The Wild is in the playoff race largely because of Kevin Fiala, which leaves the franchise in the awkward position of owing a thank-you note to He Who No One Wants to Name.
That’s right: Paul Fenton.
As general manager, Fenton worked quickly to become the least popular employee in Wild history. He also traded Mikael Granlund to Nashville for Fiala, in one of the best trades in franchise history.
Maybe a more experienced GM would have gotten a draft pick added to the trade, but a different GM might not have had the insight into Fiala that Fenton did as a former evaluator for the Predators. The day he traded for Fiala, Fenton called him “electric,’’ and Fiala is currently keeping the lights on for the Wild.
Minnesota has been looking for a player like Fiala since construction began on the Xcel Energy Center. Fenton landed him for a small center who, in the grand tradition of the Wild, struggles to score goals.
Sunday night, Fiala continued his scoring binge, adding another goal and assist in the Wild’s 4-3 loss to the Washington Capitals in what at times felt like a personal duel with the great Alex Ovechkin.
“That was fun,’’ Fiala said, after offering the required lamentations about a loss. “It was very fun. A great game, a great experience.’’
The Wild’s all-time leading scorer is Mikko Koivu, whose primary flaw has always been a lack of goal-scoring ability.
Koivu has 271 more points than No. 2 on the list, Marian Gaborik, who played in Minnesota for just eight seasons. No. 3 is Zach Parise, who is in his eighth season in Minnesota.
No. 4 is Pierre-Marc Bouchard, and No. 5 is defensive-minded defenseman Ryan Suter.
The best wrist shot in franchise history belongs to Gaborik, who also owns the best breakaway speed. The best slapshot belongs to Brian Rolston. Parise is the best net-front mechanic, and Bouchard ranks among the best stickhandlers.
Before Fiala, Gaborik was the Wild’s most talented and dynamic player, but he did most of his damage on breakaways. He rarely did what Fiala routinely does: Take a puck, weave through three players and pick a corner.
Gaborik also rarely blasted away from distance, as Fiala did when he scored with a slapshot on the power play in the first period on Sunday.
That was Fiala’s 20th goal of the season. He has 21 points and 11 goals in the past 14 games. He has scored a goal in four straight and in six of his past seven games.
“Every night, he’s bringing it,’’ said interim coach Dean Evason. “We’ve talked a lot about his maturity level, and he’s engaged in every game, in practices with teammates he’s playing such good hockey and at a very crucial time.’’
Fiala is scoring beautiful goals. This is a sight to which Wild fans are unaccustomed.
Sunday night, the Wild took a quick 1-0 lead on a goal by Ryan Donato, and then the Capitals scored three straight, including two on Ovechkin slapshots.
Just when the Wild looked outclassed, the lefthanded-shooting Fiala offered a mirror image to the righthanded Ovechkin, driving a rising shot past Capitals goalie Braden Holtby.
Koivu has always been stoic, at best. Gaborik seemed shy. Fiala is not only becoming the most entertaining player in Wild history — but he behaves as if the trappings of potential stardom are a gift, not a curse.
In recent years, even when the Wild was efficient offensively, it was usually because of puck possession, or gritty goals, or puck movement. Parise was both the best and most quintessential Wild forward, as a player who produced points by driving to the net and playing percentages.
Fiala is more artistic, more talented, more — are we allowed to say this about a Wild player? — fun.
Just in case the Wild never gets around to sending that card, let me offer the appropriate sentiment:
Thanks, Paul Fenton. The Wild would have been unwatchable if you hadn’t made that deal.