When Kevin Fiala joined the Wild last season, he was introduced as a hockey messiah, hyped as if he were a swashbuckling puck-slinger baptized in the name of Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid, amen.
“He’s electric. He’s got the ability to be the game breaker,” gushed then-Wild General Manager Paul Fenton after the Feb. 25 trade, which jettisoned fan favorite and beloved teammate Mikael Granlund to Nashville.
But ... the Wild also got a Fiala who has been a healthy scratch and glued to the bench for in-game gaffes.
“When the good doesn’t outweigh the bad,” coach Bruce Boudreau said, “then it becomes a problem.”
What the Wild actually has in Fiala, it turns out, is at the intersection of these two perceptions.
With video game acceleration and silky-smooth hands, Fiala is the most skilled player on the Wild and one of its top producers over the past two-plus months.
He also happens to be prone to turnovers and untimely penalties, the consequences of offensive risks gone awry.
At 23 and just beginning to wade into the prime years of his NHL career, Fiala is trying to purge the glitches from his game — much like the up-and-down Wild, as the team tries to recover from recent struggles to claw into playoff contention.
But Fiala doesn’t want this personal growth to come at the expense of his creative identity. The Wild’s intriguing X factor is working to round into a complete player while also staying true to his roots.
“I want to be a package, the full package, for sure,” Fiala said. “[But] I want to be me. I want to be offense.”
Like a Ferrari turning a corner at 100 miles per hour, Fiala has always been hard-wired to play: flashy, with finesse and sometimes downright gutsy.
Growing up east of Zurich in the Swiss village of St. Gallen, Fiala tagged along when his father, Jan, played hockey. Kevin started skating at 3 and took up the sport a year later.
“I wanted to be on the ice all the time,” Fiala recalled.
Born to Czech parents, Fiala studied Jaromir Jagr and Crosby highlights but he had an innate instinct for offense — playing the same way his dad did.
As a 13-year-old, he scored 63 goals and achieved a jaw-dropping 113 points in only 27 games. He also racked up 58 penalty minutes.
Fiala was better than his peers and he was a workhorse, stickhandling for 30 minutes every day, shooting pucks and rattling off squats — adopting Jagr’s workout regimen.
“If you line up 100 kids, he was like, ‘Whoa,’ ” said Andreas Larsson, a skating and off-ice training coach who has worked on and off with Fiala since he was 15. “He had something special.”
When he outgrew the local ranks, Fiala moved to Sweden at the age of 16 with his mom, Renata, and continued to gain traction.
By the time he was 17, he was projected as a first-round draft pick and ranked as the third-best European skater by NHL Central Scouting — even sitting higher than NHL goal-scoring leader David Pastrnak of the Bruins.
He was selected 11th overall by Nashville and at 18, he debuted in the American Hockey League with the Predators’ affiliate in Milwaukee — the start of Fiala’s acclimation to pro hockey.
“There were some learning curves,” said Wild assistant coach Dean Evason, who also coached Fiala in Milwaukee.
Through his first six games in the AHL, Fiala felt uncomfortable and almost like he should return home.
“It wasn’t my type of hockey, very different style,” he said. “But I figured I can sneak my game into it.”
Evason remembers Fiala feeling he should be in the NHL, with Nashville, and wanting to be on the ice for every situation.
Syncing Fiala’s offensive abilities to the team’s strategy was a process, with Evason believing Fiala is more accepting of the coaching now than he was then.
“We knocked heads a bunch of times,” Evason said.
What is unique, though, to Evason is Fiala’s talent. And he knows Fiala cares about what he’s doing.
“There were some situations where he had to be disciplined or [benched] in different games,” Evason said. “But as far as the motivation, there’s no lack of motivation for Kevin Fiala. Like, he is motivated to be the best player that he can be. He wants to score every single shift that he’s out there, and sometimes — clearly — that’s a great thing.
“But sometimes it’s put him in a position to turn pucks over, make some mistakes. But it’s not for lack of effort and try and desire that he does that.”
Worst kind of break
Fiala would go on to pivot between the minors and NHL for the next two seasons, and he felt he played more like himself in Milwaukee. With Nashville, he respected the star power across the ice too much.
