Kevin Fiala & The Waiting Game

(Photo Credit: Sarah Fuqua)
(Photo Credit: Sarah Fuqua)

Rather than go the Ramblings route today I want to hit a topic that came up numerous times during my Nashville trip: Kevin Fiala.

As I’ve learned in my recent time covering the Milwaukee Admirals sometimes just saying that name is all you have to say. The reactions and range of opinions about Fiala shoot wildly across the board. People are high on him and think he’ll do real well when he gets unleashed into the Nashville Predators forward group. Other people don’t think he has enough going for him to be an NHL talent and already have looked past him for other shiny objects that Milwaukee is polishing to make even shinier.

During my recent trip to Nashville fans and fellow media colleagues asked me about Fiala a great deal. Questions such as… Will Fiala make the Nashville Predators opening night roster? Would Fiala playing more in the AHL this season than the NHL be considered a failure? Is his immaturity still cause for concern? …all came up. Allow me to get your Monday off right by tackling the question to end all questions in my small little working bubble: Fiala?

~The Waiting Game~

For those that don’t follow along with the Birthday dates for players it is worth doing this topic this week. After all, these are the last few days where we can consider Fiala as a teenager. He will be turning 20-years old on Friday and that age is a rather important one for quite a few points I’ll be making along the way.

(Photo Credit: Marissa Baecker // Shoot the Breeze)
(Photo Credit: Marissa Baecker // Shoot the Breeze)

This season with the Milwaukee Admirals there will be a drafted by Nashville rookie class that features three 20-year olds: Alexandre Carrier, Justin Kirkland, and Anthony Richard. All three of these players just completed lengthy junior careers. Carrier played 242 games with Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL), Kirkland played 199 games with the Kelowna Rockets (WHL), and Richard played 232 games with Val-d’Or Foreurs (QMJHL). For the sake of added comparison the Admirals will also feature a rookie in the form of the undrafted 22-year old defenseman Teddy Doherty who played 144 games with Boston College (NCAA).

Fiala, as stated, will be entering the 2016-17 season as a 20-year old. Unlike the names mentioned above this will be his second full-season of professional hockey in North America and that comes after a 2014-15 season where he effectively played half a season with the Admirals. Prior to that he managed to play 37 games of professional level hockey at the top flight in Sweden with HV71. Fiala’s junior playing career ended when he was 17-years old. That junior playing career is dispersed from Swiss (Uzwil, Rheintal, ZSC, and GCK Lions) and Swedish (Malmö Redhawks and HV71) junior programs as well as the junior national team.

(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)
(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)

Allow me to now pull this all together now. Fiala’s first true stationary proving ground with a consistent coaching staff to allow him to make mistakes, learn, and grow hasn’t exactly come until his leap directly to North America where he has now been since mid-January 2015. While Carrier, Doherty, Kirkland, and Richard have had similar surroundings and relatively the same teams as they progressed towards their professional playing careers… Fiala has been jumping ship upon ship upon country after country and yet another team change. Were he in the North American setting from the word “GO” this likely would be debut season of pro hockey. What often gets overlooked, beyond his age, is actually the route he’s taken to get exactly where he is and how unstable that process is by comparison to your run of the mill CHL drafted player.

Kevin Fiala celebrates his game-winning goal in overtime on the road against the Lake Erie Monsters on 4/1/15 by screaming at Andrew  Agozzino.
Kevin Fiala celebrates his game-winning goal in overtime on the road against the Lake Erie Monsters on 4/1/15 by screaming at Andrew Agozzino.

Moments that come to mind with Fiala range anywhere between his goal against the Texas Stars where he deked Jamie Oleksiak out of his skates before patiently out-waiting Jack Campbell for a deadly solo goal – and then him flipping off the Lake Erie Monsters bench, getting a game misconduct, and a subsequent two-game suspension from the AHL. So you get anywhere from talent to immaturity. It’s not even as if it was his first run in against Lake Erie, either. In his short AHL career he went after the Monsters under their AHL affiliation with the Colorado Avalanche (2014-15) and the Columbus Blue Jackets (2015-16). During his entry to the North American scene he felt the need to celebrate a game-winning overtime goal, on the road in Cleveland, by screaming into Monsters’ alternate captain Andrew Agozzino‘s face. Then team captain of the Admirals, Joe Piskula, needed to step in and wedge him aside. It was a microcosm of just what this young Fiala was all about. His competitive spirit is his often his best and worst attribute. It gets him on the scoresheet. It gets him in the penalty box. In the grand scheme of things – these instances don’t happen every single game but they do happen here and there. Learning to tone down the negativity of Fiala’s aggressiveness without detracting from what makes him -him- is, has, and likely will be a coaching point for the years ahead. The key here for everyone is this: patience. I’ve often cited a need for patience in regards to Fiala both for the fans and for Fiala himself. Amusingly it is for the exact same reason, too. You can’t be caught wanting so much so soon.

