As someone who has known Kevin Fiala for the better part of a decade, Freddy Gaudreau’s reaction said it all.
Asked if Fiala played on the penalty kill during his minor-league days, Gaudreau couldn’t help but laugh.
“It’s probably new for him,” said Gaudreau, who played with Fiala with the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League. “But he’s doing a great job.”
Indeed. The 25-year-old from Switzerland has become a mainstay on the Minnesota Wild penalty kill so far this season, embracing a role he might have been averse to earlier in his career. It’s a sign of maturity from a guy known almost exclusively for his goal-scoring to this point.
“You see the best players in the world and they do everything,” Fiala said. “When I think about myself, that’s going to be my next step, to be all-around type of guy. That’s my goal for this season and for the future.”
And while the Wild penalty kill was struggling entering Tuesday night’s game against the Canucks in Vancouver, it wasn’t for a lack of effort on Fiala’s part. He has committed himself to that part of the game more than ever before, using his speed and quickness to make an impact night in and night out.
As a penalty killer himself, Marcus Foligno has appreciated having Fiala out there with him, namely because of the threat he brings with his ability to go the other way at a moment’s notice.
“You’ve got to be careful with a guy like that because he can go for a shorthanded goal,” Foligno said. “Sometimes that kind of plays in the mind of power plays when there’s a guy like that. You look at a guy that’s always been tough to play against on the penalty kill, like Michael Grabner, where it seemed like he always had a breakaway a game shorthanded. That can be a guy like Kevin Fiala. You make a power play now kind of think a little bit more defensively than offensively, and I think that’s why he’s been really good for us.”
Maybe the biggest sign of Fiala’s growth as a player came during a recent interview. When the idea of a shorthanded goal came up in conversation, Fiala provided a response that would have made any coach proud.
“My first option is always going to be get it down and get it deep,” Fiala said. “My job is not to score on the PK, it’s to defend. But if there’s going to be opportunity to have some time, or even a chance to score a goal, I’m going to take it, for sure.”
That played out in real time a couple of weeks ago in a back-to-back against the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings. After taking a few too many chances on the penalty kill in the game against the Ducks, the coaching staff challenged Fiala to be more committed to doing the right things in the game against the Kings.
He passed with flying colors.
“The readjustment to commit to killing the penalty first, and then if we get an offensive chance, sure, we’ll take a goal on a penalty kill, no question,” Wild coach Dean Evason said. “Just not at the expense of leaving the defensive zone and leaving us exposed.”
Asked if Fiala could have made that game-to-game adjustment on the penalty kill earlier in his career, Evason explained how most players struggle with that when they get called up to the NHL for the first time.
Most players who reach the NHL were likely a star at some point during their rise up the ranks. Thus, they are used to being the focal point of the game plan, not doing some of the little things that impact winning at the next level.
“He had the puck most of the time, probably, and he comes here and he didn’t have the puck,” Evason said of Fiala. “He had to do some things away from the puck that were not natural to him. He’s got to learn those skills. He learned them in the American Hockey League. He’s learned them over his career (with the Nashville Predators), and obviously here, and he’s a better hockey player now because of it.”
As for Fiala, he’s excited to grow into his role on the penalty kill. He wants to be a star in the NHL, and in order to become that, he knows he has to play in every situation.
“I just think I can do more,” Fiala said. “I’m a guy that wants to be always better at something else. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody has to work on all the things. For me, it was very important to be a reliable player that Dean can trust.”
With the Wild on the road all this week, assistant coach Darby Hendrickson, goaltending coach Freddy Chabot and video coach T.J. Jindra are in the league’s COVID protocol. They are not with the team on the trip.