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With plenty to prove, Fiala motivated to have best season yet

Wild forward looking to join Eriksson Ek, Kaprizov as long-term building blocks in Minnesota

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe /

Kevin Fiala is one motivated individual. If there was any question about that, it was answered emphatically by the man himself on the first day of training camp.

The 25-year-old Swiss winger entered the offseason as one of three restricted free agents on the Wild roster, joining Kirill Kaprizov and Joel Eriksson Ek as one of a trio of forwards looking for long-term security during the offseason.

Eriksson Ek inked an eight-year deal early in the summer and will be in Minnesota for the better part of the next decade.

Kaprizov just signed a five-year deal of his own for the highest annual salary cap hit in franchise history. 

Fiala got a one-year contract which will make him a restricted free agent again next offseason.

Needless to say, that has left Fiala eager to prove to Wild GM Bill Guerin, his teammates and the coaching staff that he too is worthy of a long-term extension next summer. 

And that could be a good thing for the Wild. 

"I'm very, very motivated," Fiala said on Thursday. "I got my fire in my eyes. I'm looking forward to the season badly."

To Fiala's credit, he didn't want to make a mountain out of a mole hill while addressing the media for the first time since last season. 

He's got a contract for this season, and he'll make more than $5 million. Another season like he's put together over the past two and he'll have an opportunity to cash in. Things could certainly be a whole lot worse. 

Plus, there's nothing he can do about it now. 

Video: Training Camp Day 1: Kevin Fiala

"Why should I look back? There's nothing to look back [on]," Fiala said. "I can't change anything. The only thing is looking forward right now. Change next contract."

Guerin said earlier this summer that he sincerely hopes Fiala is able to do just that. A former player himself, Guerin knows exactly what Fiala is going through in terms of the middle ground that isn't always easy to find; the area where a team and a player can agree on what said player is worth. 

"I think it's a great opportunity for him," Guerin said last month after Fiala and the Wild came to terms on the current deal. [Signing a long-term contract] didn't work this year, but he's gotta be motivated. I do think Kevin's the type of guy that probably wants to prove me wrong and say, 'You screwed up.' That's what you want as a GM, too. That's what you want as a coach. You want these guys that are driven and hungry. I think Kevin's got the capabilities of doing that."

If his past is any history, Guerin can count on it.

Perhaps nobody in the Wild dressing room is more competitive than Fiala, no matter what he's doing. Whether it's on the ice or at the ping-pong table, Fiala always wants to be the best at whatever it is he's doing. 

It's that competitive fire that makes Fiala one of the Wild's most talented players ... but it can also be what hinders him from truly becoming the player he can be.

With the dawn of a new season - and a full 82-game campaign at that - the Wild hopes Fiala can take the next step in his career and find that sweet spot, where a strong competitive drive makes good players great.

Those that know him best believe he's got a chance to do just that.

"He wants to score goals more than anyone that I've ever coached," said Wild coach Dean Evason, who has been with Fiala going back to when both were in the Nashville Predators organization with the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals. "Sometimes, because of that, he tries to do too much and that's when Kevin gets in trouble. He tries to beat somebody an extra something, not because he's being selfish or he's being stubborn ... he's trying to create, trying to do something more. And sometimes he gets in his own way with it."

The concept is nothing new. Players of all skill levels go through stretches where they're simply discovering as much as they can about their own games ... the stuff they can get away with and the stuff they can't. 

For an uber-skilled, extra-talented and ultra-confident player like Fiala, sometimes it can even take a little longer. Realizing that often times more is less isn't easy.

"Where you, instead of beating a guy between the legs, you move it past him and skate by him, or when you chip it on the wall and you go get it ... you don't try to do the difficult play to get to where you're trying to get to," Evason said. "You make the little, simple play to get to that spot to score more goals."

Wild forward Marcus Foligno, a much different kind of player than Fiala, went through similar growing pains in his early and mid-20s after breaking into the NHL.

Foligno was a player who slid up and down the lineup in Buffalo and often pushed the limits of who is as a player. But time passes, players mature and figure it out, and that's what Foligno has done each of his past two seasons with the Wild.

He's figured out exactly what makes him the best version of himself, which is someone who makes the most positive impact for his team. 

"I think for Kev, it's learning to play the right way, learning to win, because when he plays with that attitude, he sets himself up with so many offensive opportunities it's scary," Foligno said. "Whenever he worked hard and battled, he'd show up on the scoresheet more times than not."

Admittedly, Fiala has been a victim of circumstance the last couple of seasons.

In 2019-20, Fiala was in the midst of perhaps his most impactful stretch of hockey since establishing himself as an NHL regular during the 2015-16 season.

Then, suddenly in the middle of March, COVID-19 shutdown the season.

In the 24 games prior to the virus interrupting the season, Fiala scored 14 goals and had 29 points, including four game-winning goals during that span.

His overtime goal in Anaheim four days before everything came to a halt was the final memory Wild fans had of the team until it emerged in the Edmonton bubble five months later.

His final stats that season - 23 goals and 54 points in 64 games - showed a player on the rise. A 20-goal, 40-point season last year in a shortened 50-game stretch last year underscores the point.

But with an 82-game schedule set to begin in just under a month, Fiala is ready - and eager - to show that he can be an impactful every-night player in the National Hockey League.

"I can do a lot. There's a lot I can do more, better," Fiala said. "I want to be that type of player that can be an every situation guy, not just if we need goals. I want to be the defensive guy too whenever we have to be 6-on-5 against I want to be on the ice. I want to be that guy that can be relied on."

Fiala has said in the past that he hopes to one day be a 35 or 40-goal guy in the NHL, a belief that is shared by teammates. They see the offensive skill he brings and the type of game-changing talent he can be.

"He's the kind of guy who can absolutely go off," Foligno said. "He's lethal, easily a point-per-game player and if you have those guys going every night, it's scary."

Becoming that player is simply a matter of finding out just how far he can push himself before he pushes himself too far. 

"We can talk about any player like that, where their maturity level is going to get better and better and better, and they're going to recognize how and what they need to do to have success within the team aspect," Evason said. "And Kevin has done that better and better every year, and we expect him to take another step forward in that department."

If and when he finds that point, watch out.

"If Kevin truly wants to establish himself as an elite player ... he's gonna have to keep improving," Guerin said. "He's had two good years for us and he's going to have to continue to get better. 

"Kevin is still young, too. He's still a young man and there's lots of room for improvement in his game on a lot of different areas. But there are some things that he does extremely well that other people in the league can't do."

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