Russo and Smith: ‘A better Kaprizov’? Plus Fleury’s future, Hartman’s injury and more Wild camp Day 1 observations


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ST. PAUL, Minn. — If Kirill Kaprizov keeps this up, his translator is going to have to start focusing only on his day job.

Ilya Kravtchouk, the Twin Cities resident and son of former NHL defenseman Igor Kravchuk, has been Kaprizov’s interpreter and security blanket since virtually Day 1 in Minnesota. But Thursday morning, on the first day of 2023 training camp, when Kravtchouk took his normal spot on a speaker phone, he was acting only as an insurance policy in case the Wild star didn’t understand a question or stumbled through a reply.

For the first time in the NHL, Kaprizov was comfortable enough to conduct a press scrum almost entirely in English. Kravtchouk only had to offer assistance a handful of times when Kaprizov wanted to make sure he understood words from reporters like “injury” and “expectations” and didn’t know how to say the word “mistakes.”

He does now.

“His English is unreal,” Kravtchouk told The Athletic afterward. “It’s grown by leaps and bounds.”

Kaprizov didn’t chance returning to his native Russia this offseason after last June and July’s ordeal getting back to North America, but he was in a tremendous mood after instead splitting the summer between Minnesota and South Florida and vacationing in Italy and Turkey.

He had never been to Italy before and his favorite part was, of course, the food.

“He looked tan this year, for sure,” cracked teammate Marcus Foligno. “His hair is a lot blonder, so it’s been kissed by the sun a little more. I don’t know how much he’s been in the rink until Miami. That’s OK. As long as we’ve got a healthy Kirill, we’ll be good.”

Coming off a second straight 40-goal season, in which he could have flirted with 50 had he not missed a month due to a last-second injury in Winnipeg, Kaprizov is motivated to have another strong year and help lead this franchise to postseason success. He actually did skate a lot this offseason, taking part in skates with teammates like Marco Rossi and Brock Faber and other NHLers like Blake Wheeler, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Nic Dowd.

In Florida, he said there was a large Russian contingent on the ice that included Kirill Marchenko, Andrei Kuzmenko, Nikita Zakorov and Dmitry Kulikov.

He’s not focusing on last season’s heartbreaking loss to the Dallas Stars, in which he scored the first goal in the series but failed to score again. He said he was 100 percent but just out of sorts after the late injury caused so much time off the ice. He said even in the KHL he never missed so many games because of an injury.

“I’m ready for this year. Last year happened last year,” he said. “Every year, you learn from your mistakes. You take those losses and you learn from them. You try to get better. You learn. You continue to improve in the offseason, and like every year, looking forward to the year, to have a much better year to learn from my mistakes, to put those learnings to action and have a much better season.”

It’ll be fascinating to watch Kaprizov continue to mature. Even he said he’s learned so much in his three NHL seasons, a span that began with a Calder Trophy season (winning the top rookie honors by a landslide) and has continued with a thorough re-writing of the Wild’s record book.

Many of us have assumed Joel Eriksson Ek will receive the “A” on his chest left behind by Matt Dumba, but it wouldn’t be a shock if the Wild present the letter to Kaprizov instead. He’s their best player and somebody who leads this team on the ice in every way.

He said he plans to be better this season and then again showed he indeed learned that new word: “Don’t do these mistakes that I did in last playoffs.”

“To make sure every single game, every single season, to be a lot more consistent,” Kaprizov said, this time via Kravtchouk. “To have a lot more better games than worse. Limit the bad games. Increase the good games. Continue to come every single night to play and show up. I think that’s what I need to work on.”

He loved the weather in Minnesota during the summer. While he didn’t get on a lake this offseason, he continues to improve his English by chatting with teammates and watching movies like, on Wednesday, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” And he did play a few rounds of golf this summer, setting him up for a better showing in the Wild’s charity outing at Royal Golf Course in Lake Elmo on Monday.

While he said his game is “so bad,” he added, “It was better than it was last year. Now I can play with guys. Last year I was just driving in the cart and enjoying weather. Now I can shoot a little bit sometimes.”

Wild teammates are excited to see Kaprizov in such good spirits.

“You’re going to see a better Kaprizov out there,” Foligno said. “It’s scary to say, but it’s great for us. Just very committed. He’s ticked off. Wasn’t a good ending for all of us. He had to be frustrated by his injury at the end of the season. Kirill is scary when he’s mad and he wants that puck, so I think that’s what you’re going to see a lot. The battle.

“That’s what we talk about with our team. The culture. The work ethic. It starts and ends with him. He’s our best player.”