(Photo Credit: Christina Shapiro)
(Photo Credit: Christina Shapiro)

If opening night hits and Fiala isn’t part of the Nashville Predators roster it should not be looked at in any way shape or form as a failure. Fiala playing 2.5 years of AHL level hockey by age 20 isn’t a failure… it’s ahead of the curve. What makes it all the more better is connecting him towards the style that Nashville want him to play, at an AHL pace, to make that eventual arrival something a bit more polished that if he was fed to the lion’s den that is the NHL. Only a few true elite level talents excel or impress at ages 20 or younger at the NHL level. To expect Fiala, and his non-traditional path to reach the NHL in the first place, to be one of these talents isn’t exactly a fair viewpoint to hold – eleventh overall draft selection or not.

The more I value or look into what a Fiala in the NHL could be early on in his playing career the more I start to think of a Conor Sheary of the Pittsburgh Penguins as an example. They are both undersized wingers with great skating ability and tremendous creativity when on the offensive side of the puck. Sheary spent a full four-years at UMass-Amherst before a season and a half of significant AHL playing time put him towards a path to a Stanley Cup at the age of 23-years old. He’s four years older than Fiala with a knowledge of the North American game and his organization’s style rooted into him. Good things don’t happen in a flash because of draft selection placement they happen with adherence to the developmental process. Which is precisely why last season was just what Fiala needed.

(Photo Credit: Stephanie Moebius)
(Photo Credit: Stephanie Moebius)

The 2015-16 season gave Fiala just about every single obstacle that you would want a 19-year old that’s adjusting to becoming a professional hockey player that you could want. He built himself up to make the Predators out of pre-season camp. He arrived at pre-season camp and was swiftly cut with a massive talent pool making sending him to Milwaukee seem like an easy option. People might not remember this but Fiala wasn’t alone in missing out on that Predators opening night roster last season. There was a bloke named Miikka Salomäki that started his 2015-16 season in Milwaukee before working himself back into the Nashville spotlight. Things worked out well for him after that but not so much for Fiala who really was experiencing being cut from advancing to a team for the first time in his playing career. This defeated feeling trickled to the ice… the goals, the scoring touch, and explosiveness to his game disappeared into the battle going on inside his teenage mind. The suspension seemed to act as the firm slap he needed to wake up – and he did. Fiala would go on from not having scored a goal until the Admirals sixteenth game of the season to leading the team in overall scoring by season’s end with 50 points (18 goals, 32 assists).

Along the way there were mistakes, sure. His plus/minus of -19 stands out against his offensive output but his defensive ability is slowly improving. His intensity to compete can often overwhelm his better judgement and it can lead to unnecessary trips to the penalty box. These are poor characteristics, yes, but things you’re likely to hear from with a player that has been dropped into deep water. Placing a player at an age of a junior level talent into a professional vortex and you have the ultimate stress test to see just what sort of product you selected with that first round draft pick in 2014. And you know what? He, much like the Russian youngster drafted in the round after him by the Predators, both survived that test last season.

(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)
(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)

What fans should be anticipating for the 2016-17 season out of Fiala is a much looser, relaxed, and confident person on and off the ice. There were so many question marks and unknowns facing him when he arrived in mid-January 2015. The North American game was far different than he anticipated but now has a solid grip to just what is needed from a winger roaming North-South rather than coasting along the wider rinks that Europe feature. Living conditions and the knowledge of where to be comfortable and enjoy himself in Nashville or Milwaukee are taken care of. For some, this will be their third season playing alongside Fiala at the AHL level. Questions of who he’s playing alongside and how he can play with those players are answered.

This coming season for Fiala is going to be one in which he gets to be himself in North America, relax, and simply go to work – for really the first time since he arrived. Whether he’s competing at the NHL or AHL level that mentality and statement doesn’t change. The questions have been answered and replaced by new challenges that the previous year presented. The surrounding field competition now takes a backseat to competing against himself.

What the Nashville Predators organization has done is set Fiala up for a season where he is now settled into a comfort zone with his surroundings and can firmly compete against what he accomplished in 2015-16. What Fiala accomplished was being the top scorer on an Admirals team that ended the regular season off with a record of 48-23-3-2 (101 points) to clinch the franchise’s first divisional title since 2010-11. It is simply an exciting thought to me that the real message here could end up being, “top that.” If there were any challenge to set in front of Fiala before properly unleashing him at the NHL stage – it’s that.

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