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Finding the Right Contract for Kevin Fiala and the Wild

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

It’s well established by now that the Minnesota Wild are about to undergo a difficult offseason. Bill Guerin‘s legacy-defining summer will determine the DNA of this roster heading into the 2021-22 season. He’s already locked up Joel Eriksson Ek to an eight-year contract extension. Now the focus is on re-signing Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala.

Hopefully, Fiala will be on the opening-night roster next season. It seemed logical that the organization would consider Fiala untouchable given his emergence as a game-breaker. He is the type of player who could complement Kaprizov in a few years when the Wild have the depth to put both of them on the same line. He is exactly what Paul Fenton envisioned him as: a bonafide top-six winger with top-line upside in the future.

However, Fiala is not untouchable and might actually be available for trade this offseason if the Wild are presented an offer that could help strengthen the team. He’s their biggest asset if they want to trade for a top-six center. The problem? They’re gonna lose the trade unless they include him in a package for a surefire No. 1.

The Wild also don’t have a ton of financial flexibility because of the current financial landscape, and they may be worried that Fiala will play hardball again in contract negotiations. The restricted free agent has arbitration rights, carried a $3 million cap hit last year, and will be looking for a hefty raise.

With all that said, Fiala’s value is evident. He has 94 points in his past 114 games, an incredible 0.82 point-per-game pace despite some flashes of inconsistency. He has strong possession and transition numbers, a lethal combination with his dangerous shot. He has made major strides defensively too. He has become a more polished player and could burst on the scene next season as the star that everyone knows he can be.

What is Fiala worth? What number is too much and would justify moving the promising forward? Where does he fit in the lineup in the future?

All valid questions that I hope to answer here in order to identify a fair compromise for both sides.

According to Evolving-Hockey, the highest likelihood for the term of his contract is as follows: five years (30%), four years (20%), eight years (14%), and six years (13%). Their contract projections have him likely signing a five-year contract that carries a $6.11 million AAV. This seems like a reasonable contract for both sides. The Wild are paying him a little more than his comparables, especially in a flat-cap environment, but they avoid the risk of going to arbitration.

After using CapFriendly’s custom comparable tool that helps produce comparable contracts after entering Fiala’s age, position, RFA status with arbitration rights, career goal/point production, and different contract terms, it provided contracts that best match his situation.

For context, Fiala has 198 points in 337 career games (0.59 PPG). All of the comparable players are wingers who had arbitration rights.

In a short-term scenario, a comparable deal could be the contract Milan Lucic signed back in 2012. He grades out as one of the highest matches to Fiala. At 25 years old, he signed a three-year deal that carried an AAV of $6 million. He had 212 points in 359 games (0.59 PPG) at the time, a rate that is identical to Fiala’s.

If both sides wanted to compromise at four years, there are two strong comparables. The first is Tomas Tatar, who signed a four-year contract at age 26 that paid him $5.3 million annually. He had 194 points in 345 games at the time of the signing, which is 0.56 PPG, a very close comparison.

The other is Anthony Mantha, who signed a four-year extension that carried a cap hit of $5.7 million. The difference between Mantha and Fiala is that the former produced significantly more before his contract. Mantha notched 173 points in 260 games which equates to 0.67 PPG.

The three best comparables for a five-year contract, the highest likely term according to Evolving-Hockey, are Jason Zucker, J.T. Miller, and Teuvo Teravainen.

At age 26, Zucker signed a five-year extension worth $5.5 million a season. He had 172 points in 330 games; that’s 0.52 PPG, which is close to Fiala. Miller signed for $5.25 million a season and Teravainen signed for $5.4 a season. Both were five-year deals at ages 25 and 24 respectively, with similar offensive production. All three of these are good comparisons for Fiala.

There aren’t many comparables for anything higher than five years. Jonathan Huberdeau‘s six-year deal worth $5.9 annually is applicable. He signed the deal at age 24 after notching 172 points in 272 games before securing his next deal. That is good for 0.63 PPG, a close enough comparison for Fiala.

The biggest question is, what is too much? At what point do the Wild trade him? They don’t have the luxury of overpaying players right now because of a few poor contracts and the Suter/Parise deals that are still on the books. This means finding a sweet spot in negotiations will be completely necessary.

Remember, Fiala has arbitration rights. Therefore it’s tricky because they don’t want to go to arbitration with him while simultaneously negotiating with Kaprizov.

Perhaps both sides would want a two- or three-year deal, but that’s inadvisable because Fiala could depart in free agency after the deal. The Wild could attempt to lower the AAV and get a better sense of Fiala’s worth. On the flip side, Fiala gets more runway to prove he can be a top-line winger, which would inevitably allow him to command a more lucrative contract.

Here’s where it gets messy: Michael Russo of The Athletic is reporting that Fiala may be attempting to get north of $7 million and even possibly closer to $8 million annually on his next deal. In my opinion, he hasn’t done enough to command even $7 million, let alone more. Over the past three seasons, he has been worth 1.1 wins above replacement, a far cry from a top-line player. In his defense, it has been low because of his low on-ice goals for per hour at even strength and on the power play, which could be because of the linemates he’s been matched with.

If Fiala and Guerin are willing to make a seven- or eight-year investment, I think you could look at Kyle Connor‘s seven-year extension coming off a 34-goal, 66-point season, which pays him $7.14. Considering the Wild have been starving for goal-scoring talent, and Fiala has 94 points in his past 114 games, I think $7 million over seven or eight years could be a good investment. Fiala would be worth it over the life of the contract.

A long-term deal, however, is probably unlikely. I think a fair compromise is a five-year deal at around $6 million, similar to Evolving-Hockey’s projections. Not only do the Wild escape arbitration, but they buy some UFA years. By the time the contract comes to an end, Parise, Suter, and Zuccarello will be off the books too.

But if an AAV of $7 million gets it done on a contract of five years or more, do you do it? I think if you’re Guerin, you may be forced to. Are the Wild really willing to lose a player who is poised to score 30 goals with first-line potential over a million-dollar disagreement?

On the other hand, the future has to be taken into account. In two years, Matthew Boldy and Calen Addison will be coming off their entry-level contracts. Likewise, in three years, Marco Rossi and Adam Beckman will be coming off theirs too. All four players will have likely played some significant time with the Wild when their contracts are up, and you don’t know what kind of deals they will need.

This doesn’t even take into account that the center position needs to be upgraded. If the Wild are going to get a bonafide No. 1 center or even a high-end No. 2, you’re likely paying close to $6-7 million at minimum, likely more. That’s why you can’t just throw money around just to retain players.

Fiala has displayed his game-breaking potential, but he still has some improvements to make going forward. The biggest concern should be Fiala’s camp attempting to get him paid to be something he isn’t, but instead what he possibly could be in the future.

All Data Via Evolving-Hockey, Hockey-Reference & CapFriendly.

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