Kevin Fiala single-handedly injected life and hope into a franchise that was low on both. He was a revelation for the Minnesota Wild, arguably their MVP. It was special for the State of Hockey witness him go from a healthy scratch in October to an emerging player in December to a superstar in February.
This wasn’t the first time Wild fans have seen a player breakout. Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle all emerged in the 2016-17 season, for example. But Fiala’s run felt different. Felt special. Fiala wasn’t just fulfilling his promise, nor was he merely a fantastic piece of the Wild’s success.
He was stirring the Wild’s drink in a way no young Wild player did since Marian Gaborik. He would take over games. The team’s veterans, not exactly famous for deferring to youth, suddenly ran things through Fiala.
Fiala led the team in scoring, and his impact caught the attention of the league. He won First Star of the Week honors on March 1st. How could he get better?
It’s tempting to look at the 14 goals and 26 points he had in his final 18 games and say “Do that again.” But diving into the numbers will reveal that there is definite room for improvement in his game. Let’s see what Fiala has to do to make his success sustainable and his game more dangerous.
Fiala led Minnesota with 175 shots despite playing fewer than 16 minutes a night. His 2.73 shots per game is the most by an under-25 Wild player not named “Gaborik.” Fiala’s 13.1 shooting percentage was a career-high, but it isn’t a red flag signaling future regression.
So where can Fiala improve?
Fiala shot a lot compared to Minnesota players. But when you compare him to the league, he has a harder time standing out. Fiala finished 47th in shots per game among 200 forwards with 40 or more games played. Really good. Right in the range of Matt Tkachuk, Andrei Svechnikov and Timo Meier. But not elite.
Contrast this with Fiala’s final 18 games, where he racked up an obscene 78 shots. He would have finished 3rd in the league behind Nathan MacKinnon and Alex Ovechkin if he kept up that 4.33 average over a full season.
Expecting Fiala to keep up that pace over 82 games might be a pipe dream. Even Gaborik and Zach Parise — two of the most prolific shooters in team history — weren’t able to do that. But if Fiala adds even another half shot per game he’d likely break into the league’s Top-20.
Fiala can also take things up a notch further by getting more dangerous shots off. Saying that Fiala’s shots weren’t dangerous enough sounds like blasphemy, but take a look. On the left is his shot map from 2017-18 in Nashville. On the right is his shot map from this year.
Fiala shot from an average of 32 feet from the net this year — six feet further out than his average from two years ago. Fiala’s goals came from that home plate area in front of the net two seasons ago. He had many more goals from distance this year.
It’s good that Fiala displayed the shooting talent to be dangerous from all over the ice. On the other hand, the more you rely on scoring from distance, the more susceptible you are to cold streaks. It must also be noted that Fiala played primarily with Parise, who took net-front duties. Still, there’s room to merge the net-front game Fiala displayed in 2018 with the Fiala who was running wild in open space this year.
The transition game was one of Fiala’s calling cards upon his arrival to Minnesota. Fiala was one of the league’s very best at entering the zone, carrying the puck often and with ease. You can find highlights from this season where this skill is on full display.
The NHL doesn’t track zone entry data, but a partial set of data does exist thanks to the tireless and essential work of Corey Sznajder. And the data on Fiala is somewhat concerning, though it should be noted that we’re working with a smallish sample of 14 games.
Fiala has just 17.4 zone entries per hour at 5-on-5 play this season. That rates as merely average, both on the Wild and league-wide. It isn’t just that Fiala hasn’t been a prolific zone entry wizard. It’s how he’s entering the zone.
Fiala was one of the least likely players in the NHL to dump the puck in Nashville. 80 percent of his entries came through carrying the puck into the zone last year. This is important because a carry-in is much more likely to maintain possession of the puck and get a shot off than a dump-in.
Fiala improved as the year went along, and again, we’re dealing with a small sample. But the data we have shows Fiala at carrying the puck into the zone 46 percent of the time. That’s below league average.
This issue is probably system-related more than player-related. Fiala has these skills. But he left one of the least dump-and-chase teams to go to the most dump-happy teams. You can expect Fiala’s zone entries to improve with a more up-tempo system to fit the incoming youth movement in Minnesota.
Many a sportswriter has gotten owned online by taking a perfectly great player and dismissing them because of defense. This is not what’s about to happen. A good enough offensive player can be great even if they are atrocious defensively. Ask Connor McDavid.
But let’s be real: It does help.
Fiala’s defense isn’t as bad as, say, Patrick Kane or Kyle Connor, and he should get credit for that. But his defensive play was the worst on the Wild this year. His even-strength defense was worth -1.5 Goals Above Replacement this year. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but that cost Minnesota about a half-point in the standings. For a bubble team, that’s a big deal.
Fiala doesn’t have to improve much for this to be a non-issue. Look at a player like Zucker. Zucker was derided early in his career for his “two-way game”. He didn’t become a Marcus Foligno-type defender, but Zucker used his speed to recover pucks in his end and start rushes. If Fiala can replicate anything like that, he’ll be fine.
Nashville drafted Fiala 11th overall back in 2014 because he had all the tools. He was fast, skilled and had a great shot. David Poile said this two weeks before he traded Fiala to Minnesota: “I’ll make you a bet he’s going to score 30 goals in this league. I know it’s going to happen.” Poile knew that Fiala would be scary if he ever put it all together.
Fiala sure looks terrifying now. You can nitpick his game if you want, but he still was on track to flirt with 30 goals and 70 points. If this is the new normal for Fiala, he’ll haunt opposing defenses for years to come.
But what’s even more frightening is that Fiala still hasn’t quite put all of his talent together.