The Minnesota Wild are in a position they have never been in before.
For the first time in franchise history, the Wild have not one but two true game-breaking talents on the team. Marian Gaborik had Andrew Brunette to support him in the expansion years, while Pavol Demitra was acquired to push Gaborik into the Elite Tier near the end of the decade. Later, the Wild had promising forwards Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, and Charlie Coyle to help supplement Zach Parise.
Kirill Kaprizov showed this season that he isn’t going to be a supplemental player for Kevin Fiala. And Fiala? He showed that he could drive offense and be as every bit of the game-breaker away from Kaprizov that Paul Fenton once claimed he could be. With 20 goals and 20 assists this season, his 40 points finished just 14 points shy of his point total last year in 14 fewer games.
There’s more than just his point production that helped the Wild secure a postseason appearance, though. Fiala is a dual-threat when creating offense both off the forecheck or by using speed and creativity on the rush. Per Corey Sznajder’s tracking data, Fiala creates 12.09 shots per hour off the rush and 12.76 shots per 60 during the forecheck — both marks leading the team. This means that Fiala isn’t a one-trick pony at 5-on-5 and is a dangerous shooter no matter how he obtains the puck.
The former 11th overall selection by the Nashville Predators finished third on the team in expected goals and shots at 5-on-5 and second behind only Kaprizov for shot attempts. These are strong numbers for someone looking to follow up breakout season the year before. While Bill Guerin can feel good about having a strong two-headed scoring monster led by Fiala and Kaprizov for now, this summer will prove to be one of the biggest in the franchise’s history. He’ll need to navigate the Seattle expansion draft and re-sign three big restricted free agents in Fiala, Kaprizov, and Joel Eriksson Ek in a flat salary cap environment.
How Guerin decides to split up the nearly $20 million in cap space among those three forwards remains to be seen. Per Evolving-Hockey’s contract projection model, Fiala could be due for a contract that could pay him a little over $6 million annually. A raise that is certainly well-deserved for his performance the past couple of seasons. Not to mention an AAV that Guerin should find to be quite palatable for what Fiala has offered to the Wild.
That doesn’t mean that Fiala can’t work on things this offseason to make himself even more valuable to the team. Fiala noted during his media availability that he wrote down a few points of emphasis for his training this offseason during the flight home from Las Vegas following the Game 7 loss. He specifically called out being more consistent and competitive defensively, improving his shot, and scoring more goals. Not knowing what else is on his list, here is a list of other things he can improve upon.
If we’re talking about superstars, one aspect of their game includes drawing penalties. From Connor McDavid to Kaprizov to Nathan MacKinnon, each player has an innate ability to draw minors from the opposition. Their skill puts opposing players in undesirable positions and forces them to reach with their sticks or impede their progress in violation of the rules regularly.
Fiala does have that part to his game.
He drew 16 minors throughout the season. That’s a strong number, but not close to the best on the Wild. He’s behind both Kaprizov and Eriksson Ek on the Wild in that category. He’ll need to figure out ways to draw more penalties.
One area that’s been bandied about is Fiala’s propensity to bark at referees for missed calls. While officiating has been an issue, with an ever-growing spotlight since the Tim Peel incident earlier this season, Fiala won’t be getting the benefit of calls if he’s constantly begging for them.
But it could also be that he takes several penalties as well.
What Kaprizov, McDavid, and MacKinnon have that Fiala hasn’t been able to master his own discipline. With just a plus-2 on the Penalties Drawn/Taken differential, it’s clear that Fiala must control his own actions on the ice. He decreases his own value to the team if he spends time in the box or winds up suspended as he did this season. No one is expecting Fiala, whose competitive nature drives both his scoring and his frustration levels on the ice, to suddenly become a Lady Byng candidate in just one offseason. But improving that penalty differential will ultimately lead to more power play opportunities and hopefully more wins.
EVEN STRENGTH DEFENSE
As noted in his interview, Fiala’s defense can be improved. More specifically, in his defensive zone. One of Fiala’s best skills has been creating scoring chances in transition. He’s able to disrupt the opposition in the neutral zone and quickly turn it into offense the other way. He uses his speed and a good stick to strip the puck to get the transition game going. Furthermore, Fiala and Kaprizov are the only Wild players who are good at this very particular skill. They are even better than Leon Draisaitl, MacKinnon, and William Karlsson, per Sznajder’s Tracking Project, at generating chances off of transition plays.
But get Fiala stuck in his own zone for any length of time, and his defense drops off. According to HockeyViz.com, with Fiala on the ice, in the defensive zone, opponents see 0.07 better expected goals. With many chances, as noted on the heat map, coming right down Royal Road. Improving even slightly on defense will allow Fiala to see more time on ice and hopefully more time in the offensive zone, where he is clearly at his best.
GENERATING MORE ASSISTS
This improvement will be harder to achieve than the first two because it depends solely on his linemates finding the back of the net with more frequency. Having been saddled with Marcus Johansson and Ryan Hartman for most of the season, neither of whom possess a proclivity for high-volume shooting, Fiala had the task of driving offense on his line.
At the same time, Fiala needs the puck to be successful, so it shouldn’t be surprising that his puck hogging affects his numbers slightly. It also means that it’s of the “primary” variety when he does score an assist. Fiala isn’t a bystander in the play and looks to carry the puck and make a good shot to score on net or make a pass that winds up with a shot in the back of the net. This is an excellent skill to have. But as the skill level increases with the likes of Matt Boldy, Marco Rossi, and other depth players who have scoring in their arsenal, Fiala should be looking to use and trust his teammates more.
Secondary assists are never a bad thing. Adding more of those assists, where he’s more in the chain of events on the ice that lead to scoring, should, in turn, lead directly to more goals where he is also the main catalyst on the ice. It could vault him from a 50-60 point producer to a player who can hit 80 points in a season. If he can do that, he’d be the first Wild player to reach 80 points in a season since Gaborik did it in 2007-08, and he’s the only player in franchise history to reach that mark.
That Fiala believes he has more to tap into regarding his potential is great news for the Wild. There’s likely more items on his personal list of things to work on, but these three areas — discipline, defense, and facilitating more of the goals scored while he’s on the ice — can help propel him from being a really nice player to have, to one the Wild simply can’t do without.