games, an 82-game pace for 164. He has a good shot, one he is being encouraged to use more, and one he’ll have to use more if he’s going to grow into the role of franchise defenseman . . . The coaching move in Calgary wasn’t a big surprise. A bigger surprise was that the listless Canucks (10-15-2) still had Travis Green on the coaching job . . . If the Sabres get serious about shopping Jack Eichel, the Canucks have the kind of assets to swing a deal, with Quinn Hughes or Elias Pettersson the starting point . . . Meanwhile, Taylor Hall’s $8 million safe harbor stop with the Sabres had him sitting Friday morning with an anemic 2-11—13 line. His goal Thursday vs. the Islanders was his first since the Jan. 14 opener. He’ll be sailing to a different harbor this offseason.