“I think it was good for him that it didn’t go too easy in the beginning, so he has to work for it,” Larsson said. “And he did.”
In time, Fiala started to feel he belonged and he was a catalyst for the Predators in the 2017 playoffs until he suffered a broken left leg in Game 1 of the second round after a gruesome crash into the boards in St. Louis.
“It was a big blow for that organization at the time because he was playing so well,” Evason said.
The mental anguish was worse than the physical pain, with Fiala figuring he would never return when progress stalled during his recovery. Even when he did resume playing the following season, he still had to conquer the emotional trauma of the ordeal.
During his first few games back, Fiala couldn’t skate behind the net where the injury occurred. Not until this season, roughly 2 ½ years later, did he finally feel like he played well in St. Louis.
But his goal-scoring touch returned way before then. Fiala exploded for a career-high 23 goals in 2017-18.
“I like to have the puck all the time, and I want it all the time,” Fiala said. “So, I feel like if I play good, I have the puck more.”
Learning on the fly
Looking to inject youth and speed onto the team, Fenton acquired Fiala last February. Although there were flashes of potential, they didn’t exactly line up with Fenton’s otherworldly endorsement.
Traded for the first time in his NHL career, Fiala felt like he was simply on loan to a different club.
In all, the left-shot right winger compiled three goals and seven points in 19 games and said he was excited, thought nervous to return in the fall. He was a late arrival after not signing a two-year, $6 million contract until a day before training camp started.
After a self-described poor start in which he was a healthy scratch for the first time with the Wild, Fiala used the downtime that came with an injury to rewatch his games to figure out what he could fix, and he studied the Wild to continue to grasp its system.
“You’ve got to grind sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes you can use your skill, but sometimes you have to go and get the puck with your body.”
Once he was back in action, after being scratched one more time, Fiala has been mostly on the upswing.
Since Nov. 2, only Zach Parise and Ryan Suter (27) have more points on the Wild than Fiala’s 26, and his nine goals rank tied for fourth.
Occasionally, he has looked absolutely dynamic. He was perhaps the most dangerous player on the ice Dec. 1 vs. Dallas, scoring a goal and adding an assist before converting in the shootout. Later that month, in Chicago, he used his speed to bury the first of two goals on a breakaway.
“It’s fun to watch him,” defenseman Jonas Brodin said.
Too many turnovers
But it’s when Fiala tries to dazzle through center ice or at either blue line that he gets himself in trouble.
Against Carolina on Nov. 16, Fiala was benched for turning the puck over when the score was 3-3 — this after a game where his strong play merited crucial-situation minutes.
The Wild doesn’t want to curtail Fiala’s craftiness; it just wants him to save the dangles between defenders’ legs for underneath the tops of the circles.
“That’s what’s exciting for us as a coaching staff and an organization,” Evason said, “is that Kevin has such tremendous upside with his skill level, with his talent. He just has to rein it in in different situations and he’ll have success, not only for himself but obviously for the team.”
Experience might be the best teacher. But the Wild communicates these lessons to Fiala, too, with the understanding that it can take time for players to change habits that worked for most of their careers.
“You see he’s trying to do the right things,” Evason said, “and so you just keep working and keep working.”
Already this season, Fiala has taken strides to protect the puck.
“I’ve seen him so much better from Milwaukee to here,” Evason said, “and he’s just going to continue to grow.”
Doing something …
While he was the only player received in one of the most significant trades in recent Wild history, Fiala didn’t pack any external expectations with him to Minnesota.
But he did carry that weight with Nashville. Fiala made the mistake of Googling his name to read what was being said about his play. What he discovered, though, didn’t make him feel good, so he stopped.
Now, the only pressure he encounters is self-applied, and Fiala is on a mission.
He is striving to help the Wild, to be a difference-maker.
And he is trying to better himself while also being himself.
“I’m an offensive player, sometimes a risky player as people like to call that,” Fiala said. “Obviously, I have to balance the risk. But I think I have to do something sometimes, especially when we need it.”