On Saturday, Kevin Fiala rode the bench for the final 11 minutes of the second period. Last night, he showed his sniper’s touch to put the Arizona Coyotes away. It was a microcosm of a roller-coaster season where he oscillates between stardom and frustration.
It’s hard to say Fiala is having a bad season. He’s scored 15 goals and 28 points through 40 games, which is 31 goals and 57 points over an 82-game pace. Both would be career highs. If you group this year together with his final 42 games from last year (regular season and playoffs), he’s got 35 goals and 70 points over his last 82 games. You can count on one hand the Wild players who’ve cracked those numbers in a season.
But his performance so far can’t help but feel a tad flat in light of his breakout stretch last year. Sure, his 14-goal, 26-point run to close out the season was fueled by sky-high percentages from himself and teammates. But between his shot volume and speed, it looked like he could build on his 54-point season to become a point-per-game player.
With just 12 games left in the season, that doesn’t appear likely to happen. Fiala will head into restricted free agency with a solid season, but not having cemented himself as a star.
Now the questions abound: Why the regression this season? Can the Wild do anything to get him back on track down the stretch?
The good news is, Fiala’s drop-off in points hasn’t come at the expense of his goal-scoring. His 31-goal pace slightly exceeds his 30-goal pace from last season, and his shots per game increased from 2.7 last year to 3.2.
Fiala did produce more volume in his breakout stretch (4.3 shots per game), but he looks no less dangerous today. Fiala had 1.27 expected goals per hour during his final 18 games last year. He currently has 1.19 expected goals and has sustained this pace for over twice the duration. The version of Fiala that generates chances, particularly on the power play, is here to stay.
What’s not happening for Fiala is that he’s not out-performing his gaudy shot numbers. His 23 goals in 2019-20 came on 15.4 expected, which is about a 50% increase. This year, his 15 goals are much more in line with his 13.4 expected, a 12% increase. To threaten 40 goals in a season, he’ll have to keep up his volume and finish at a superhuman rate.
Because Fiala’s goal-scoring skills remain intact, his decrease in points has come at the expense of assists. A few factors combined to cause that number to drop.
Simple luck plays a pretty significant role here. Last season, the Wild shot 9.6% with Fiala on the ice at 5-on-5 and 16.8% on the power play. This year, they’re down to 8.4% at 5-on-5 and 8.2% on the man advantage — well below the league average of 14%. Mind you, this is after a sizzling stretch from Fiala, with eight power-play points in his last nine games. It’s still not enough to make up for just three over the first 31 games. Those missed power play opportunities put a major dent in Fiala’s point total.
The other piece to this puzzle has to do with the construction of his line. It isn’t just that his current line with Ryan Hartman and Marcus Johansson gets buried in their zone most nights — though they do, and it certainly doesn’t help. It’s that the Wild are bereft of the kinds of players that helped him find success last year.
Fiala spent a lot of time with Zach Parise and Eric Staal last season, particularly towards the end. Neither Parise nor Staal were perfect players last season, but both were more than capable of carrying the puck. Fiala loves to take command of zone entries, but having another player who can handle those duties helped him greatly. With Staal or Parise, Fiala had multiple options to attack on the rush.
That’s not present this season. Not just with Hartman and Johansson, but anywhere on the Wild. Kaprizov is the only other great transition player on the roster. Nick Bjugstad is average, and everyone else is below average, according to Corey Sznajder’s data.
That leaves exactly one option for Fiala off the rush: himself. And defenders know it. Without someone else who can carry the puck or regularly make themselves a passing option, Fiala gets bottled up. For those wondering what’s behind Fiala’s spike in giveaway rate, this is it. Players who carry the puck are susceptible to turnovers (mostly because they have the puck a lot, which is a good thing), and doubly so when that player’s on an island.
Fiala looked like a one-man show last season, and the way Dean Evason has asked him to carry a line suggests his coach still believes it. The problem is that he isn’t — or at least, he can’t be a one-man show and a star player.
In short, Fiala needs a player that can be the Mats Zuccarello to his Kirill Kaprizov. Someone who can be a passing option in transition and has the skill to find him in high-danger areas. Minnesota just doesn’t have that guy on the roster.
At least not yet. Matt Boldy is thriving for the Iowa Wild, with five points in his first five games. He’s looking great in transition and is showing the same knack for setting up teammates as he did in college. He’s even helping the Baby Wild’s power play. When Boldy gets an NHL audition, Fiala’s sidekick has to be the first place he tries out.
Make no mistake, Fiala’s shown he can function alongside the Wild’s assortment of grind-it-out forecheckers. That won’t be enough to topple the Vegas Golden Knights in the playoffs, much less the Colorado Avalanche. Fiala has to thrive for a deep playoff run to be possible, so the only question is: How are Evason and the Wild going to make that happen?