The puck plopped to the ice out of the goaltender's glove, and Kirill Kaprizov's jaw dropped.

His pump fake, shuffling the puck back and forth and a shot from his backhand — none of it worked, and Kaprizov looked shocked by the outcome.

But he wasn't deprived of a game-winning goal in the third period of a playoff game, or any game for that matter.

This was a drill.

During practice.

At training camp.

"The standard that he holds himself to is a little bit nuts," teammate Matt Dumba said. "I don't think everyone could do that. This guy literally expects to score every time he shoots the puck."

A pipe dream prospect for the five years that he played in Russia after the Wild drafted him in 2015, Kaprizov supplanted the myth and became an instant legend when the forward finally joined the Wild last season.

“[Kaprizov] doesn't score the sixth goal in the 6-2 game or something like that. He's going to score the tying goal that sends you to overtime, the winning goal with 10 seconds left like he's done. He's going to get you on the board early and get the team fired up. He's one of those guys that turns the game around for a team”
Wild goalie Cam Talbot

He was a factory for offense and the landslide winner of the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie, a captivating debut that spilled over into the offseason when Kaprizov and the Wild were locked into a monthslong negotiation that finally culminated on the eve of camp in a lucrative contract that's in the neighborhood of what the game's biggest stars earn.

"He's not a secret anymore," General Manager Bill Guerin said.

The spotlight has never been brighter on Kaprizov as the Wild faces a full-length season against the NHL's gamut, a return to normalcy that begins Friday at Anaheim.

And now it's time to find out what Kaprizov can do for an encore.

"He's one of those players that wants to be the best player on the ice every night," said Wild center Nico Sturm. "If anything, I think his new contract's probably more motivation for him than pressure."

Unique arrival

From the get-go, Kaprizov was a showstopper for the Wild.

His first NHL game ended with his scoring his first goal in overtime, a rare feat that was just a preview of what was to come: the no-look pass to Nick Bjugstad behind the net at Arizona; a third-period hat trick also at the expense of the Coyotes; moving the puck through his legs for a highlight-reel goal vs. Los Angeles; a last-minute goal against St. Louis; the overtime winner over Anaheim.

"When he goes on the ice, you're expecting something to happen," Wild owner Craig Leipold said.

After leading the team and NHL rookies with 27 goals and 51 points, rewriting the Wild record book in the process, the 24-year-old received the highest percentage of first-place votes (99 out of 100) for the Calder Trophy since Teemu Selanne was the unanimous pick in 1993.

Kaprizov's ensuing five-year, $45 million contract, an unprecedented deal for someone at his experience level (just 55 NHL regular-season games), only added to the uniqueness of his arrival.

But Kaprizov's individual accomplishments become even more impressive in the context of what they meant for the Wild.

The winger rebooted the team, helping turn what could have been a rocky season into a workable foundation.

"You got Kirill coming in, changing this team I think a little bit, bringing a little more swag," said Joel Eriksson Ek, who will center Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello to start the season.

Although the 2021 schedule was abbreviated and only against a division saddled with rebuilding clubs, the Wild had a successful 35-16-5 run that lasted until the team was eliminated by powerhouse Vegas in Game 7 during the first round of the playoffs.

And at the reins of this progress was Kaprizov, who declined to be interviewed.

"He doesn't score the sixth goal in the 6-2 game or something like that," goalie Cam Talbot said. "He's going to score the tying goal that sends you to overtime, the winning goal with 10 seconds left like he's done. He's going to get you on the board early and get the team fired up. He's one of those guys that turns the game around for a team."

Chasing consistency

Hockey's elite, however, don't have just one stellar season.

They collect them, stacking one on top of the other until years later when they've assembled a masterpiece.

What Kaprizov does next as a sophomore will hint at his potential.

"The expectation level goes up because you felt like it came somewhat easy in the first year," said Hall of Famer Mike Modano, the NHL's all-time leading scorer among American-born players and an executive adviser for the Wild.

After he was drafted first overall in 1988 by the North Stars, Modano racked up 29 goals and 75 points as a rookie. He had a similar output in his return (28 goals and 64 points) but was even better in Year 3, recording 33 goals and 77 points. By his fifth season, Modano was a 50-goal scorer who eclipsed 90 points.

"You can do it one year, surprise them. The second year, maybe," Modano said. "But to string five, six, seven years together, then you're moving yourself to another echelon."

The checking intensifies, Modano said, and the game becomes more physically demanding. But persevering is a mental challenge; instead of going for an overhaul, a player has to stick with what's worked.

"When you get that respect so early in your career, it should be a little bit more of a feather in your cap," Modano said. "So, take it as a little bit of a positive that you are forcing teams to pay extra attention to you."

And Kaprizov's audience is about to grow.

New challenges

Three-fourths of the NHL is awaiting an introduction since just seven teams played against him last season as part of the division-based calendar.

That means new opponents but also more games and different venues.

"Will that affect him? I don't think so," said Rick Tocchet, a three-time Stanley Cup champion and studio analyst for the NHL on TNT. "I think he's just a guy that when he plays the game, he plays with such energy and it looks like he loves the game. I don't think that's going to affect him at all, whether he goes into Madison Square Garden or whether he plays in the [TD] Garden. It doesn't really matter to him."

Tocchet anticipates teams game planning around Kaprizov, defending differently when he's on the ice and doubling up pressure.

“He's one of those players that wants to be the best player on the ice every night. If anything, I think his new contract's probably more motivation for him than pressure.”
Wild center Nico Sturm

When Kaprizov goes into the corner, Tocchet said, a defenseman and a center will probably be with him.

But that could showcase more of Kaprizov's assets, like his passing and vision.

"He's just not a one-on-one player," Tocchet said. "He can also make plays, and he's going to need that this year more than ever because I think a lot of teams are going to pay attention. So, he's going to have to play even more of a give-and-go game because of that."

Already last season, Arizona highlighted Kaprizov in its game prep; the plan was to apply back pressure, push the defense up to take away space and make physical contact.

"We would try to just gap him and Zuccarello," said defenseman Alex Goligoski, who was on the Coyotes' blue line before signing with the Wild in July. "They like to play a slower, more east-west game, and they're just so good at finding each other. They're not necessarily going to be driving north all the time, so let's just stay up, stay up, stay up. That was what we went with."

Kaprizov still scored five times and finished with 10 points in eight games vs. Arizona.

"He's so good off the rush," said Tocchet, who coached the Coyotes last season. "I thought at parts of the game we had him in check, but then you'd send a couple of guys after him in the corner and somehow he'd get out of there and he'd make a play to somebody. That's what the greats do.

"… You might have him in check for 52 minutes but in that 53rd minute of the game, eight minutes left, he just needs one chance and it's in your net."

Same stakes

Despite that unsuccessful shot in practice at camp, a snag by goalie Kaapo Kahkonen, Kaprizov has returned as the hockey connoisseur he was a season ago.

"He says he's not 100 percent yet, which is scary," Wild alternate captain Marcus Foligno said.

As personalized as Kaprizov's challenge is to show that his rookie tear wasn't an isolated incident, the Wild is in the same situation.

Last season the team was competitive, the combination of opportunistic scoring, smart defending and no-nonsense goaltending. But will those traits hold up in a more rigorous division, against the entire NHL and through 82 games — especially at the dawning of a new era after the Wild cut longtime leaders Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in the offseason by buying out their contracts?

Kaprizov can help answer that question, just like he's at the controls when it comes to his own future.

"It's not just him," Sturm said. "It's everybody that has to prove that what we did last year wasn't a one-off. I'm confident in us and confident in him as a player that he's going to make the special moments happen again."