Fleury will decide future after season

Marc-Andre Fleury, the future Hall of Famer and young-looking 38-year-old, is entering the final year of his contract and is eight wins from passing Patrick Roy for second all-time.

He said he won’t contemplate his future until after the season.

“I thought about it this summer and stuff, but I just told myself I would give myself this season, see how it goes, see how I feel physically, mentally, if I still can stop the puck and just make a decision at the end,” Fleury said, smiling. “I don’t want to think about it too much, every game, ‘You know, oh, it’s going good, I’ll play again,’ or, ‘It’s going bad, I don’t wanna play anymore.’ You know what I mean? There will be ups and downs this season. I’ll try to get through it and make a decision at the end.”

Better late than never

Jujhar Khaira said it was a bit of a stressful summer, as he got a few bites in free agency but was still unsigned the month NHL training camps open.

But the 29-year-old center got a lifeline from the Wild, who signed him last week to a one-year, two-way deal ($775,000 average annual value). Khaira provides needed depth up front, especially with the likes of Ryan Hartman opening camp a bit limited. He was pumped to find a landing spot so late in the summer.

“The unknown is always a scary thing,” Khaira said. “It’s finding that mindset to overcome that and just be prepared for whatever opportunity arises.”

What Khaira does know is he’s healthy, which is important, having battled his share of injuries over his career. He suffered a concussion on a Jacob Trouba hit in December 2021 and dealt with a lower back injury last year. He plays a hard, physical game and isn’t afraid to fight, and he won’t change that in his role with Minnesota. He believes he belongs in the NHL, which is why he didn’t pursue overseas opportunities.

“I know what keeps me here and that’s my defensive game and being hard in the corners and on the forecheck and on the penalty kill,” he said. “I want that to be a huge part of my game.”

Hartman limited, Eriksson Ek back

Coach Dean Evason hinted that there was a player who was banged up heading into camp, and it appears it is Hartman. Hartman was on the ice with his first group but wasn’t part of the usual line rushes. Freddy Gaudreau took his spot with Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello.

Hartman skated with the group for the first part of practice but left before the battle drills and heavy skating. He has an upper-body injury; it’s not related to the knee injury he suffered in the playoffs and has recovered from. Evason said the team doesn’t want Hartman in contact drills quite yet, but he doesn’t seem too far away from regular action.

“Nothing serious,” Evason said.

Center Joel Eriksson Ek was flying around the ice, showing no ill effects from surgery to repair his broken leg. Eriksson Ek’s stitches were in for a month, but then he was able to start his offseason workouts.

“I don’t feel it anymore,” he said. “It feels like it should.”

Foligno confirmed he was injured for much of the second half of the season and needed offseason abdominal surgery to clean it up; he also tweaked some of his offseason training.

“I feel like myself again,” he said. “I feel fantastic.”

Lining up

The lines were as expected through the first three groups Thursday. Gaudreau stepped in for Hartman on the top line with Kaprizov and Zuccarello. Rossi was between Foligno and Khaira, who filled in for Gaudreau at right wing.

The Marcus Johansson, Eriksson Ek and Matt Boldy line was reunited, and the fourth line was Pat Maroon, Connor Dewar and Brandon Duhaime. The defense pairs were Jake Middleton with Jared Spurgeon; Jonas Brodin with Brock Faber; and Jon Merrill, Alex Goligoski and Calen Addison all in the third group.

The team worked on penalty-kill drills, plus a lot of smaller games (three-on-three tight in the zone). It’s expected to work on the power play Friday. The first exhibition is Sunday in Denver, with touted goalie prospect Jesper Wallstedt scheduled to start. The team will have a full scrimmage at Monday’s practice, with most of the veterans not traveling Sunday.

Seen and heard

Faber, who lived with fellow rookie Sammy Walker in the summer, moved back into the same downtown hotel he lived in during the playoffs. He’s not taking his roster spot for granted, saying it was surreal to be Brodin’s defense partner even if only for the first day of camp. The reality is that’s where he’s expected to start this season.

And the former Gophers star hasn’t bought a new car, saying he’s going to squeeze every last mile of his old 2009 Jeep Wrangler (190,000 miles).

Foligno, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch before a Twins game this month, joked he wasn’t offered a contract, but he took pride in tossing a strike (he practiced by tossing a baseball against his fence because his kids are too young to catch).

Addison said it was a “huge relief” to sign his one-year, $825,000 just before training camp.

(Top photo of Kirill Kaprizov: David Berding / Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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