Wild’s Kirill Kaprizov or Stars’ Jason Robertson: Who has the edge for the first-round matchup?

By Michael Russo, Saad Yousuf and Shayna Goldman

DALLAS — On paper, the Wild and Stars’ opening-round series should be terrific and competitive.

You have two goalies in Jake Oettinger and Filip Gustavsson who put up Vezina Trophy-type numbers. You have a couple of Norris Trophy-caliber defensemen in Miro Heiskanen and Jared Spurgeon and two of the NHL’s best defensive teams that play a fast, hard brand of hockey and aren’t exactly fond of each other. Between the physicality of Marcus Foligno and Jamie Benn and the confrontations that are certain to happen between the likes of players like Radek Faksa, Ryan Reaves and Ryan Hartman, there should be plenty of drama in this battle of division rivals.

And then, of course, there’s the intrigue of the series coming 30 years after Norm Green broke the hearts of Minnesotans and relocated the North Stars south. If there’s such a thing as karma, Wild fans are certainly hoping it could make it the year their team ends a string of first-round exits triggered by, coincidentally, the Stars in 2016.

But beyond all of that, one of the most exciting aspects of this series will be the head-to-head matchup of two of the best, most dynamic and most prolific young left wingers in the NHL: Kirill Kaprizov vs. Jason Robertson.

Kaprizov is 25, Robertson is 23, and besides the fact that one is from Siberia and the other is from Southern California, they’re on a career trajectory where they’ll always be compared.

First, they finished 1-2 in the Calder in 2020, although Robertson is humble and self-deprecating when he volunteers that Kaprizov “beat me by a few laps.” Kaprizov indeed had 99 first-place votes to Robertson’s one.

Second, in three seasons (Robertson did play three games in 2019-20), Kaprizov and Robertson have an identical 234 points. Kaprizov has played 203 games and has 114 goals, while Robertson has scored 104 goals in 210 games.

Third, they may be the exception to the rule that a quality training camp is the most vital thing toward a monster season.

Last season, Kaprizov was in a contract dispute with the Wild. Even the team didn’t know that Kaprizov took it upon himself to fly to South Florida two weeks in advance of signing so he could begin his mandatory COVID-19 quarantine in the event he signed. He ultimately inked a five-year, $45 million contract on the eve of camp, arrived on time but admittedly got off to a rusty start and was behind the rest of his teammates — before scoring a career-high and franchise-record 47 goals and 108 points.

Coincidentally, last fall, Robertson didn’t sign his four-year, $31 million deal until a few days before the season began. Didn’t matter. Despite missing almost all of camp, Robertson finished with 46 goals and 109 points — almost identical numbers to Kaprizov’s previous year.

Robertson’s 109 points were the most by a U.S.-born player in a single season at age 23 or younger and the second-most by a player of any age in Stars/North Stars history, behind only Bobby Smith (114 points in 80 games in 1981-82).

Pete DeBoer, in his first year as Dallas’ coach, admitted he was worried about how Robertson would play after missing camp.

“It wasn’t a few days. It was going on weeks,” DeBoer said. “You always worry about him catching up. New coach. New systems. All those things. But he made me look pretty dumb on that. He didn’t need any extra time. I joke with him to this day that he should be calling the Players’ Association. They might eliminate all training camps based on what he’s done.”

Kaprizov was a fifth-round pick, Robertson a second. In fact, Robertson was part of that 2017 grand slam for Dallas where it drafted a franchise forward, a franchise defenseman in Heiskanen and a franchise goalie in Oettinger.

What are the chances of finding three backbone players in the same draft?

Kaprizov and Robertson were All-Star Game linemates and stall mates and developed an even greater respect for each other when they got to know each other better in South Florida earlier this winter.

“He’s an amazing player,” said Kaprizov, who became the first Wild player to notch multiple 40-goal seasons, of Robertson. “He gets opportunities from nothing, so he’s obviously an outstanding player in the league.”

In 2021, we analyzed their rookie years to determine who had the edge in the Calder race. We thought it would be fun heading into the Wild-Stars series to look at how Kaprizov and Robertson have continued to ascend into bona fide NHL stardom since.

Stat Kaprizov Robertson

Calder finish



1st-place votes



2nd-place votes




27 goals, 51 points

17 goals, 45 points


47 goals, 108 points

41 goals, 79 points


40 goals, 75 points

46 goals, 109 points


114 goals, 234 points

104 goals, 234 points

Different styles, similar output

Robertson is tall and lanky. His skating has always been scrutinized, yet his playmaking is underrated.

At five-on-five, he’s second on the Stars and ranks among the best in the league with 12.5 primary shot attempts per 60 minutes, showing just how often his passes directly precede his teammates’ shots. But what makes him such a special player, and such a threat this year, is the way he’s developed into a dual threat.

