Kevin Fiala knew he messed up.
As dynamic as he was for the Wild in the early stages of the qualifying series against the Vancouver Canucks last summer, the 24-year-old winger from Switzerland started to get frustrated as his time in the bubble progressed.
That frustration manifested itself on the ice with Fiala taking a number of undisciplined penalties and spending a good chunk of time in the penalty box. He was tagged with 10 penalty minutes in total, and the Wild bowed out of the postseason quickly with a 3-1 series loss to the Canucks.
Feeling disappointed with the way he handled himself, Fiala actually stood up in the locker room after a particular loss and apologized to his teammates. He vowed to be more disciplined in the future.
That’s the next step for Fiala as he heads into this season, which begins Thursday night against the Kings in Los Angeles. He is the most dynamic player on the Wild roster and will have to shoulder the load offensively with opposing teams consistently trying to throw him off his game.
“I have to be ready for that, and I will be,” Fiala said. “Just have to be better mentally and be mentally strong. If anybody tries get under my skin, I still have to be focused, and stay out of the penalty box and help the team as best as I can.”
Asked about Fiala’s mea-culpa speech in the locker room, winger Marcus Foligno praised him for his accountability, then evenly distributed blame across the team.
“He wasn’t the reason why we didn’t have a longer time in the bubble,” Foligno said. “I think Kevin is growing. He’s evolving as a player. He’s going to be a superstar if he already isn’t. He’s so skilled. He’s going to be a top player for us. I think he’s just growing as a person on the ice.”
The young winger already has plenty of NHL experience. He played his first NHL game with the Nashville Predators at age 18, and already has put in five full seasons in the league. He came to the Wild at the end of the 2018-19 season, and has produced 26 goals in 83 games for Minnesota, seemingly improving from week to week.
Maybe it was a good thing Fiala got to experience the extra attention from the Canucks last summer and the kind of frustration that comes with it. It provided a precursor to the attention he expects to get on a nightly basis this season.
“He knows that guys are going to get him off his game,” Foligno said. “He’s going to be a guy that’s targeted. He has to play with emotion, too. We don’t want Kev to shut out everything. Sometimes if skilled guy get ticked off, they become even more skillful.”
That’s something Fiala acknowledged as a key part of his game this season. If he can channel some of his frustration in a positive way, he thinks it can help take his game to a higher level. He had 23 goals and 31 assists last season, and wants to improve on both of those numbers this season.
“Just have to think about the team first and put my ego behind,” he said. “My teammates are going to help me, for sure, so I’m not worried about that too much.”
It looks as if Fiala will be playing alongside center Nick Bonino and opposite winger Marcus Johansson to start this season. They have skated together throughout training camp and already have started to develop chemistry on the ice.
Asked about his linemates, Fiala lauded Bonino as a defensive player with offensive upside, and praised Johansson for his creativity on the ice. “Both guys can make plays that I’m kind of not expecting,” Fiala said. “You have to be ready at all times.”
This isn’t the first time Bonino has played with Fiala. They were briefly on the same line with the Nashville Predators a few seasons ago, and while Bonino noticed Fiala’s potential back then, he barely recognizes the player he’s playing with now.
“Just watching him with the puck now, he’s a little bit more confident making plays,” Bonino said. “He’s a threat at all times. It’s been fun to watch him here and play on a line with him. I’m just trying to do the little things, like get him the puck, support him, and to get out of our zone quickly.”
The same goes for Johansson, who has played with skilled players like Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin in the past, and understands that sometimes it’s best to get those guys the puck and stay out of the way.
“Everyone saw last season what Kevin can do,” Johansson said. “He’s such an unbelievable talent. He’s so good with the puck. He makes plays from nothing, basically, which is a pretty good skill to have.”
As longtime veterans in the league, Bonino, 32, and Johansson, 30, also plan to help Fiala deal with some of his frustrations on ice. Whether that is serving as a sounding board between whistles or actively breaking up a scrum after the whistle, they both want to help Fiala in any way they can.
“If he can stay positive and keep his confidence, I think the sky is the limit for him,” Johansson said. “He’s such a good player. We just have to talk to him and communicate on the ice. If we do that, I think we’ll see less frustration.”
There’s reason to believe the Johansson-Bonino-Fiala combination will work well. There was a play in Monday’s practice, for example, when Fiala flew up the left side of the ice, took a pinpoint pass from Johansson and effortlessly buried the puck into the back of the net.
Just seeing that type of speed from Fiala, it’s easy to forget he suffered a gruesome injury with the Predators a few seasons ago, fracturing the femur in his left leg after crashing into the boards during a playoff game.
While most players lose a step after something like that, Wild coach Dean Evason wasn’t surprised that Fiala proved to be an exception to the rule. They worked together back when Evason was the coach of the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League and Fiala when was a teenager trying to break into the league.
“I saw his work ethic and his training regimen,” Evason said. “His legs are tree trunks. There was no question that he was going to do absolutely everything in his power to have the ability to come back and not have lost a step.”
“He definitely hasn’t lost a step,” Bonino added. “He’s gained a step, if anything.”
Now it’s on Fiala to take the next step. Which starts with him staying out of penalty box.
“I’m very excited to take the challenge on,” he said. “I like that stuff; I just have to do it better than (I did in last year’s) playoffs.”