Wild

Are the New Jersey Devils Still A Fit For Kevin Fiala?

Photo Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

If you ask Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin, he has no idea whether he’ll trade Kevin Fiala this summer. At his end-of-year presser, he told the media, “Look, we’d love to have Kevin back. We have to dig in a little bit and see what’s possible. But there is uncertainty.”

On the other hand, if you ask Wild GM Billy Guerin, he’ll basically tell you that, yes, he’s probably going to trade Fiala. Responding to a prompt that included what could you get for Fiala?, he told The Athletic’s Michael Russo on Monday’s Straight From The Source podcast, “In a perfect world, we’d probably have multiple teams interested, and I’m sure there will be, and you make your best deal. … I want fair value for what we’re about to give up, and we’ll see what the market is. But I think Kevin’s a pretty valuable guy.”

That’s far from shutting down speculation.

Even before Fiala’s season ended in the playoffs, trade speculation ran rampant throughout the league. Perhaps the loudest, most clear rumor came from Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek, connecting Fiala to the New Jersey Devils. Marek said during a 32 Thoughts segment on May 7:

[New Jersey GM] Tom Fitzgerald has been talking to assembled media and discussing that he might be amenable to moving their first-round draft pick for a quote, “impact player.” That’s where we connect some dots. I’m told the Devils really do like Fiala, and why not… I’m sure they can see him playing with Nico Hischier as well.

This was before the 2022 NHL Draft Lottery, where the Devils had an 82.7% chance of holding a pick in the 5-7 overall slots. Then four days later, New Jersey beat the odds, rising to the second overall pick. Executing a trade for a Top-10 pick in the draft is pretty hard in today’s NHL once the picks are settled. It’s only happened once in the past seven drafts.

Knowingly trading* for a top-2 pick, though? That hasn’t happened since 2003 when the Florida Panthers traded the first overall pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins (Marc-Andre Fleury). And that was just a pick swap from third overall to first. Perhaps most notably, though, it’s never happened in the Salary Cap Era.

Are the Devils still willing to move that pick for an impact player like Fiala? Historically, no, and for good reason. According to Hockey Prospecting’s Byron Bader, the odds of yielding a star player with a top-5 pick are about 45.5%. At slots 6-10, those odds drop down to 17.8%, cratering a team’s chances of getting a star by 60%.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that pick is impossible to grab. Fiala is a star now. Over the past three seasons, he’s averaged 32 goals and 75 points per 82 games. Any team looking to trade a top-10 draft pick is in win-now mode, so presumably, New Jersey would still covet that ready-made impact.

The problem is that a second overall pick can often be counted on to contribute right away, or at least, on a relatively short timeline. If the Devils believe they can get an Andrei Svechnikov-like impact with that pick next year, there’s no reason to move it, even if in win-now mode.

So until we hear otherwise, let’s assume that pick is untouchable. What else can the Devils offer the Wild in a Fiala trade?

The place to start is by eliminating other untouchable players from the conversation. Speaking with The Athletic’s Shayna Goldman, we narrowed down who the realistic trade targets are. Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier are foundational pieces that every team covets. Hughes is an offensive and transition dynamo, and Hischier is a speedy do-it-all two-way center. There’s no point in New Jersey swapping either.

Same with winger Jesper Bratt, coming off a Fiala-esque 26-goal, 73-point season. As for 20-year-old Dawson Mercer, he’d be an attractive target for Minnesota, but why would the Devils trade him? Taking a center who racked up 42 points as a rookie, then shipping them away when still on a cheap ELC is GM malpractice, even if getting a player of Fiala’s caliber in return.

We can further infer that star defensive prospect Luke Hughes is also on that list. In a vacuum, he’d be the perfect headliner for a trade for a star player. In practice, though, drafting the brother of your franchise player at fourth overall, then trading him a year later? Yeah, that’s not happening.

That sounds like a lot of “nos” on the table, basically, all their flourishing young players and a couple of top picks and prospects. The good news, though, is the Devils have much more prospect capital up their sleeves. Bader ranks New Jersey’s prospect pool as fifth in the NHL, estimating it will yield 1.65 stars, and 7.45 NHLers. That’s something to work with.

So, who are these players, and should the Wild have interest in them?