The best aspect of his game is his shot, and his awareness of where to go to find the puck is elite. He’s a top-10 player in shot creation.

“I think his puck decisions (are something) I’ve been really impressed with,” DeBoer said. “He has a conscious with the puck where he’s not afraid to dump it out or dump it in if there’s nothing there. He’s a smart player, and he recognizes opportunities to create offense, but he also has a conscious where he can live to fight another day. If there’s nothing there, he’s willing to stick it in and go and forecheck and do some of that heavy lifting that you ask other guys to do.”

Kaprizov, meanwhile, is all over the puck, sticks his nose in the dirtiest of areas, can score in several ways and is brilliant when it comes to explosiveness and edgework.

His skating allows him to turn zone entries into scoring opportunities, extend zone time and create off the cycle. He has so many tricks up his sleeve and can beat opponents whether it’s up the middle with a tip-in or a redirect, or anywhere in the scoring-chance area with his wrist shot. He can even sneak in a few backends.

“I love watching him,” DeBoer said of Kaprizov. “I got to coach him at the All-Star Game, and I couldn’t believe the size of him. He’s built like a tank, and you can see how he can play the game he plays. Reminds me (of Zach) Parise. They’re not big guys, but they play a power game. They’re inside, they’re heavy on pucks, they’re not afraid to go to those dirty areas on the ice. He’s a handful to deal with.”

While Robertson and Kaprizov do have contrasting traits, DeBoer also sees similarities between the two.

“Both have lethal shots,” he said. “Obviously, Robo is more rangy and uses his long arms and reach and some of those things a little bit more where Kaprizov is more of that power-through-you type of game. Both (are) very effective offensive players, and both guys have that goal-scorers’ knack where they don’t need a lot of room to find a hole and they don’t need a lot of space to get a shot off.”

Robertson reminds ESPN analyst Ray Ferraro of Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille, his former L.A. Kings teammate.

“Both guys, they’re just scorers,” Ferraro said. “I never knew Luc was as competitive and feisty as he was ‘til I played with him. And I think there’s a sense a little bit about (how) Jason is the same way, as he’s just kind of silky and he’s in and out. But you cannot score like they do if you don’t have inside you that the most important thing is to score and to provide offense. They both don’t skate fabulously. Luc was never going to win (a) race anywhere. Jason’s not going to win a race anywhere. But they get to where they’re going because they’re really smart.

“There’s this understated way that Jason plays, but he always seems to be half a step ahead. It’s not an accident that the puck keeps coming to him in a place to shoot it. He seems to know that it’s a time to speed up. It’s a time to slow down. And when the puck’s around the net, those guys always get their stick on it.”

Kaprizov is a different type of player. Teammate Marcus Johansson, who played with his share of stars in Washington, called Kaprizov “the whole package. He’s got everything. You can’t ask for a better hockey player.”

“He’s a darter,” Ferraro said of Kaprizov. “If there’s little space, he finds a way to dive through it. Gets his nose right over top of the puck. He’s hard to knock off. I think there’s a misconception of smaller players that they’re all the same. Some guys are just small. He’s short, but he’s not small. He’s stout. He’s hard to knock over. And so he can get to places other people can’t. And when he gets there and somebody tries to knock him off stride, lots of times they can’t. And there’s a more outward determination to his game.

“With Jason, it doesn’t look like he’s got it, but he does. But I’m drawn more to Kaprizov’s game. I’m drawn to his pace. I’m drawn to his determination. He’s just different.”

Playing their own styles, Robertson and Kaprizov both put forth phenomenal regular seasons as they led their respective teams into the playoffs.

“If it wasn’t for Connor McDavid, probably both guys are in the conversation for the Hart,” Stars general manager Jim Nill said.

It won’t be surprising to see Robertson finish in the top five, though. At five-on-five, the Stars generated 3.39 expected goals per 60 in his minutes, which is 31 percent above the league average. Compare that to when he was on the bench, when Dallas only mustered 2.29 per 60, which was 11 percent below the league average. Dallas was better in its own end in his minutes, as well, which likely had to do with how much the team possessed the puck in his minutes.

It was his best season yet in Dallas. He proved himself to be a true difference-maker, even in the highest-pressure moments.

Mentorship program

Robertson has 38-year-old Joe Pavelski, and Kaprizov has 35-year-old Mats Zuccarello, which could be the best bromance in hockey.

Zuccarello has joked that they share a brain, both on and off the ice.

“He’s young and hungry,” Zuccarello said. “He wants it all the time. He wants to score. He wants to do well every shift, and I think that drags me into it a little bit. If you read off each other really well, it’s easier to get the puck. When you know where your guy’s supposed to be, you can play quicker. The biggest thing is that we try to find each other open ice and be available all the time so we can play quick.”

