Kevin Fiala's Defensive Improvements Are Sparking His Offense

Photo Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a record-setting year for the Minnesota Wild. They already have the most points in franchise history, and each win until Game 82 pushes that bar higher. The Wild can also boast about their first 100-point player ever. Kirill Kaprizov had himself a season and shattered the long-standing single-season points record of 83 set by Marian Gaborik in 2007-08. That franchise record once seemed untouchable to so many Wild players. And now, Minnesota has had a player break it for a second time.

Kevin Fiala is now second on the leaderboard behind Kaprizov for most points in a season after adding two more in a big win over the Nashville Predators Sunday evening. Now he has 84, and he’s doing it by thriving in all situations. Before this season, Fiala was hardly spotted in short-handed scenarios and only totaled a smattering of minutes. But ask Fiala himself – Dean Evason hasn’t thrust him into the PK out of necessity. He wanted this.

“That was one of my goals,” Fiala said about his time on the penalty kill. “I wanted to become a complete player.”

His journey started as soon as the Wild were eliminated from the playoffs by the Vegas Golden Knights. He then wrote down a few things he felt he needed to improve upon. Of the items on the list, he noted in his exit interview that he wanted to be more consistently competitive on defense. 

Defense has been one of the knocks on Fiala for most of his career. So much so that his coaches felt they couldn’t trust him in all situations. It’s like having Adrian Peterson and being unwilling to put him on the field in third-down situations because he can’t pass protect. Fiala didn’t want that label. He was already getting power-play time and time at even strength. In order to improve from 54 points in 64 games two seasons ago and become a point per game player, he needed to find minutes in defensive situations and on the penalty kill.

Fiala has one of the Wild’s two short-handed goals while only being on the ice for six power-play goals against. That’s a strong showing on a penalty kill ranked 24th in the league with a 75.7% success rate. Compared to his teammates, Fiala has conceded fewer expected goals while shorthanded than Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway, and Marcus Foligno – all players thought to be good shutdown forwards ideal for the PK. It’s all happening while Fiala is getting a significant chunk of time shorthanded. Just three seasons ago, Bruce Boudreau wouldn’t have given a second thought to giving Fiala any amount of time short-handed.

Courtesy of AllThreeZones.com

That’s been an exciting area of his game, for sure. But his strong defensive performance is not limited to the penalty kill. He’s taking those defensive skills to be even better in transition, breaking out of the Wild’s defensive end with ease. He effectively turns defense into offense by moving the puck out of the zone. According to the All Three Zones tracking project, Fiala is behind Kaprizov, Brandon Duhaime, and Foligno for most defensive zone puck retrievals leading to zone exits. To top it off, he is just as successful with those exits as he keeps the failed attempts to a minimum. He’s right behind Kaprizov, Mats Zuccarello, Greenway, and Foligno in that department. 

“It’s about being more reliable defensively,” Fiala explained. “Pick your times to think offense, but think defense first.”

Fiala has always had skill, but now he’s finding himself on the right side of the puck more often than not. This is allowing his offense to take off. He’s scored 26 goals and 35 assists since Jan. 14th. He’s generated 2.98 xGF per hour and surrendered 2.17 xGA per 60 minutes in that same period. That xG differential leads all Minnesota forwards over those 45 games. That differential is better than John Tavares, Sidney Crosby, Mikko Rantanen, and Jonathan Huberdeau in that time. 

It’s truly been an unreal run for the 25-year-old. But make no mistake, this offensive run doesn’t happen without Fiala’s commitment to play better defensively and being on the ice more often by taking on penalty kill minutes. This season is proving to be his best defensive effort of the last three, and thus his best performance in every zone. 

Stats courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com

The Wild have seen many versions of the game-breaker known as Fiala. But now, they’re witnessing the most mature, complete, and explosive one yet. It’s just too bad this will likely be his last year with Minnesota, barring some kind of miracle this offseason. But for now, Fiala is providing some of his best hockey at the right time for the Wild. Can he continue this heater against the St. Louis Blues in the postseason? Yes. So long as he stays true to his game, he gives himself and the Wild the best chance to keep this record-setting year going.

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