It caused a slight double-take on my part when the Nashville Predators reassigned Kevin Fiala to the Milwaukee Admirals on Tuesday morning. He had been performing really well at the NHL level this season and is beginning to show flashes of his capabilities on the grand stage. That there is the problem though. They’re only flashes and you hope for consistency. That’s when it is time for the AHL to become involved to let prospects going through the motions, slight as they might be, a chance to play maximum minutes and get a full head of steam en route to the NHL spotlight once again.
Fiala endured a day of travel that saw him journey from Vancouver to Minneapolis to Charlotte when he was reassigned from the Predators to the Admirals. He made it in time to play Tuesday night and he didn’t look like someone who had woke up at 4 AM and traveled for ten hours when he was on the ice. He was sensational. He followed that up with a repeated quality effort that was sealed with one of the prettiest worked solo goals of the AHL season to secure the win for the Admirals in overtime.
He was with the Admirals for barely two days, played two games, and looked like someone that was head and shoulders above so many outstanding players who were on the ice. He was skating with pace, he was active off the puck and being attentive to defensive assignments, and was buzzing around and creating offensively at a time when the Admirals desperately needed an igniter in that department.
Why is Fiala with the Admirals right now? Why is Fiala not doing what he just did in Charlotte against NHL opposition on a shift-by-shift basis? And is the Fiala who has had those flashes in the NHL just who he is always going to be?
Those seem to be questions on tons of peoples minds as comments floated on in after he scored last night’s game-winning goal in overtime. “We lost a one goal game to the Canucks Tuesday night and here is Fiala scoring a game-winning goal in overtime when we need him.” Those sorts of commentary chirps were raining in.
Listen folks. I understand the frustrations. I understand the magnitude of a first round selection’s potential to perform. But, Fiala’s current spot that he finds himself in – whether temporary or longer, I think that the expectations weighted on him have been blown way out of proportion. It’s time to stop thinking about what Kevin Fiala isn’t and start appreciating Kevin Fiala for who he is.
Fiala is still 20-years old and has taken great leaps forward this season for both on and off-ice approaches to the game. If expectations are “necessary” for a first round draft choice I kindly point people toward the season that Austin Watson is finally having in the NHL and the long path it took for him to get there – at now 25-years old. People can be foaming at the mouth for Viktor Arvidsson now but he is the player that he is by comparison to someone such as Fiala because he is three-years older and has played 115 games of pro level experience more. The polish to Arvidsson’s game and maturity come largely because of that experience.
During the 2013-14 season the Admirals had contributions for 47 games from a 19-year old named Filip Forsberg. He was placed in the AHL on the basis of sharpening his attention to detail and finding consistency in his all-around play. There was optimism that Fiala’s “Forsberg Year” was the 2015-16 season that saw him dip a toe in the NHL for 5 games but stuck around in the AHL for the season and was the Admirals leading scorer – as a teenager. Of the Admirals roster throughout the whole of this current season there are only three players to have played that are younger than Fiala: Anthony Richard, Alex Carrier, and Vladislav Kamenev. Only one of those names was a full-time pro a season ago and the other two are just beginning their pro careers this season.
In different circumstances Fiala is a first-year pro this or last season. He is then massively ahead of the curve as far as his developmental process goes for a 20-year old. Yet, do not let that fact detract from the very real nature that he is still a prospect destined for some speed bumps along the way.
The Fiala that I’ve had the opportunity to observe this season with the Predators is largely different than his past self. He is starting to fill into his frame as the kid becomes more of a man. Him getting stronger is allowing him to feel more comfortable getting into dirty areas as well as finding better success in those key places on the ice. Having talked to him during the Summer and in his brief time in Milwaukee this season – I’m talking to a different person than when he first arrived. He is by far and away more comfortable in his own skin in the North American environment than when he first showed up and he is also getting a far greater understanding of the different style game that this region of the world plays. He’s matured off the ice. Last season went a long way into seeing that become reality. He isn’t looking to shoot himself in the foot or be down on himself. That same treatment is given to his play where he seems to be far less recklessness the way he plays and he is starting to make savvy reads on both offense and defense.
That’s not to say there aren’t some bad turnovers that he makes from time to time or even offensive plays that he could bury – that he doesn’t. This is the breaking point that can get him pushed down the lineup or flat out healthy scratched. As the Predators begin to assemble a more layered approach to the way they attack a game these days, with more veteran minded or scrappy players like the line of Cody McLeod–Derek Grant–Harry Zolnierczyk, it makes having the risk-reward element of Fiala one that isn’t as tempting to go to at the moment. So, if you’re not playing him or don’t have intent to, why leave him in the cold when at 20-years of age he should be playing, developing, learning, and proving the Predators wrong in their decision to send him down. You should want a level of fire in Fiala’s game, shift-by-shift, and game-by-game. That is the exact result the Predators would have wanted. And it is the exact result they received in two games played for the Admirals on the road in Charlotte.
The path of getting to the NHL takes so many different forms. Frédérick Gaudreau and Mike Liambas were amazing stories for their long roads to Nashville. Others, even if a bit more direct like a 2015 NHL Draft selection such as Alex Carrier, can still be surprising given how fast they can push for the opportunity. Fiala didn’t get to the NHL too fast. He isn’t getting there consistently too slow. He’s just learning like the Forsberg, Watson, and the Anthony Bitetto‘s of the world before him.
Right now the Predators are allowing Fiala the freedom to learn in far greater capacity at the AHL level, for however long it might be, than they feel they have the flexibility to do now in the NHL. That shouldn’t be viewed as a negative of the Predators. And it certainly shouldn’t be viewed as a poor reflection of Fiala.
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