Kevin Fiala Still Has to Prove He's NHL Ready
Kevin Fiala is going to be a stud in the NHL sooner or later, but the real question is whether or not now is the time for him to make the jump into the league.
At 19 years of age, forward Kevin Fiala has his sights set on cracking the Predators roster for their opening night tilt against the Carolina Hurricanes.
There's zero question if Fiala has the talent to compete at an NHL level. He does. The big question is whether he's actually ready for the jump to the biggest stage in professional hockey.
When making the leap to North American hockey last season after a brief 20 game stretch with his HV71 squad in Sweden, Fiala struggled with the transition to playing in the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals. While he finished the season with 11 goals and nine assists, in only 33 games at that, Fiala may have grown the most in his maturity.
"His maturity level when he first came over," said Dean Evason, head coach of the Admirals. "It was like he was going to have some learning situations and a learning curve, but he's matured. He's a real good teammate down in Milwaukee and I think that's going to give him a real good opportunity to play [in Nashville]"
The quick comparison that comes to mind for Fiala is that of fellow forward Filip Forsberg. Both participated in Nashville's early camp sessions prior to its official training camp last season, with Forsberg breaking out and eventually starting the year with the Predators.
Not only that, but Forsberg would go on to play the full 82 games with Nashville and collect 63 points along the way, breaking individual rookie scoring records set by Alexander Radulov for goals and points, Martin Erat for assists, Craig Smith for power play points and finishing the year as Nashville's top scorer.
That was the power of Filip Forsberg in his rookie season.
Can Fiala do the same? Or be anywhere close?
"It's kind of the same situation coming in," said Forsberg. "He played his time in Milwaukee last year and he played [in Nashville]. That helped me a lot. Maybe it wasn't the most fun [situation] at the time, but looking back it was good. Just to get ready for what's coming. I think he tried to learn that as well. He's come a really long way since I saw him the first time at development camp last year."
It's a lot of pressure to put on top the head of such a young player, especially one drafted as high as Fiala with the raw talent that is so evidently displayed every time he touches the ice.
Yet, even his coaches know that he's a special player. One that could do real damage in the league very soon.
"When he first came [to North America], you certainly wouldn't have thought ‘here's a guy that is going to play NHL games,' but he did last year," said Evason. "His skill level is second-to-none and you see it every time he's on the ice. He can do some amazing things."
Regardless of how fast or skilled Fiala is, he's going to have to beat out a fair amount of competition just to earn a spot on the roster.
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It's not out of the question, but Fiala will be competing alongside Viktor Arvidsson, Colton Sissons and Austin Watson for one, perhaps potentially two, spots on the roster. That's assuming that veterans Gabriel Bourque and Eric Nystrom have a spot on the roster. And Steve Moses as well, who will be listed as a rookie at 26 years old.
That's seven players fighting for two or three spots on the roster.
Even if Fiala plays well enough to earn a spot on the roster, does Peter Laviolette risk placing him on the third or fourth line?
While trying not to jump too far ahead, there are more than a handful of questions along the way in front of Fiala.
Nashville's only had a handful of on-ice sessions of training camp so far, however Fiala has been of the more dynamic players to stand out over the rest of the competition. His lightning-quick speed and flashy goal-scoring abilities have allowed him to become an early candidate for potentially making the team out of camp.
Yet, for all the great flashes he may show in practice, if it doesn't translate on the ice it may not amount to much.
During the Predators first preseason tilt against the Florida Panthers on Sunday afternoon, Fiala went scoreless and took two poorly-timed penalties. It wasn't the strongest of outings for a young player who doesn't plan on settling for a spot in the minor leagues.
"It was stupid from me," said Fiala, who would finish the game with a shade over 15 minutes of ice time, three shots on net and two penalties. "I didn't want it, actually."
Earlier this summer, in an article posted at the Nashville Predators website, David Poile shared a brief anecdote about his discussions regarding Fiala and his plans for the summer and the upcoming season:
"At the end-of-the-year meetings when [Head Coach] Peter Laviolette and I are talking to players, we're usually the ones doing 90 percent of the talking," Poile said to the crowd at the Music City Center. "So we did the talking to Kevin and then he says, ‘What do I need to do, I'm going to be playing for the Nashville Predators next season. I'm not going to [American Hockey League affiliate] Milwaukee, I'm going to be playing [in Nashville].'"
On May 20th, Poile got a call from Fiala's agent, with the two proceeding to figure out exactly when Fiala planned on arriving in Tennessee. The answer surprised both parties.
"So [Fiala's agent] says, ‘Kevin wants to come over on June 6th,'" Poile recounted. "I said, ‘Really? I'm sure you mean July 6th, that's [about time for our development camp].' And he says, ‘No, I think he said June.' I said, ‘Why you don't call him back?' He calls me back and says, ‘We were both wrong, he wants to come in two days.'
"[Fiala] came [to Nashville] on May 22nd...and he'll be back here the rest of the summer on June 6th to stay and try to compete for the team. You can't ask for any more than that."
Fiala has been in Nashville preparing to make the Predators roster since the first week of June.
Whether or not he's ready to make the jump to the NHL or not, there may not be any player more dedicated and prepared to press for a spot than him.