Building off a breakthrough: Kevin Fiala

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

Not that long ago, Kevin Fiala breaking his left leg might have totally derailed his career. At minimum, that sort of the thing would have at least set him back a few years.

Such a thought had to surface for some observers during the Nashville Predators’ 2017 Stanley Cup Final run – Fiala was sidelined during the second round – especially since blinding speed ranks as one of his strengths.

How could such a thought not occur in the back of someone’s mind after seeing this?

Instead, this happened not much more than a year later:

That double-OT goal against the Winnipeg Jets in Game 2 of that competitive series was the cherry on top of a breakthrough year for Kevin Fiala, who just turned 22 on July 22.

Rather than floundering after coming back from that injury, Fiala found outstanding chemistry with Craig Smith and Kyle Turris once the latter landed in Nashville. Fiala scored 23 goals and 48 points in 2017-18 after debuting in 2016-17 with 16 points in 54 games. Oh yeah, he also looked like his speedy self in the process.

And, really, there might be more where that came from.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure]

It doesn’t hurt matters that the puck tends to go in the right direction when Fiala’s on the ice. His possession numbers were highly promising last season, and his heat maps indicate that Nashville should make it a point to give Fiala even more opportunities. You can make a strong argument that he deserves a bump up from his TOI average of 15:09 per game from 2017-18, even though Nashville also needs to dole out ice time to a strong top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson.

Granted, his rookie deal is set to expire after 2018-19, so the Predators might want to follow up that proactive Ryan Ellis extension with an extension for Fiala before he shows that he’s capable of even bigger things. Frankly, Fiala could generate the sort of follow-up that could break the bank.

To little surprise, Predators GM David Poile seems aware of Fiala’s potential as another rising contributor, as he noted back in January.

“If you look at his development curve as a stock, I would say it’s going in the right direction and you might want to invest in Kevin Fiala,” Poile said, via NHL.com.

No doubt about it, the Predators must have felt relief once it became clear that Fiala still has world-class wheels.

Even so, we’ve seen plenty of speedy skaters produce middle results in the NHL. It’s one thing to be fast; it’s another to combine speed with creativity, smarts, and finish to really move the needle. Fiala showed plenty of signs that he has that ability, showing why the Predators selected him 11th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft.

As you’d expect, there were still signs of growing pains here and there. That’s something that happens to players Fiala’s age even if they’re not coming off of a catastrophic injury.

On the Forecheck’s season review cannot help but linger upon some of Fiala’s mistakes, including some foolish penalties. That series against the Jets featured peaks and valleys, as while Fiala scored that huge game-winning goal, Peter Laviolette also sent a message to him by way of a healthy scratch.

Really, some of that stems from young players often taking the fall when it comes to healthy scratches.* Coaches often go back to what they “know” and what feels most comfortable when their teams struggle, and wet-behind-the-ears players sometimes lose that game of musical chairs.

Fiala can avoid that situation in the future by accumulating reps and numbers, not to mention Laviolette’s trust.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see such developments manifest themselves in more ice time, responsibilities, and other signs that Fiala is ascending even further up the ladder. Either way, Fiala seems like he’s going to play an important role for the Predators, and it’s been a quick ascension.

* – Though, the other side of that coin is older players of waning relevance. Scott Hartnell fits that bill, and he’s the one who took Fiala’s spot.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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