ST. PAUL — How could former Wild general manager Paul Fenton trade Mikael Granlund for Kevin Fiala last season without getting more in return? That was a question many Wild fans asked when Minnesota shipped Granlund to Nashville for Fiala in February 2019 and one some continued asking this season.
Hopefully, they stopped after what they witnessed on Tuesday night at Xcel Energy Center.
Fenton might have lacked people skills — a primary reason he was removed from the GM chair in late July and replaced by Bill Guerin — but he didn’t lack knowledge of just how good Fiala could be if given the right opportunity.
Wherever Fenton was on Tuesday, if he was watching the Wild’s 3-1 victory over Nashville at Xcel Energy Center, he had to feel a sense of vindication. Fiala, the Wild’s most gifted player since Marian Gaborik left town, scored the Wild’s second goal of the first period against his former team and added a second assist on Zach Parise’s third-period goal that put Minnesota up by three at the time.
The victory moved the Wild (73 points) one point back of Vancouver and Winnipeg (74 points) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Jets beat Buffalo to grab the second wild card position. The Wild will begin a three-game West Coast trip on Thursday, facing San Jose. They will then play the Kings and Ducks, meaning their next three games are against the three worst teams in the Western Conference.
The Wild appeared to be out of the playoff race last month when they traded winger Jason Zucker to Pittsburgh for a first-round pick, a defensive prospect and veteran Alex Galchenyuk. The decision to fire coach Bruce Boudreau and replace him with assistant Dean Evason after an overtime loss to the New York Rangers a few days later seemed to be a clear indication that the Wild were going nowhere. But the Wild improved to 6-3 under Evason on Tuesday and find themselves in far better shape than anyone could have expected.
Fiala, who early in the season had to worry about being benched if he made a mistake, is now the Wild’s first-line right winger and that isn’t going to change. His performance Tuesday made him the first player in Wild history to have five consecutive multi-point games. The only other NHL players to accomplish that feat this season are Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov. Granlund’s only contribution to the game-summary sheet was the two minor penalties the winger took against his old club.
“He’s magic, man,” said Wild goalie Alex Stalock, who stopped 37 of 38 shots in making his fifth consecutive start. “He gets it, and he’s the guy where fans are starting to get out of their seats now. Not only can he do it, with the moves and beat a defenseman, but the puck finds the back of the net, and that’s not easy to do. Right now, the way he’s playing, it’s on a consistent basis, and obviously he got rewarded with the Star of the Week. He just has a ton of confidence right now. This kid, when he has it going, it’s fun to watch.”
That might be an understatement given some of Fiala’s recent goals. He now has 21 on the season to go with his team-leading and career-high 51 points. Fiala has a goal in five consecutive games and seven in his past eight. I could try to describe the goal that Fiala scored against his former team on Tuesday, getting defenseman Ryan Ellis to commit by flopping to the ice before leaving him behind, showing great patience and finally flipping the puck over goalie Juuse Saros, but, honestly, the description wouldn’t do the goal justice. So here it is.
Absolutely disgusting goal from Fiala, outstanding pic.twitter.com/4PFnDVHyFQ
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) March 4, 2020
“It was a lucky bounce,” said Fiala, a first-round pick of the Predators in 2014. “Nice vision, got on the skate and I was there. It bounced right to me. Nobody around, just a two-on-one with (Eric) Staalsy. I saw (the defenseman) lay down and tried delay, delay, then I shot it.”
There was nothing lucky about Fiala’s goal. It was a work of art and no matter how much he tried to spin it differently the visual evidence above proves the skill this guy has both in his skating and stickhandling ability. While Stalock didn’t realize it, his quote about Fiala being “magic, man,” was right on. Only you can remove the comma.
Longtime NHL fans will recall the North Stars once had a player named Kent Nilsson, who was known as “The Magic Man” for much of his career. Nilsson played for the Atlanta/Calgary Flames, the North Stars and Edmonton Oilers during his nine-year NHL career and had a variety of dazzling moves that often left opponents wondering where he and the puck had gone. Fiala’s style is similar to Nilsson’s and, as Stalock said, it’s magical to watch.
The difference is Nilsson played in an era where a guy with his talent had the option of not being responsible on defense. Fiala is expected to contribute on both ends and he did so on Tuesday, backchecking on a play that ended up with Nashville taking a too-many-men penalty in the second period.
Predators GM David Poile probably isn’t overy excited to see Fiala’s success or how his game has developed. Fenton was Poile’s righthand man in Nashville for several years before he got the Wild job and while Fenton’s time in Minnesota was brief, his statement that Fiala had the ability to be a “game breaker” is longer scoffed at by anyone.
The 23-year-old Fiala acknowledged that getting such a big win against his former team was nice. “Oh, yeah, for sure. It was very fun,” he said. “I was so happy when it was over.”
Fiala’s teammates were just happy to see him continue to dominate after his nine points last week earned him First Star of the Week honors in the NHL. “He’s on fire right now,” Parise said, “I mean, nice goals, too, not, not my kind of goals, but nice goals. He’s feeling it and I think this last I don’t know five, six seven games he’s just taken off. It’s been so big for our team. We’d love to see him to keep doing it. It’s been huge.”
It’s also made everyone associated with the Wild forget about Granlund.