Kevin Fiala chose to bet on himself this season. With the arbitration hearing nearing and the briefs regarding the targeted salary from both sides made public, he had the choice to take that number and keep it for just one or stretch it to two years. If it was the latter option, he would instantly be a very young, tantalizing unrestricted free agent; the former and he remains one that’s restricted and still under Minnesota Wild control.
The 25 year old forward decided to opt for the single year of the contract, giving him another opportunity to get a longer-term extension with the Wild and for him to really get a pay raise if he struts his usual high-octane offense during a full 82-game season.
Both the Wild and Fiala were aiming for that lengthier deal this summer but the numbers were just reportedly off.
“We would have loved to got Kevin on a longer term deal,” Wild GM Bill Guerin said during his availability on Monday. “But after a while, and going back and forth, it just seemed like we weren’t going to be able to get anything done. And you know, with the arbitration date coming, it worked out that we could settle on a one-year deal. So we’re happy, we’re very happy to have Kevin back in the mix and there’s no threat of him missing training camp, and he can just focus on being ready for training camp...Kevin is an important player for us.”
Minnesota wanted to avoid the same situation that they had during their last contract negotiation with Fiala. The summer after they acquired him mid-season from the Nashville Predators, he was a restricted free agent and then discussions were held all the way through the summer and into the majority of training camp, waiting until Sept. 11 to sign the two-year bridge deal that carried him until this year.
“It was a big reason. I’ve personally been through that twice and it never works out well, I could tell you that from experience,” Guerin laughs. “Training camp isn’t always the funnest part of the year, but it is important and if you’re not there, you’re behind the 8-ball; it’s very tough to play catch-up. So with all that behind us, Kevin can just focus on what he needs to do to be ready.”
Fiala was able to score 20 goals and 40 points through 50 games last season, as he dealt with a carousel of linemates and some that were playing in their unnatural positions. Still, he produced, and was a major factor in their lead-up into the team’s eighth postseason appearance in nine years.
But even with all the powerhouse offense (that Minnesota is surely lacking from other areas of their roster) he hasn’t gotten the reputation of some other teammates. The still-young player might just need some consistency to really reach the next level, but Guerin knows it’s a little bit more.
“If Kevin truly wants to establish himself as an elite player, then you know what? 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’s 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.
“Like I said, it’s a big year for him. Always is.”
If he can do that for himself, then the Wild will have to re-sign him to an extension almost the minute the year turns over to 2022 (when single-year players under contract are able to sign extensions) and keep the ultra-talented player in Minnesota for his prime years.
When asked whether he and Fiala are going to have a conversation when he comes back to Minnesota for training camp, Guerin provided a little insight that shouldn’t let anyone have any hurt feelings over a negotiation.
“We had a good chat. I’m sure we’ll talk when he gets back into town,” Guerin said. “Hey, look, those are things that as a player, you have to understand. This is a business. It’s not a personal attack. It’s not, ‘We don’t like this guy, we like that guy more.’ It’s a business and we have a salary cap, a budget, and a pay structure that we have to follow in order for us to be successful and that’s what we’re doing. Lots of players go through this. I don’t look at it as a slap in the face, and if somebody does, then, great, prove us wrong.”
After going through this process, they are going to need to do it all over again if there’s no hidden extension ready to be signed mid-season. Despite trying to work on that lengthier deal, there just wasn’t a number that either of the two sides could agree on and this is the result: a show-me deal where Fiala can either flourish and net that big-money deal that carries him into his 30’s, or have him struggle and end up probably signing either a short-term extension or another one-year deal that gets him to free agency.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for him,” he said of the short-term contract. “It didn’t work this year (signing long-term), 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.”
Of course the other big, giant, hovering elephant in the room is the current status with Kirill Kaprizov and the lack of contract he has signed just weeks away from training camp starting.
“I think things are going well enough,” Guerin said. “We still have lots of time, there’s no rush or panic. I’m in constant communication with Kirill’s agent. We continue to move forward.”
And when the rumors about Kaprizov heading overseas to the KHL for a big-money contract if they cannot agree to a deal before September, Guerin was confident that the threat was mute.
“It’s not my decision. It doesn’t bother me at all.”
Even with both of their star wingers signed to new deals, Guerin mentioned about internal competition for spots during training camp. There is always the threat of top prospects Marco Rossi, Matt Boldy, and Calen Addison impressing to a certain degree that will warrant them immediate spots in the lineup, but there’s also potential further acquisitions to be made.
“We’ll have to see. We’ll see what becomes available. There’s trade options. There’s waiver wire later on. There’s internal. We’ll see. It’s not always the worst thing to have some competition spots open. When you get to training camp, you see who wants it. You see who’s hungry, but we’ll see. Nothing’s like written in stone that we’re going to do.”
The Wild are going to be mostly flexible it seems — always willing to get better even if it might mean some uncomfortable healthy scratches (oh hello Zach Parise) or keeping prospects down because they’re able to get a more established player via trade or on the waiver wire.
It’s going to be an interesting camp, preseason, and regular season no matter what.