Craig Leipold never reached a point where he thought Monday’s franchise-altering development might not happen, but the Wild owner admits he had moments of real concern.
“He’s already gone through three coaches and three general managers,” Leipold said with a laugh.
Yep, the Wild organization has undergone many reincarnations since drafting Kirill Kaprizov in 2015. The one constant throughout was a burning desire — and need — to get the Russian star signed, sealed and delivered.
That long-awaited moment finally happened. Well, not technically yet. Possibly later this week, depending on travel plans.
But Kaprizov is a member of the organization now, not some mythical figure in a faraway land dangling like a diamond on YouTube to torment Wild fans who weren’t sure if he would ever wear the team’s uniform.
“I don’t want to build him up too much. I guess I have to be a little careful. It will take him a while to get used to the system here. But we think long term that he can be a game-changer.”
The circumstances are unusual — perhaps fitting for this saga — but Kaprizov signed his two-year entry-level contract Monday, though he won’t be eligible to play until next season, another dastardly delay but no longer a roadblock.
“It seems like it’s been an eternity since we drafted him, and it really became known how special this player was,” Leipold said.
How important is Kaprizov’s signing? On the same day, the Wild announced a head coach and held its first practice in four months, and those two developments became sidebars.
The owner even signed off on something that he previously would have considered preposterous to ensure that the team got the 23-year-old Kaprizov under contract.
“I’ve never had an entry-level contract where the general manager came up to me and said, ‘Hey, let’s burn this first year off,’ ” Leipold said. “I would have looked up to him and said, ‘Are you crazy?’ But this is a different situation. It’s just the prudent thing to do. We didn’t want to take any chances.”
The tangled mess of COVID-19 and the NHL’s CBA rules created a complicated situation in which the Wild chose the option of signing Kaprizov to his contract this season, knowing he can only practice with the team during the league’s restart in Edmonton in three weeks.
Leipold is understandably disappointed, but he didn’t want to take any more chances that might further delay Kaprizov’s arrival.
“I’m so looking forward to seeing him,” Leipold said. “It would have been such a wonderful situation — not just for our market but for the whole league frankly — if he was able to play in these playoffs. I think it would bring a pretty high level of excitement.”
His signing gives Leipold’s organization some juice. Maybe not the same jolt as the July 4th fireworks set off by the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signings in 2012, but adding a player of Kaprizov’s skill and reputation generates buzz, which translates at the box office.
Exhibit A: The Wild’s Hockey Lodge store at Southdale Center fielded calls Monday from fans wanting Kaprizov’s No. 97 sweater.
“We’ve been looking for this player, this really special young guy,” Leipold said. “We think we have one. I don’t want to build him up too much. I guess I have to be a little careful. It will take him a while to get used to the system here. But we think long term that he can be a game-changer.”
The Wild suddenly has two potential young franchise-changing stars in Kevin Fiala and Kaprizov — both 23 years old and gifted scorers. The organization has some important personnel decisions to address this offseason, but the Fiala-Kaprizov tandem should serve as the foundation in GM Billy Guerin’s quest to build a contender.
“It’s going to be fun when they jump on the ice,” Leipold said.
Leipold said his phone “blew up” with congratulatory texts from friends around the league Monday. Kaprizov should arrive within days. The Wild wants to use this time to help him get acclimated to a new team, new system, new country, new everything.
This moment has been a long time coming for the organization and its fan base. The owner had no firm celebration plans.
“I’ll let the hockey guys celebrate,” he said. “I need sleep.”