In the aftermath of Paul Fenton's turbulent 14-month reign over the Minnesota Wild, it didn't appear there would be any silver linings. Even owner Craig Leipold admitted that hiring him was a mistake. But one positive came out of the Fenton era: Kevin Fiala has emerged as the game-breaker Fenton said he would be.
The former GM famously called Fiala that after dealing Mikael Granlund to the Nashville Predators in a one-for-one trade, and he stood behind that statement until he was dismissed. He always knew the winger had this in him. Fenton was aware of Fiala's talent dating back to their days in Nashville together.
Fenton was not the right person for the job, but you have to give credit where credit is due. The former Predators scout and assistant GM has a good eye for talent, and he knew exactly what he was getting despite his lack of judgment in the execution of the trade. Since arriving in Minnesota, Fiala has 101 points in 133 games (0.76 PPG) and has been an offensive threat. Fiala's breakout a year ago, strong performance in the bubble, and maturity on the ice were evidence of his long-awaited transformation into a player who can drive offense for the Wild.
That is why it was a bombshell to hear Michael Russo state on KFAN that there is a 50-50 chance that Fiala will be moved this offseason.
Why would the Wild deal Fiala?
The only logical reasons behind this would be if he is included in a package for a first-line center, or if he plays hardball with Guerin and the Wild front office. He has leverage after generating 94 points in 114 games over the last two seasons, and he is arbitration-eligible. According to Evolving-Hockey's contract projections, he is projected to get just over $6 million on a five-year contract. If he is looking for significantly more than that, Minnesota may have to pass.
Fiala has all the tools in his arsenal to be an elite first-line winger. Whether it's his dangerous shot, strong transition game, or strong play at even-strength, he has the skillset to create offense when Minnesota needs to get something going.
He has a dangerous shot that allows him to score with the utmost precision. Over the past two seasons, he has scored 43 goals on 34.8 expected goals -- 8.2 goals above expected. While he's a good finisher, he could reach another level if he focuses more on his shot frequency and location.
Fiala tries to do too much at times and doesn't just take the available shot. In his season wrap-up, he noted that one of the points of emphasis this summer would be improving his shot. But there is no doubt that the Wild have lacked players who have a shot like Fiala's.
Fiala's strong transition game, which is usually exhibited by high-end players, also makes him a valuable asset; he's able to enter and exit the zone with controlled possession.
Over the past four seasons, Fiala is near the 90th percentile in the league in shot contributions, entries, and exits -- a crucial part of the game. This also matches the eye test too, as he's able to enter and exit the zone with possession effectively.
There is data to support that the measurement of both shots and shot assists can actually be a more valuable indicator of future performance than shots alone because the passing sequence before a shot has an effect on the likelihood of a shot becoming a goal. This is why Fiala's dangerous transition play is such an integral part of his game.
He's one of the most lethal players in transition in the league. Whether it's his 5.885 entries with chances per 60 or 12.88 primary shot assists per 60, he flourishes in transition and creates a lot of his offense from it. His ability to maintain possession entering the zone and turn it into scoring chances is paramount, just as much as his ability to be a strong playmaker with his high volume of shot assists.
The 24-year-old forward is often criticized for the number of turnovers he commits. However, while he grades out below-average defensively, he is not a defensive liability. He made huge strides defensively last year, which resulted in him being roughly average league-wide.
Fiala's strong expected goals and Corsi rates are what makes him so effective. Not only is he a strong finisher, but he drives offense too. Corsi can be a good indicator of possession, which aligns with the eye test. He is efficient at maintaining possession and does a lot of damage at even strength.
The Wild will lose any Fiala trade unless it is for a bonafide No. 1 center. Fiala hasn't even reached his ceiling yet. If he can polish some parts of his game and get some quality linemates, he can be a franchise player.
It would be a massive mistake to trade Fiala. He should be treated as a core player who can help the organization get to the next level. They need to do everything they can to keep him in Minnesota long-term; failure to do so will result in regrets later. His high-octane offensive game is much needed.
There is absolutely no reason to split up the two-headed monster and prevent them from doing some real damage in the league together.
All Data Via Evolving-Hockey, Hockey-Viz, Natural Stat Trick & Hockey-Reference.