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Goff: An alarming defensive trend and what to make of Kevin Fiala?

The Minnesota Wild might have gotten their first win of the season but are still stumbling and looking up from the basement through their first six games. From the offense, defense and goaltending, nothing seems to be going right this season.

The Wild have been leading for only 39:14 of a possible 360:00 minutes in six games, which is by far the lowest amount in the NHL. In each of the Wild’s five losses, there has been a snowball period that dooms them and it usually involves star players from the opposition.

On opening night against the Predators, Minnesota let a 2-1 slead lip away in the third period when Nashville scored two goals 1:19 apart from Mikael Granlund and Austin Watson. Viktor Arvidsson and Fiilip Forsberg’s empty netter capped off a four-goal third period in a 5-2 loss.

Against the Avalanche, Colorado popped in two goals 1:27 apart from Mikko Rantanen and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. After the Wild were able to tie it up, Gabriel Landeskog netted the game-winning goal in a eventual 4-2 loss to Colorado. 

In Winnipeg, the Wild scored the game’s first goal, only to have Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine give Winnipeg the lead after two periods. Once again, the Wild though were able to battle back but two Jets goals 28-seconds apart from Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic led the way to another 5-2 loss. 

After being on the road for three straight, the Wild played their home opener against a beat-up Penguins team who were without Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, Alex Galchenyuk and Nick Bjustad but it didn’t matter. Patric Hornqvist, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Jake Guentzel all scored goals in a 7-4 loss on home ice. 

Even after grinding out a win over a terrible Ottawa Senators team, the Wild once again had a doomsday period against the Toronto Maple Leafs – albeit on the heels of a back-to-back. This time, it was John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Andreas Johnsson, Auston Matthews scoring second-period goals with Marner’s and Johnsson’s goals coming 1:12 apart. Cleary there’s an alarming trend going on here. Not only are the disastrous periods killing them but look at who’s scoring goals against them. 

  • Arvidsson
  • Rananten
  • Landeskog
  • Wheeler
  • Laine
  • Crosby
  • Hornqvist
  • Guentzel
  • Tavares
  • Marner
  • Matthews

If the Wild limit the disastrous periods that put things out of reach, it’s clear opponents top lines are feasting on this team. Minnesota’s bread and butter this season was supposed to be its defense but even a top-four of Ryan Suter, Matt Dumba, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin and goaltender Devan Dubnyk can only do so much against some of the league’s best players. The Mikko Koivu of two or three years ago could have help limit this type of damage, but with a forward core that’s either starting to show its age or is inexperienced, this could be a continuing trend for the Wild this season.

What to make of Fiala?

Kevin Fiala is one of the many players who have struggled out of the gate. Acquired from the Nashville Predators in a straight up hockey trade for Granlund, Fiala was a healthy scratch on Tuesday against the Maple Leafs. In five games this season, Fiala has no goals, one assist and just seven shots on net while averaging nearly 15 minutes of ice time per game. 

The 23-year-old winger has spent the majority of his time playing alongside Eric Staal (33:21) with the two having produced a solid Corsi For Percentage of 51.67% but that has resulted in only one team goal when those two are on the ice. What’s frustrating to coach Bruce Boudreau about Fiala is the amount of turnovers in the offensive zone. He has shown flashes of stick handling ability but elects to either hold onto the puck for too long or opt for a pass when clearly he should let it rip. For many Wild fans, it’s eerily similar to watching Thomas Vanek’s tenure in Minnesota. 

Drafted 11th overall in the 2014 draft, Fiala made a quick impact for the Predators as a 21-year-old in the 2017-18 season. He registered 48 points (23 goals and 25 assists) in 80 games playing the majority of his time alongside Kyle Turris and Craig Smith. That Predators team was built a tad different than this year’s Wild’s squad as Nashville had Stanley Cup aspirations and the trio of Fiala, Turris (58.18 CF%) and Smith (58.20 CF%) were deployed against other second and third-line players.

Fiala’s season was no fluke, his shooting percentage was sustainable (12.3%) and his 19 even-strength goals were more than than Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron and Mark Stone. During Nashville’s playoff run, Fiala suffered a nasty injury, breaking his fibula and was stretched off the ice. 

You could see why former general manager Paul Fenton decided to target him, even though there might have been some bias from Fenton’s previous tenure in Nashville. However, Fiala really never gelled with any forwards in his 19 games last season where he scored just three goals and was minus-12, so it’s probably wise to be patient with the winger before we send the hounds on him.

Like many restricted-free agents this past summer, Fiala didn’t get a deal done until late into the offseason, signing a two-year $6 million ($3 million AAV) contract in September. So if Fiala doesn’t work out, at least the Wild aren’t tied to him long term. Maybe Fiala’s still getting his legs under him, but like many of the young Wild forwards, he needs to find his game sooner rather than later. 


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