In their first full seasons with the Wild, both Kevin Fiala and Ryan Donato are starting to live up to their potential.
When former Wild general manager Paul Fenton traded away Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle at last year’s trade deadline, there was a belief he sold too low on two core players. Fiala, who Fenton drafted 11th overall in 2014 when he was in Nashville, was dubbed a “gamebreaker” by the former GM. In Fiala’s 19 game debut he was hardly that. The 22-year old scored just three goals and didn’t gel with any line. After a chaotic summer in which he didn’t get a new contract until midway through training camp, the Swiss forward’s struggles continued into this season. With just one point and a surplus of offensive-zone turnovers in his first eight games, head coach Bruce Bodureau was so fed up with his play, he sent Fiala to the press box as a healthy scratch twice in the month of October.
But something clicked as the calendar turned, and since the start of November Fiala has produced 15 points (6 goals and 9 assists) in his last 19 games. Fiala’s advanced metrics this year indicate he looks more like the player he was two seasons ago when he netted 23 goals on a talented Predators team.
He might not be scoring goals at the same rate, but clearly he’s becoming a more-rounded player. What’s also interesting is how Boudreau is deploying the young forward, as he’s starting in the defensive zone a ton, which is something he’s never been asked to do. It could be a similar strategy to the way Boudreau used Granlund in the D-zone because he was good in transition.
Also similar to Granlund’s usage under Boudreau, Fiala has spent the bulk of his time with Mikko Koivu, whose defensive skill mitigates shortcomings of the young player. Fiala’s skillset helps the Wild get through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone with ease, where he can create chances and let Koivu and Zach Parise get to the front of the net. But now Koivu is on the injured reserve and wanting to keep Fiala and Parise together, Donato has been elevated to their line.
Unlike Fiala, Donato’s debut last season was very impressive. His shoot-first mentality was incredibly refreshing to see and the former Harvard University standout put up 16 points (4 goals and 12 assists) in 22 games. Coming into training camp this fall, Donato was used as a center but was shifted to wing by the time the regular season started. He spent time with Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin and then briefly received top line minutes with Eric Staal and Mats Zuccarello.
After a disastrous game in Colorado where he was responsible for the game-winning goal, Donato was banished to the press box. When he did dress, he barely touched the ice. From Oct. 20 – Nov. 25, Donato averaged just 8:37 of ice time. It looked like his 22-game debut from the season before was a flash in a pan.
Instead, Donato, Victor Rask and Ryan Hartman started stringing together some really sound games. They did exactly what a 4th line should do: be responsible and don’t get scored on. Over an 11-game stretch from Nov. 19 – Dec. 10, when Donato was on ice, he created six goals for and zero allowed. In his past eight games, Donato has five goals and is starting to shoot the puck at the ferocity we saw last season. His diligent play has earned him more ice time and Boudreau believes he’s earned it.
“Well he’s handled it really well,” Boudreau said after Minnesota’s loss to Anaheim on Dec. 10. “We’ve asked more of him and more of a 200-foot game rather than an offensive game. So when he was playing six-minutes a night and he was starting to do the right things, all of the sudden you get a little bit more faith in that individual and he started playing more. When someone goes down like Mikko, then he gets the opportunity to get in and he’s got five goals now and there’s a lot of guys who have more who play a lot more minutes that don’t have that at this stage.”
Now that he’s forced into a bigger role, and playing in the middle between Parise and Fiala, Donato continues to rack up points. In their first game together, Donato scored his sixth goal of the season on a rocket of a shot that beat Mike Smith.
Beauty of a snipe from Ryan Donato pic.twitter.com/FpXKeDeepE
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) December 13, 2019
Fenton obviously had his warts in his short tenure as Wild GM but looking back at the trades he made, Fenton actually might’ve been right in his assessments. Granlund looks lost in Nashville with just 12 points (4 goals and 8 assists) in 27 games. Meanwhile, Coyle has played admirably with 16 points (6 goals and 10 assists) in 32 games. But how many times did Wild fans see Coyle show glimpses of what he’s doing in Boston only to disappear from the score sheet for games on end? If two young forwards like Fiala and Donato continue to play at the rate, they’re going to be key building blocks for years to come.