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Judd Zulgad

Keep Kirill Happy

Wild’s desire to keep Kirill Kaprizov happy lands his wingman a contract extension

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The news that Mats Zuccarello had agreed to a two-year, $8.25 million extension with the Wild on Friday likely came as a surprise to many. But for those who heard owner Craig Leipold discuss the Wild’s goal to retain Kirill Kaprizov for the long term a day earlier, the decision wasn’t a surprise at all.

What’s important to Kaprizov is important to the Wild, and Zuccarello remaining a teammate of the superstar from Russia clearly ranked very high. The two have been wingers on the same line for multiple seasons and, just as importantly, are very good friends. Zuccarello had 24 goals and 79 points in 70 games two seasons ago and 22 goals and 67 points in 78 games last year.

The biggest factor, at least for those who don’t understand this decision, is Zuccarello’s age.

He is 36, and had been set to enter the final season of the five-year free agent contract he signed with the Wild in 2019. But concern about his age wasn’t as important as the focus on keeping Kaprizov happy. Zuccarello’s new agreement will begin with the 2024-25 season and means he and Kaprizov have the same number of years left on their deals.

Leipold, whose team also agreed to a four-year, $16 million extension with veteran winger Marcus Foligno on Friday, tipped his hand a bit on Thursday between periods of the Wild’s preseason game against Colorado as he answered questions in his suite at Xcel Energy Center. Asked about keeping Kaprizov happy and giving him a sense of hope about the Wild’s future, Leipold said:

“I would be lying to you (if I said) it’s not on our minds. Kirill’s a special player and we want him to believe that we’re going to help field a Stanley Cup team. And he’s a huge part of our future, but only if he stays here. We have a great relationship with Kirill. I think he enjoys it here. … He’s a good kid, a really good kid. And we have to make sure that when his next contract comes up, it’s going to be a long-term contract that he signs here.”

Kaprizov already has signed one contract extension since arriving in Minnesota, agreeing to a five-year, $45 million in September 2021. The goal is for Kaprizov’s next contract to be in the eight-year range with much more money attached.

Despite what Leipold said, Kaprizov is no kid. He might still have a boyish look to him but he will turn 27 next April and has 114 goals and 234 points in 203 games over his first three seasons. That includes a franchise-record 47 goals and 108 points two seasons ago.

The Wild have made the playoffs in each of Kaprizov’s three seasons only to get bounced in the first round. He had seven goals and eight points two years ago in a six-game loss to the Blues, but contributed only one goal in a six-game loss to Dallas last spring. Kaprizov, who was coming off an injury, looks like a guy who is tired of successful regular seasons turning into playoff flops and this is where the Wild needs to give him reason to want to stay and not jump to a bigger market or a team that looks ready to win a Cup.

The Wild’s prospect pool offers encouragement, but the reality is the team still has two years left of $14.7 million in dead salary-cap hits because of the decision to buy out Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. That leaves general manager Bill Guerin with little cap space for this season and a big unknown for 2024-25.

The only certainty for Guerin from a cap standpoint is that in 2025-26 — the final year of Kaprizov and Zuccarello’s deals — business should return to normal. That creates the possibility that the Wild will have to do everything in their power to prove to Kaprizov that patience will pay off.

What better guy to help with that than his buddy, Zuccarello.

Leipold, knowing a Zuccarello extension was close, acknowledged the veteran’s importance to Kaprizov on Thursday, without tipping his hand about the upcoming news.

“Everything comes into play,” Leipold said. “Their chemistry is so good, they work hard at it, they trust each other. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t tell you that’s an important part of why he’s important to our team, because they have a lot of chemistry together, and you want to keep those guys together.”

And if that helps keep Kaprizov in Minnesota long term, all the better.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Mackey and Judd podcast and also Judd’s Hockey Show for SKOR North. Judd covered the Vikings from 2005 to 2010 for the Star Tribune before joining SKOR North.

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