La Velle E. Neal III's 3-2 Pitch: Three observations and two predictions every Sunday.
Kirill Kaprizov is beginning his second season with the Wild, but already he looks like the best player the club has ever drafted.
He's yet to score during the young season but has five assists and appears ready to build on his rookie output of 27 goals and 24 assists in 55 games. That's a 40-goal pace over an 82-game season — which would have been the second most ever by a Wild player. Marian Gaborik — the Wild's best pick before Kaprizov — shares the single season record of 42 goals with Eric Staal.
With a year of experience, Kaprizov better understands what playing in the NHL is like. He's already showing opponents he's not going to be pushed around. But it's his offensive ceiling that should have fans on the edge of their seats this season. The Wild could have its first 50-goal scorer in franchise history. Or maybe its first player with 50 assists since Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Kaprizov has the hands to score and create, making such numbers seem attainable.
Just how good can Kaprizov be? He made his NHL debut at age 23. Other young stars like Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews were in the league in their late teens and blossomed in their early 20s as they gained experience.Gaborik was 18 when he broke in with the Wild, scoring 18 goals and 36 points overall. The next season he had his first of seven 30-goal seasons.
Kaprizov entered the NHL a little older, after playing professionally in Russia. How much upside does he still have? What if there is a lot of upside left?
"Whether it's going to squirts to pee wees to bantams. For every step up there is a learning curve," said former Gophers center Pat Micheletti, who also played part of one season with the North Stars. "The game is faster, the players are better, etc. No different than [jumping] to the National Hockey League. In fact, the toughest [jump] probably when it comes to hockey.
"I think there's a lot of upside because I think there's a lot for him to learn in terms of tricks of the trade. How to stay out of trouble, getting in the right spots and knowing who he's going up against. You pick up things.
I still think there's huge, huge upside for him."
That's a scary thought.
There can't be anything more exciting for Wild fans than to see Kaprizov part of an odd-man rush like the one during overtime on Tuesday. You knew the game was over even before he fed Joel Eriksson Ek for the winning goal.
It will be worth a visit to the Xcel Energy Center this season to watch Kaprizov navigate that learning curve.
Hard pass on Simmons
No one knows what the Wolves' level of interest in Philadelphia's Ben Simmons is. The question is whether they should have any interest at all.
Simmons spent the offseason telling the 76ers he would not report to training camp and wanted to be dealt. He showed up at practice roughly two weeks ago but was kicked out last week for not participating in a drill and, a couple days later, didn't go through a workout because of a sore back. On Friday, he told them he was not mentally ready to play.
Both sides are wrong here. Simmons is frustrated, wants out and is willing to forfeit his $33 million salary this season. The 76ers didn't take his trade request seriously enough. If he is dealt, Simmons gets what he wants. So what will he have learned? And we don't know if he's fixed his free throw problems. Pass on the three-time All-Star while he's dealing with various issues.
Healthy Darrisaw is key
One of the best developments for the Vikings during last week's win at Carolina was that they finally were able to integrate first-round pick Christian Darrisaw into the offensive line flow. And the rookie didn't disappoint.
Darrisaw, whose debut was delayed due to core muscle surgery during training camp, showed he has the strength and agility to handle talented pass rushers, as he was matched up against Panthers' end Brian Burns for most of the game. Now that Darrisaw is playing, the Vikes' O-line has a chance to improve the rest of the season.
While running back Dalvin Cook won't mind having another handy lineman blocking for him, the Vikings need to drive the ball down the field a little more. Kirk Cousins will need time to connect with his talented receivers. If Darrisaw is ready to hold down that left tackle spot, that's a boost to the offense.
... AND TWO PREDICTIONS ...
Next Steelers QB?
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is showing his age every week. Russell Wilson isn't as happy in Seattle as he once was. Aaron Rodgers is in his last dance with Green Bay. Look for Wilson or Rodgers in black and gold next season.
There is going to be a labor impasse this offseason as baseball owners and the union haggle over a new deal. Both sides will want to know what the new free agency rules are. The hot stove season won't heat up until January.