Kevin Fiala needed a change.
He’d been in the Nashville organization for nearly five years, working his way up from prized prospect to an up-and-comer in the minor leagues to eventually a regular in the NHL. During one season he was dynamic, a full-fledged goal scorer. But the rest of his time with the Predators played out like a never-ending game of chutes and ladders.
“It was kind of time to go somewhere else,” Fiala said.
His fresh start with the Wild after getting traded started out similarly to his tenure with Nashville, bursts of awe scattered among lulls. Then the dips disappeared, and Fiala took off — an ascension that reached a fever pitch Monday when the right winger was crowned the NHL’s first star of the week after recording a league-high nine points during four consecutive multipoint games.
And it’s at this pinnacle that Fiala will get reacquainted with the Predators, a chance to showcase his progress against his former team Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center in the Wild’s most meaningful battle of the season so far.
“It’s been great,” Fiala said. “It’s been fun. Tough one at the start, obviously, and even in the beginning of this season it was a little difficult. But it got better and better, and right now it’s better than it’s ever been in my whole career. It’s been fun.”
Good for both sides
In the year since the Wild and Predators swapped forwards at the trade deadline, never has the deal flattered both sides more than right now.
Mikael Granlund, whom the Wild shipped to Nashville to acquire Fiala, is also rolling — scoring 11 of his 17 goals in the past 24 games. Four of those were game-winners in February, including the overtime clincher Thursday against the Flames that followed Granlund’s game-tying goal with one-tenth of a second remaining in regulation.
What’s next, though, for the 28-year-old Granlund is unclear, because he’ll be an unrestricted free agent after the season. Fiala is five years younger and has another year left on a $6 million contract before he’s eligible for a new one as a restricted free agent.
With how valuable he’s been lately, it’s easy to envision Fiala as a main character in the Wild’s future — especially if he can sustain this productivity.
“I feel very confident with this group,” Fiala said. “Everybody loves each other. We are a big family. I don’t have to be scared to be myself. That helps me to be my best. Everybody accepts me how I am. That’s very positive for me.”
Over his past 14 games, Fiala has chipped in 11 goals and racked up 21 points. He’s already set a career high in points with 49 and is just three goals shy of tying his best output of 23 from 2017-18.
Last week, when he became just the third player in Wild history to record multiple points in four straight games — joining Marian Gaborik and Brian Rolston — Fiala revealed the spectrum of his skills. His five assists highlighted his playmaking smarts, while his finishing prowess was on display in his four goals (tied for the most in the NHL in that span).
There were glimpses of this impact in the aftermath of the trade and earlier this season but nothing substantial, lapses that could help explain why Nashville cut ties.
“It wasn’t easy to get traded,” said Fiala, who was grateful for the opportunity with the Wild but also nervous. “A new system and new teammates. I had to get comfortable.”
‘Had to figure things out’
Familiarity with then-general manager Paul Fenton helped, since Fenton was part of the Predators’ management team that drafted Fiala 11th overall in 2014. So did the presence of Dean Evason, who coached Fiala in the minors and was on staff as a Wild assistant before getting promoted to interim coach after Bruce Boudreau was fired last month.
“Kevin has worked through the process and learned from mistakes and from positive stuff he’s done,” Evason said. “It’s great for him.”
Still, this season got off to a rocky start with Fiala a late arrival to training camp after not agreeing to his contract until a day before players reported. He also suffered an injury and was a healthy scratch twice.
Fiala isn’t sure if getting sat motivated him, but he regrouped during the time he was hurt and realized he had to be better. And he was, re-emerging as the powerful player he was in the past.
“I just had to figure things out, how to do it again,” he said. “But there were tough days, for sure. But in my heart, I always knew I could do it again.”
Now used to his teammates and confident in his ability to help, Fiala hopes this is his new normal.
If it is, the timing couldn’t be better.
The Wild not only is one point behind the Predators for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, but it also squares off two more times against them after Tuesday’s showdown, including in the regular-season finale.
“Very, very exciting for me,” Fiala said. “More motivated — even more that we’re so close to them, so close to the playoffs right now. It’s going to be an awesome game.”