As the preseason polls and prognostications roll in, it’s apparent that many folks around the league expect Kevin Fiala to break through this year for the Predators. Whether he’s an under the radar threat or merely the first call up, most folks in Nashville would be thrilled for that to finally happen.
We got a few seconds of #FialaTime last year, but how about a full season of it?
The problem is that effectively managing a successful jump from the AHL to the NHL for a player like Kevin Fiala is not easy for a coaching staff. And the Predators know that. Last year’s maturity issues stemmed from a disappointed 18 year old who wanted to play in the big leagues and was told “No.” It wasn’t pretty. He seems to be over that hiccup for now, but 19 year olds can be just as immature as 18 year olds. Maturity is not a rite of passage; it’s molded over time.
The good thing is, he has readily acknowledged his mistakes and is ready to move past them. So let’s assume that’s true. That means it’s time to plug Fiala into the lineup. But where does he play? How does the coaching staff get the most out of Fiala?
Surround Him With Talent
Or, more importantly, surround him with skill players like himself who can create space in the offensive zone for themselves. If Fiala is stuck on an energy line or on a line where he is expected to generate all the offensive chances, he might drown.
Fiala’s only played in six regular season NHL games, so we don’t have a lot to go on, but let’s take a look at the series that led to his only goal in the league so far. It all started in the 1st period against the Winnipeg Jets on January 14th.
Lavy put Fiala on a line with Ryan Johansen and James Neal. On their first shift together, the second shift of the game, Johansen breaks out of the defensive zone with the puck
As Joey breaks into a metric ton of open space (there’s lots of it in Manitoba), Fiala falls in behind on the left, keeping pace, but from a comfortable distance. He’s also mindful of the trailing Blake Wheeler, making sure to keep himself between Wheeler and the net.
But where’s James Neal?
There he is! Throwing a non-contact, perfectly legal interference move on Drew Stafford that would eventually allow Johansen to cut in front of the net. Love HJN and his bag of tricks.
And now the key to the whole play. Here’s why the Predators acquired Ryan Johansen.
Joey makes a hard cut to the slot area in front of Toby Enstrom. Using his size and puck skills, he shields the puck from Enstrom and fires a low shot on Hellebuyck. The rebounds pops out to....
(If you remember, this goal was reviewed and then called a good goal. Fiala’s shot came off the goal-cam, careening with such force that the puck still seemed live.)
Fiala’s speed and shooting ability played a part in getting him a goal here, but were it not for Johansen and Neal, this goal doesn’t happen. Johansen and Neal have the talent, size, skill and speed to create things in the offensive end of the ice. Put Fiala out there with those two, he will have no choice but to succeed.
Give Him The Time He Needs
If you really want to develop a player like Fiala, he’s gonna need ice-time. Real, NHL quality ice-time. This may mean eating some bad minutes if you’re Coach Lavy.
The only complaint I ever had with Barry Trotz was his proverbial dog house. Guys would get themselves sent there, rarely to return the same player. David Legwand, Mattias Ekholm, Alex Radulov, Martin Erat, you name it. Too many players got their ice-time buried because of poor play or a bad attitude and then found themselves struggling to regain it.
Coach Lavy seems different. He seems willing to give guys chances if they have what it takes. That’s what he will need to do with Fiala here. He will have bad shifts. He will have bad nights. He will have bad weeks. But if you really believe in a player like Fiala, you have to stick with him. The worst you could do would be to bury him in the lineup to fend for himself.
Let The Leaders Lead
Is there any player in the NHL more capable of mentoring Fiala than Mike Fisher? I’m not sure there is.
When Mike Fisher was named Captain, you have to think that young guys like Fiala were in mind. I’m not trying to overstate the importance of Fiala here, nor am I trying to upstage Fisher deserving the honor, but with a plethora of young talent on the roster, it had to be a factor. There is simply no one better on this roster to show Fiala what it means to be a professional in the league.
Fiala will also need additional guidance from his European counterparts. Enter Roman Josi and Filip Forsberg. Two consummate professionals that made the jump to the NHL following very similar paths to Fiala.
Ultimately, if Fiala is going to break out this year, it will take some trust from the coaching staff, some leadership from the team, and plenty of opportunities with the better talent on the roster.