ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Wild believes Kevin Fiala could be on the verge of a breakout season.
The speedy winger was fantastic down the stretch for Minnesota last season, and was a difference-maker for the team in the Edmonton bubble. And while big things are expected in a shortened 2020-21 season, opponents know that too.
During the postseason series against Vancouver back in August, he was constantly in the defensive crosshairs of the Canucks, who did everything they could to make life difficult for Fiala, often to the point of clear frustration.
At times, that took Fiala off his game and caused him to take untimely penalties out of sheer irritation.
And you can bet the teams the Wild will play this season took note and will try to do the same things.
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"Not the first time. It was a special way how they acted and how they played against me," Fiala acknowledged on Tuesday. "I have to be ready and I will be. That's going to be my next step. To be better mentally and be mentally strong so if anybody tries get under my skin I still have to be focused and stay out of the box and help the team as best as I can."
Still just 24 years old and 287 games into his NHL career, it's becoming clear that Fiala has an elite skill set that could make him one of the most exciting players in a Wild uniform in recent history.
His 23 goals last season tied a career high, but he accomplished the feat in 17 fewer games. With the way he was playing down the stretch, he may have even approached 30 goals has COVID-19 not shutdown the campaign in mid-March.
His 54 points were the most he's had in the NHL and he was averaging nearly a point per game from Thanksgiving until the shutdown.
Fiala had three goals and an assist in four games against Vancouver in the return to play, but also took five penalties in those games. He knows better than anyone that he can't help the team on the scoreboard if he's sitting in the penalty box, so that has to change.
And it will, he says.
"I think I just have to think team first and put my ego behind. I think then it's going to be much easier," Fiala said. "And my teammates are going to help me for sure, so I'm not worried about that."
What Fiala is learning is nothing new. Some of the best players in the NHL had similar growing pains early in their careers, especially as they became focal points of opponents for the first time.
To help him navigate that, Wild coach Dean Evason has entrusted a pair of veterans in Nick Bonino and Marcus Johansson, installing those two as Fiala's linemates through the first few days of training camp.
Those lines are subject to change, but the decision to at least start Fiala with Bonino, a 32-year-old centerman and former Nashville teammate of his, and Johansson, a 30-year-old embarking on his 11th NHL season, is no accident.
"Both those guys are such honest players that play hard every night. Hopefully that fits for us," Evason said. "There's no question, having a guy like Bonino with his experience, they have a relationship from Nashville as well, we just felt, certainly early, that hopefully the chemistry would be there."
Johansson has seen guys in that evolution first hand, playing with a number of high-octane players during his days with the Washington Capitals.
While Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom had already largely matured by the time he arrived, Johansson also played with the Caps' next wave of young talent, guys like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky, now with the Colorado Avalanche.
Johansson believes he can be that sort of veteran presence who can help Fiala take that next step in his quest to become a superstar player in the NHL.
"I think it's just something you learn over time. You can't get down on yourself or too frustrated," Johansson said. "I think it's a good thing that he has that frustration as well because it shows that he wants to do well and that he wants to get better. But you gotta pick your times when you do get mad, and I think if he can stay positive and keep his confidence.
"I think the sky is the limit for him. He's such a good player. We'll just have to talk and communicate on the ice. And I think if we do that, I think we'll see less of that."