It sort of depends on what Minnesota wants to get back for Fiala. Do they want, for example, another Fiala? If so, Alexander Holtz fits the bill. Holtz, the seventh overall pick in 2020, checks a lot of boxes the Wild should be looking for.

Do you want a pure goal scorer? Check. Holtz had 26 goals in 52 AHL games as a rookie last year, for a total of 51 points. A right-shot weapon for the power play and even strength? Check, which gives the Wild a dimension they have none of outside Hartman. Elite skill on a cheap entry-level deal? Check. Holtz’s ELC doesn’t expire until summer 2025, so like Marco Rossi, he won’t require a raise until the worst of Minnesota’s cap hell ends.

And, oh yeah, there’s that elite skill part.

Holtz has great hands and good skating, which can lead to him being great in transition. But the headline with him is his shot, which prospect watchers have long described as elite. According to McKeens’ scouting report of him in 2020:

He is simply deadly when the puck is on his stick in the offensive zone. The wrist shot is the main event, but he can also make you pay with the slap shot. Or, if he is too close to the net, he demonstrates the hand-eye coordination to tip point shots past the netminder as well. In other words, he can beat you in many, many ways.

Who does that sound like? Like Minnesota’s initial Fiala-for-Mikael Granlund trade, they’d be assuming more risk by taking on Holtz. But his upside and contract make such a trade a fair swap, even in a one-for-one deal.

As tempting as Holtz would be, it’s certainly not the only direction Minnesota can go. The Devils are also pretty deep with young defensemen, even if the younger Hughes is off the table. How would the Wild feel about Ty Smith, a 22-year-old defenseman with 100 NHL games under his belt?

Courtesy of Hockey Prospecting

He’s got a puck-moving reputation and a history of quarterbacking the power play. He struggled mightily on both offense and defense last year, but that might just mean Minnesota can buy low on a future star player. Smith could be an intriguing pickup for a team that has just one left defenseman under the age of 29 in their system (Jake Middleton).

Shakir Mukhamadullin doesn’t have the statistical case that Smith does, but his pedigree is good as a 2020 first-round pick. With just 18 points in 100 games in the KHL, it’s possible the young Russian defenseman played above his skis. Not entirely surprising for a player in his age-17 through 19 seasons.

Still, he has a 6’3″ frame, skates very well, and has decent puck skills to boot. Mukhamadullin can be polarizing, though, for his penchant for turnovers. Can he clean that up? If the Wild feel like he has in the past two years, or if they feel they can develop his tools, they may zero in on him in a Fiala trade. The good news: He’s already played three AHL playoff games (two assists), so time in Kirill Kaprizov-esque KHL purgatory isn’t an issue.

Beyond that, Reilly Walsh had a great rookie season in Utica this year, finishing sixth among AHL defensemen with 43 points. This comes after a pretty good career at Harvard, which could be an interesting sleeper for Minnesota’s system.

It’s hard to ignore Minnesota’s quest to get bigger and valuing size that comes with skating. If they want to go that route, they could target 6’6″ Kevin Bahl, who New Jersey acquired in the Taylor Hall trade. He doesn’t come with a lot of points or puck skills, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see Guerin having time for the right-shot defenseman — especially with Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba, and Calen Addison, all 6’0″ or under, on the depth chart.

And of course, there are the draft picks. Second overall may be off the table, but the Devils have their second-rounder at 37 overall. Remember, the Wild traded Luke Kunin to get to that exact same spot in 2020, where they picked Marat Khusnutdinov. It also wouldn’t be surprising if New Jersey moved their 2023 first-rounder, albeit with some protection.

A pick in the 5-7 overall range would’ve made for a great, clean centerpiece for a Fiala trade. Losing that in the Draft Lottery takes an option off the table in a potential trade with New Jersey. But that 2022 first-rounder was far from the only option, or even only good option, to get such a move done. If Guerin wants to make a deal with the Devils, there’s a good chance he can strike one that sets up the Wild’s future quite nicely.

*The Toronto Maple Leafs traded the second overall pick in 2011 (Tyler Seguin) to the Boston Bruins, but that was from the 2009 Phil Kessel trade, so Toronto had no idea where their first-rounder would end up.

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