Look at two of the biggest stars on the Minnesota Wild, and you'll notice their games took off when they found a running mate. Kirill Kaprizov had only three goals and nine points in 13 games before joining forces with slick-passing Mats Zuccarello. Kaprizov has 86 points in 76 games ever since, mostly alongside Zuccarello.
The same thing happened for Joel Eriksson Ek when he found Marcus Foligno. Foligno's game complemented Eriksson Ek perfectly, both offensively and defensively. Foligno could retrieve the puck on the forecheck and get it to Eriksson Ek at the net. Together, they make for an imposing defensive line with 25 combined goals this year.
However, Minnesota's struggles to find a running mate for their third star, Kevin Fiala, are well-documented. Few players on the roster could keep up with and take advantage of Fiala's dynamic play. It also didn't help that his coach has a notoriously short leash on him. Because of this, Fiala often had to carry the burden of creating offense alone.
Now that search appears to be over. Matt Boldy is currently playing on a line with Fiala, and the early results are spectacular. The duo has played 25 minutes together (a tiny sample) at 5-on-5 and is outscoring opponents by a 3-0 margin. They're dominating the flow of 5-on-5 play as well, controlling 70.8% of the expected goals.
But you don't need to dig into the underlying numbers to see that they work well together. It's pretty evident by watching them on the ice.
When the Wild were down 2-0 against the star-studded Colorado Avalanche, coach Dean Evason sent out the Boldy-Fiala connection to swing momentum at the start of the second period. They did just that, scoring a goal in transition almost immediately.
It was Boldy's third point in the past two games, with two of them being assists on Fiala goals. Even when they didn't score, they made plays happen throughout the night. Here's a shift where they nearly ended the game in overtime.
You can really see what makes Boldy special here. Although he falls down, he maintains control of the puck despite drawing the attention of Cale Makar, Nathan MacKinnon, and Nazem Kadri. Then he finds Fiala cutting to the net and caps off the shift with a give-and-go that required Pavel Francouz to stop a Fiala laser.
Fiala raved about Boldy to Bally Sports North during yesterday's broadcast, "He can do everything," he said. "He's big, he wins battles, he passes the puck, he shoots good. It's very nice right now."
For the first time since Fiala played with Eric Staal in 2020, he doesn't have to be his line's sole offensive catalyst. While Fiala can shoulder the burden — he's second on the team to only Kaprizov in carrying the puck and creating scoring chances — it hasn't yielded ideal results. It's easier for a goalie to stop pucks when the offense runs through only one person.
The common theme with many of Boldy and Fiala's early highlights is that Fiala's playing without the puck. He can find soft spots in defensive coverage, and Boldy has the vision and skill to find Fiala in space.
With the two players jelling so well, Fiala (age 25) and Boldy (20) have the makings of a long, productive tandem in the NHL.
Too bad that future seems doomed.
In the ongoing salary cap drama caused by the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts, Fiala is perhaps the most likely candidate to be a cap casualty this summer. He's a restricted free agent who will want a raise over his $5.1 million salary.
Fitting that salary under the cap isn't an impossible task for most teams, especially those who have been as efficient with their cap space as Bill Guerin. But it might be in Minnesota. Even with thrifty moves, Minnesota is at $80 million against the $81.5 salary cap, with $4.7 million consumed by buyout penalties. The squeeze gets much tighter next year when that buyout number rises to $12.7 million.
That extra $8 million leaves almost no room for Fiala. Even if Fiala leaves, his salary's removal won't cancel out that increase. And even if Minnesota thinks they can keep him, they're especially vulnerable to an offer sheet.
But let's assume Fiala isn't the player to go this summer. How can the Wild find a way to keep him with Boldy past this year?
Luckily for Minnesota, they have a year of team control remaining on Fiala. Offer sheets are increasingly a threat, but he doesn't have many options if there are no bites on that line. The Wild took advantage of the same situation to get his price point to $5.1 in arbitration.
Let's say a similar situation happens, except the two parties can agree to a 1-year, $6.5 million pact that walks him to UFA status. What then?
That leaves Minnesota with about $2 million in cap space to sign two forwards, a defenseman, and a backup goalie. In other words, the Wild can't ice a team.
Unless, of course, they move someone else. Unfortunately, the only movable player that could clear enough space is Matt Dumba. Minnesota's had a tough time finding equal value for him before, and it'll be impossible with the team in a cap crunch.
What would it take to clear $6 million? A similar trade to move Patrick Marleau cost the Toronto Maple Leafs a first-round pick two years ago. Moving Shayne Gostisbehere cost the Philadelphia Flyers a second and seventh-round pick this summer.
Would Minnesota be willing to trade a first to make room for Fiala? Maybe they should. Here's what next year's lineup could look like if they follow that route.
Assuming Alex Goligoski re-signs for a team-friendly amount, Minnesota would have about $8.6 million to fill out the rest of their roster. Some of that may be taken up by rookies achieving their bonuses, but that could still even leave room to keep someone like Nico Sturm or Jordan Greenway at a reasonable rate. And even with the way things are laid out, that could well be one of the best top-9 forward groups in the league. Kaprizov and Zuccarello, followed by Eriksson Ek and Foligno, followed by Boldy and Fiala would be difficult for defenses to gameplan for.
The problem is, even with a first-round moved to make room for Fiala, this connection can't last past next year. Boldy will be due for a raise, and perhaps Calen Addison, too. Cam Talbot's contract will expire, leaving Minnesota with a need to address their goaltending. An extra $2 million of dead cap piles onto the Wild's books. The following year may see Marco Rossi due for a raise. Unless Fiala takes a bargain deal to stick with the team, there's just no room.
So should the Wild pay a price, both financially and in terms of assets, to keep this duo together as long as they can? There's a good case for it. It might get too difficult to compete in the years where $15 million of the salary cap is consumed by the ghosts of Parise and Suter. Minnesota has a collection of dynamic forwards who work well with each other now. And with heavyweights like Colorado and the Vegas Golden Knights, they'll need all the firepower they can get. Fiala's explosiveness won't be replaced, not with the money the Wild have now. Since it can't be replaced, it should be held onto as long as possible, even at a high cost.
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