ST. PAUL — Paul Fenton alienated his staff, was often aloof and did such a poor job in one season as the Wild’s general manager that owner Craig Leipold fired him in late July. But it appears Fenton might have made at least one good move in the three significant deals he swung last winter.
Fenton’s decision to send Mikael Granlund to Nashville for Kevin Fiala in a swap of wingers on Feb. 25, just before the trade deadline, was met with plenty of skepticism. Fenton had been assistant general manager in Nashville, was familiar with Fiala and referred to him as “electric” and a “game-breaker” after the deal. Many rolled their eyes and suggested Fenton hadn’t gotten nearly enough for the skilled Granlund.
But as Granlund struggles in Nashville, the 23-year-old Fiala has been logging ice time on the Wild’s second line with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu and is becoming a regular on the score sheet. Fiala scored his fourth goal in six games on Thursday in the Wild’s 3-2 victory over Arizona at Xcel Energy Center. He also had six shots to lead a line that accounted for nine.
Kevin Fiala gives the @mnwild the lead in the first.
— FOX Sports North (@fsnorth) November 15, 2019
Fiala has four goals and three assists in 14 games and is playing with a confidence he was lacking early in the season, or in the 19 games he played with the Wild last season after being acquired. This is in part because Wild coach Bruce Boudreau has gained trust in Fiala and is even using him on the power play with Eric Staal and Mats Zuccarello.
“The chemistry is getting better and better,” Fiala said when asked about the success of his line with Koivu and Parise. “The confidence is high right now, so I just have to keep it going. … I (didn’t) play with those two guys at the start of the season and even last year, when I came, Mikko wasn’t available (because of a knee injury). So right now, it’s maybe the sixth, seventh game for us and it’s starting to … the chemistry is really coming. We can find each other blind (with passes), we know where a guy stands. It’s been fun.”
It’s a long way from mid-October when Fiala was a healthy scratch in Toronto. He returned for three games before an injury cost him three more and he was again a healthy scratch in the Wild’s brutal 6-3 loss on Oct. 29 in Dallas. Fiala said “sometimes you have to wake somebody up,” and, “I felt a wakeup call for sure.”
Fiala has played in all seven games since and has four goals and two assists. He played 15 minutes, 36 seconds and had a goal and an assist in the Wild’s come-from-behind win on Saturday in Arizona and then logged 15:35 of ice time in a loss on Tuesday night against the Kings in Los Angeles.
Fiala played 15:12 on Thursday and saw the ice in the last five minutes as the Wild protected a one-goal lead Jordan Greenway gave them with his first goal of the season at 12:11 of the third period. “That’s why I was telling Bob (Woods, an assistant coach), why I put him out in the last five minutes,” Boudreau said. “If we’re going to tell players to play better and give them crap, when they start to play better you better be able to put them out in situations to continue their confidence.”
Said Fiala: “The points are coming, the goals are coming and it’s fun to play hockey. We are in the offensive zone, we have chances and when things like that happen the confidence just races up.”
Fiala’s slow start might have been based partially on the fact he missed the first nine days of training camp because he had to get a work visa after signing a two-year, $6 million contract with the Wild in September. This came after he failed to impress upon his arrival in Minnesota last season, scoring three goals with four assists and registering a minus-12.
The other two significant trades made by Fenton included sending winger Nino Niederreiter to Carolina for center Victor Rask and winger Charlie Coyle to Boston for winger Ryan Donato and a conditional draft pick.
The first trade was an awful one as Niederreiter had 14 goals and 16 assists and was a plus-7 in 36 games with the Hurricanes. Niederreiter has two goals and five assists in 18 games this season and is a minus-6, but the return of Rask (one goal, one assist in 10 games) still wasn’t nearly enough. Coyle has two goals and five assists in 18 games; Donato has one goal and two assists in 17 games playing on the Wild’s fourth line.
Granlund, meanwhile, has continued to be a guy with a ton of skill and little consistency. He has three goals and two assists in 18 games and got his first point in 13 games on Tuesday in Vancouver. Fiala showed an ability to be the type of scorer the Wild badly needs in 2017-18, when he had 23 goals in 80 games. His recent production has to be considered a good sign.
What Boudreau and Co., have to accept is Fiala is going to make mistakes defensively and he’s going to have stretches where his confidence might wane. But unless he’s injured, Fiala needs to consistently play in the top six and get the minutes that go with that assignment. Scratching him is no longer an option.
This franchise needs to find out what it has in Fiala and consider that maybe, just maybe, Fenton did one thing right.