Kevin Fiala praised Minnesota Wild coach Dean Evason for developing him into the breakout player he became this season.
“He’s been behind my success, a very huge part of it,” Fiala said. “He helped me on and off the ice since I was 18 years old. … He trusts me, I trust him, and he has big confidence in me. That helps me play like I want, like I can. He gave me a lot of ice time, so I’m very thankful for that.”
The Switzerland-born forward scored an NHL career-high 54 points (23 goals, 31 assists) and averaged 1.03 points per game (38 points in 37 games) from Dec. 14 until the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. He played under Evason for three seasons with Milwaukee of the American Hockey League after coming to North America from the Swedish Hockey League in 2015.
Fiala led the Wild with 16 points (nine goals, seven assists), tied for sixth in the NHL, and their forwards in average ice time (18:09) in 12 games after Evason, an assistant since June 6, 2018, replaced Bruce Boudreau on Feb. 14.
“You know what’s really cool is that Kevin and I, it’s not always been rosy,” Evason said. “We’ve had our challenges. The best part is that we’re both able to go forward. That’s our job, to try to do the right things to get the best out of the player.
“He’s grown up. He’s had to build, develop and learn along the way. What he showed skill-wise was great but what he showed as a teammate was even greater.”
Minnesota (35-27-7, .558 points percentage) enters the Stanley Cup Qualifiers as the No. 10 seed in the Western Conference and will face the No. 7 seed, the Vancouver Canucks (36-27-6, .565), in one of four best-of-5 series that will be played at Rogers Place in Edmonton, the hub city for the 12 West teams. The winner of the series, which begins Aug. 2, will advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the loser will have a chance at the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft in the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery on Aug. 10.
Evason signed a two-year contract July 13 to remain coach. He was 8-4-0 before the pause.
“He’s a great communicator and coach,” Fiala said. “In my past, I had some small fights with him, but I’m very happy he showed me the way.”
Fiala has skated on the top line with center Eric Staal and left wing Jordan Greenway, but played with other linemates, including Minnesota’s leading goal-scorer Zach Parise (25 in 69 games). He scored twice, including in overtime, to give the Wild a 5-4 win at the Anaheim Ducks on March 8, their final game before the pause.
“With that goal, you can kind of see the confidence,” Staal said. “It had been building for a while, but he was definitely that player you wanted to have the puck there.”
Evason said that goal by Fiala was a culmination of his hard work to improve on each end of the ice.
“There were several moments where we saw his offensive talent,” Evason said. “But how he played within the structure, with his teammates, sharing the puck, making plays for other people away from the puck — simple things like not turning the puck over — his commitment in that level is what impressed us the most.”
Fiala, who turns 24 on July 22, is under contract with the Wild through next season and wants to keep the momentum going into the Qualifiers.
“That will be the challenge, not that [Fiala] was flying under the radar, but now people know,” Evason said. “Teams are going to concentrate on trying to shut him down. … We don’t foresee him taking a step anywhere but forward.”