Something Robertson and Kaprizov share is that they have had these veterans not just on the same team but on the same line from very early on in their careers. In Year 1, Kaprizov spent 62 percent of his five-on-five time with Zuccarello. It’s steadily increased since, up to 84 percent in 2022-23. The same is true with Robertson in Pavelski; once the duo was united in his rookie year, he spent about 51 percent of his minutes with the veteran. Over the next two years, it was about 83 percent.

For a young player, elevating from NHL level to everyday-NHL level and then superstar status is no easy task, but it certainly helps when you have veteran voices in such close proximity.

“It’s major,” Nill said. “Having that mentorship and having that calming voice or even having maybe a pretty stern talk: ‘Hey, you’re not doing this right. You’re cheating out.’ It’s those types of conversations that coaches can say things to players but when it comes (to) peer to peer, player to player, (it’s) really impactful.

“You look at all of the good teams, it’s the leadership internally. You send the message (as a coach), but the message is really sent by the leadership group. That’s the best message. Something might happen and the coach might go to deal with it and before he finds out he has to deal with it, the player has already done it.”

If you look at Zuccarello and Pavelski, given their stature and age, Ferraro said, “There’s no way they should be this successful for this long, except they know how to play. It’s so undefinable.”

The quality of teammates is extremely influential on a player’s results, so it’s no surprise that playing with superstar-caliber wingers has helped both Zuccarello and Pavelski. As they’ve developed more chemistry and complementary skillsets, it’s helped the veterans maintain first-line-caliber status. Zuccarello’s passing clicks with Kaprizov’s shot-making; the fact that Kaprizov can transport the puck up the ice at a higher rate helps, too. So does his forechecking ability, extending plays in the offensive zone. Even this year, with the left wing increasing his passing, Zuccarello’s picked up his shooting.

As for Pavelski, he’s in a combination that really rounds out his game. At the most basic level, center Roope Hintz is the primary passer, Robertson the shooter and Pavelski can play to his strengths as the net-front presence. But each player contributes more than just that, which is why they’re able to drive up the ice so successfully and sustain pressure.

Superstar status

In Minnesota, Kaprizov shoulders the superstar status, although the hope is that Matt Boldy, who scored 14 goals in his final 16 games and stepped up dramatically during the 13 games Kaprizov missed down the stretch with a lower-body injury, can start to alleviate some of the pressure.

In Dallas, Robertson shares the spotlight with the likes of Heiskanen, Pavelski, Oettinger, Hintz, young stud Wyatt Johnston and, of course, mainstays Benn and Tyler Seguin.

Ferraro said for the Wild to get to where they want to go, Kaprizov’s going to need a supporting cast like the Stars are building around Robertson.

“One guy can only lift so much,” Ferraro said. “And it doesn’t have to be a star or a 15-year vet. We know just from year after year after year that a team that gets out of the first round always has that unsung hero where you look and go, ‘Oh, so-and-so scored three goals,’ you know like a Freddy Gaudreau or somebody.

“Trust me, Kaprizov and Robertson will get theirs in this series, but if Minnesota or Dallas come out, we’re going to look and see somebody in the bottom six get three goals in the series and be a difference maker.”


Kaprizov scored seven goals in six playoff games last year — a franchise record for most goals in a single series — as the Wild lost in six games to the Blues.

“This new season,” Kaprizov said. “I just want to try to play better.”

Wild GM Bill Guerin thinks Kaprizov can elevate his game even further in the playoffs.

“He’s got to build off of last year’s playoffs,” Guerin said. “He knows what it is now. He knows what to expect. He’s going to get a lot of attention and he’s got to play through it. You look at a lot of the stars over the years — you look at (Sidney) Crosby, you look at (Nathan) MacKinnon, you look at (Nikita) Kucherov and (Steven) Stamkos and (Victor) Hedman — they have consistently performed and built on their previous postseason success, year after year. It’s just not that easy. It’s hard.”

Robertson scored one goal and three assists in a seven-game loss to Calgary after his 41-goal, 79-point campaign, so he hopes to use last year’s experience and improve upon his output this postseason. He is also in a different system under DeBoer.

“I didn’t realize how much Pete comes in and changes kind of the way we wanted to play, which kind of favors the way I want to play,” Robertson said. “That was definitely an advantage.”

Things can change rapidly over time. Two years after Kaprizov and Robertson were talked about as Calder candidates, they’re now in a different realm: Hart-level players. In a playoff series that offers plenty, the brightest spotlights should shine on them.

— Data via Evolving-Hockey, AllThreeZones, and HockeyViz.

(Top photo of Kirill Kaprizov and Jason Robertson: Sam Hodde / NHLI via Getty Images) 


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