Once training camp opened for the Minnesota Wild and Kevin Fiala was placed on a line with new center Frederick Gaudreau, there were immediate questions regarding the viability of the line combination. Training camp and preseason games allow the coaching staff the opportunity to experiment and try new looks. Sometimes those experiments stick, while others end up abandoned.
At least for last Friday and Monday’s preseason games against the Colorado Avalanche, that combination appears to be getting a lengthy inspection by the Wild brass.
Impressions on Gaudreau’s preseason debut were a mixed bag. The former Pittsburgh Penguins center was tenacious on the backcheck in the neutral zone. In fact, his neutral zone play was perhaps the most prominent part of Gaudreau’s game. At least, it was the most consistently positive showing all game long from Gaudreau. The work in the middle of the ice isn’t something new. Per Corey Sznajder’s tracking project, not only was Gaudreau effective in that area with Pittsburgh, he was among the best on the team, albeit in limited minutes, for play in the neutral zone and moving the puck into the offensive zone. He showed he hadn’t lost that ability yet in preseason game No. 1.
Conversely, Gaudreau struggled in the faceoff dot, winning only 40% of the faceoffs against an Avs lineup that was not at full strength. For his career, the Quebec native has a sub-50% faceoff win percentage. If the Wild were worried about faceoffs last season, Gaudreau isn’t much of an upgrade at the dot.
Given his skill set, it doesn’t appear that Gaudreau is long for the power play. Even though he was on the ice for a power-play goal and helped the Wild set up in the zone, he was otherwise a non-factor in setting up the scoring. This is something that has been apparent for him his entire career. He does some good things yet won’t be found on the score sheet with any regularity. Sure, some of it can be chalked up to bad luck, but if he’s going to be given 18 minutes per night like he was in his debut, finding points will become imperative for him.
Points cannot come at a premium if he is on a line with offensive-minded players, let alone with the likes of Matt Boldy and Fiala. Both Fiala and Boldy are strong puck-carrying forwards that can, and will, drive play. Fiala is probably at his best when he has the puck on his stick. So while Boldy and Fiala pushed the pace offensively on the line, Gaudreau became increasingly less of a factor. Boldy and Fiala were able to find chemistry quickly, and it built as the game went on. Conversely, there was little chemistry at all between each of the wingers and Gaudreau.
That’s worth noting because Gaudreau and Fiala were apparently placed on the same line because they’ve played together before. While Fiala and Gaudreau spent time together in both the AHL and NHL in the Nashville Predators organization, they may not have spent much time together.
Fiala scored 89 points during his career with the Milwaukee Admirals — where Dean Evason had coached both players. However, of those 89 points, Gaudreau only had a hand in nine of them. Time on ice and shift statistics for the AHL aren’t tracked to the degree they are in the NHL, but it seems like he’d have assisted on more of Fiala’s points if they frequently played together.
In addition, Fiala and Gaudreau only have a hair over 60 total minutes of ice time together in the NHL. Is Gaudreau the best option to center Fiala right out of the gate? Sure, Fiala and Gaudreau can be outstanding in transition. They both like to carry the puck into the offensive zone and maintain puck possession. Fiala has expressed being better in his zone this season to become an all-situations kind of player. Perhaps Gaudreau’s defense can help prop up Fiala’s defense. And Fiala proved last season he can still be successful with less than ideal centers.
However, Fiala can’t spend precious time with a center he doesn’t have chemistry with. Gaudreau’s career and playing style point to more of one as a defensive specialist. As 10K Rinks noted after he was signed, he can be a sneaky good part of this team, especially if he can allow Joel Eriksson Ek to play the whole season in the top six. Still, it doesn’t seem like Gaudreau is the best center option for scorers like Fiala or Boldy.