Since their respective arrivals in Southern California, Kings general manager Rob Blake and Coach Todd McLellan have been seeking a player like Kevin Fiala.
Blake had emphasized that he would only dip into the Kings’ formidable prospect pool to acquire stars in their mid-20s, while McLellan subtly pined for a finisher for his team’s top line. Now, the Kings made a power move for Fiala, acquiring him via trade and signing him to a seven-year contract.
Before McLellan, the 25-year-old Fiala developed his game under the first two coaches of his NHL career: Peter Laviolette, then of the Nashville Predators and now with the Washington Capitals, and Bruce Boudreau, who transitioned from coaching Fiala in Minnesota to guiding the Vancouver Canucks.
“I don’t know how else to say it, he’s just a highly skilled player that’s matured into a really good hockey player,” Boudreau said.
Laviolette recalled seeing Fiala at his very first training camp after being selected 11th overall in the 2014 draft, remarking that his technical proficiency, imagination and passion for the game were already evident.
“He’s entering his prime and you’re seeing his game expand,” said Laviolette, adding that Fiala was “a dynamic player who excels in tight spaces and has the ability to shoot or make plays.”
Fiala’s path was obstructed early in his career, when what could have been a formative experience turned harrowing. During the first round of Nashville’s improbable run from wild card qualifier to Stanley Cup finalist in 2017, Fiala broke his left femur, ending his postseason and potentially threatening his career. Laviolette, no stranger to grisly injuries, still winced slightly when the injury was mentioned.
Yet Fiala made a full recovery, showing mostly linear progress through last season when he realized the potential seen in him by the national program in his native Switzerland, pro scouts in Sweden and, of course, NHL front offices that coveted him as a lottery pick. He set career highs in points, goals, assists, blocks, penalty minutes, time on ice, games played, game-winning goals, plus-minus rating and shots on goal. He also had his most productive season ever at even strength.
Laviolette said that the next step for Fiala would be maintaining his production and prominence on a consistent basis. Boudreau said putting together a campaign like the one he had last year was largely a question of physical and mental fortitude given the tool kit that Fiala brought to the NHL as a prospect.
Yet Boudreau said that Fiala’s maturation process was not always a smooth one. After showing greater promise early in 2018-19 with Nashville, Fiala was traded to the Minnesota Wild near the 2019 trade deadline for forward Mikael Granlund. Fiala scored just three goals in 19 games and registered a minus-12 rating. The start of the following season was also highly disappointing for Fiala as he scored just one point in October.
“When he came in, I don’t know if he knew what to expect or if we knew what to expect … he didn’t have a lot of success,” Boudreau said. “He tried to do too much by himself, you know, like he would turn pucks over a lot, but I mean you could see the skill was there.”
Fiala and Boudreau experienced some friction, including when Fiala was benched or scratched. An impassioned plea from Fiala for playing was once met with a profane, two-word answer from Boudreau, but a later discussion was decidedly more civil.
“He said he wanted to play more. I said, ‘Well, when I feel that I can trust you to do the right thing when we’re leading by one in the last 10 minutes, I’ll play you more,’” Boudreau said. “It started to resonate with him and he started to get better at it.”
Fiala has evolved from a player yearning to earn Boudreau’s trust late in games to one that his now former coach would prefer not to see dashing down the ice with two points hanging in the balance.
“(As an opponent), when he got the opportunity, he put the puck in the net,” Boudreau said. “I know we played him and he beat us twice with third-period goals, and he was just a guy that you didn’t want to see coming against you in the third period when you had a one-goal lead.”
Much as Boudreau came to laud Fiala, Fiala did the same for Boudreau, sending him an appreciative text message and making a followup phone call after Boudreau was dismissed by the Wild.
“It meant a lot to me and it made me a better coach,” Boudreau said. “I realized you could be tough on players and they will respect you if you show you care about them.”
Boudreau spoke of Fiala as a threat off the rush or from close range, as a passer capable of playing the point or the wall on the power play (where the Kings have struggled more often than not for years running), and as a solid teammate albeit a quiet one despite his speaking five languages. He also said that Fiala was “exceptional in overtime,” where the three-on-three format increases tempo and opens up space. Fiala has even become a capable penalty killer.
“Maybe I was a little slow to see it, but I thought at the end of my tenure this guy was going to be a superstar,” Boudreau said.
He added: “I can see him playing with (Anze) Kopitar and I can see him being deadly as all get-out next year.”