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Building off a breakthrough: Kevin Fiala

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.

The Buzzer: Red Wings snap skid; hats off to Panarin

Artemi Panarin Hat Trick Rangers
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Three Stars

1. Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks probably had no business winning this game. They were badly outshot, outplayed, and needed to rely on their goalie to keep them in it. Fortunately for the Canucks, Markstrom was up to the challenge and played one of the best games of his career as he stopped all 43 shots he faced in a 1-0 overtime win. He held on just long enough for Elias Pettersson to score the game-winning goal thanks to a fluky assist from an unlikely source. Read all about it here.

2. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. The Rangers spoiled Bob Boughner’s San Jose coaching debut with a 6-3 win that was highlighted by another huge game for Panarin. He scored three goals and added an assist in the win to continue his incredible 2019-20 performance. His first year with the Rangers has been everything the team could have hoped for as he is now up to 18 goals and 41 total points in 31 games. The Sharks, meanwhile, are now 0-5-1 in their previous six games.

3. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres. His point streak is now up to 15 consecutive games thanks to a two-goal effort in a 4-3 win over the Nashville Predators. It is the second game in a row that Eichel has scored a pair of goals as he continues to climb the NHL’s scoring leaderboard. He is unstoppable right now and trying to carry the Sabres to a playoff spot all by himself.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • The Detroit Red Wings’ losing streak has finally come to an end. They were winners for the first time since Nov. 12 thanks to a 5-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets to snap what had been a 12-game losing streak. Robby Fabbri continued his strong play since joining the team with a pair of goals while Filip Zadina recorded three points.
  • The Calgary Flames improved to a perfect 7-0-0 under new coach Geoff Ward thanks to a 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Johnny Gaudreau scored a pair of goals as part of a three-goal third period for the Flames to get the win.
  • Tristan Jarry recorded his third shutout in his past four starts for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they were 1-0 winners over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Columbus coach John Tortorella had no words for his team’s lackluster performance. Read about it here.
  • Clayton Keller scored a pair of goals for the Coyotes in their 5-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks to put them back in sole possession of first place in the Pacific Division.
  • Eric Staal was in the lineup after a scary injury on Tuesday and scored a goal in the Minnesota Wild’s 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers.
  • Oskar Sundqvist had a goal and an assist for the St. Louis Blues in a 4-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Another strong start for Jonathan Quick as he stopped 36 out of 37 shots for the Los Angeles Kings.
  • Steven Stamkos scored twice for the Tampa Bay Lightning in a huge 3-2 win over the Boston Bruins.
  • Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee each had a pair of points in the New York Islanders’ 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers.

Highlights of the Night

It came in a losing effort, but Nashville’s Matt Duchene scored an absolute beauty of a goal in Buffalo.

Check out this quick tic-tac-toe passing by the Islanders to set up Mathew Barzal for a power play goal against the Panthers.

 

Eichel’s goal to extend his point streak was an absolutely perfect shot.

Blooper of the Night

The puck ended up getting lost in Markstrom’s equipment and he needed a lot of assistance in finding it.

Factoids

  • Panarin’s hat trick on Thursday was the third of his career, all of them coming with different teams. [NHL PR]
  • Joe Thornton played in career game No. 1,600 on Thursday, making him and Patrick Marleau the first set of teammates to have 1,600 games played in their careers. [NHL PR]
  • The Islanders’ points percentage of .733 is the second highest in franchise history through the first 31 games of a season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Buffalo Sabres 4, Nashville Predators 3
Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Boston Bruins 2
New York Islanders 3, Florida Panthers 1
Pittsburgh Penguins 1, Columbus Blue Jackets 0 (OT)
Detroit Red Wings 5, Winnipeg Jets 2
St. Louis Blues 4, Vegas Golden Knights 2
Minnesota Wild 6, Edmonton Oilers 5
Calgary Flames 4, Toronto Maple Leafs 2
Arizona Coyotes 5, Chicago Blackhawks 2
Los Angeles Kings 2, Anaheim Ducks 1
Vancouver Canucks 1, Carolina Hurricanes 0 (OT)
New York Rangers 6, San Jose Sharks 3

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Pettersson gets lucky assist from abandoned stick on OT winner (Video)

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Sometimes you need a little bit of luck to win in the NHL.

The Vancouver Canucks received a healthy dose of it on Thursday night.

They were 1-0 winners against the Carolina Hurricanes thanks to an incredible goaltending performance from Jacob Markstrom and an overtime goal from emerging superstar Elias Pettersson. Markstrom’s performance gave them a chance, but it was a stroke of good fortune and a filthy finish from Pettersson that put them in the win column.

While the stat sheet will officially give the assist on Pettersson’s goal to Brock Boeser, the real assist came from an abandoned stick that previously belonged to Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin. As the Canucks controlled play in the offensive zone, Slavin lost his stick in a battle for the puck with Boeser.

It would prove to be costly for the Hurricanes because, well, watch for yourself in the video above.

Maybe Pettersson still ends up collecting the puck and scores the winner anyway if that stick isn’t sitting there. But Slavin’s stick sitting in the exact perfect spot made it significantly easier for him to score the winner.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Tortorella has no words to describe Blue Jackets’ ugly loss

John Tortorella angry press conference
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PITTSBURGH — The Columbus Blue Jackets need points right now, and they managed to at least get one in a 1-0 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night.

But even more important than individual points, they need wins.

They need to take advantage of every possible situation that presents itself for them to get wins, and they seemed to have a prime opportunity sitting in front of them on Thursday night against an undermanned team that was playing without its top-two centers and a collection of players that combined for $35 million in salary.

It also should have been an opportunity to build on a promising 5-2 win in Washington — the best team in the league! — in their most recent outing and win consecutive games for just the second time since the start of November.

It did not go that way at all.

They not only failed to collect the all-important second point, but they only managed a season-low 17 shots on goal (while allowing 32) and were consistently outworked and outplayed by a Penguins team that was without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Bjugstad, and Brian Dumoulin.

They were unable to generate any sustained pressure in the Penguins’ zone, and on the rare occasion that they did they were unable to solve goalie Tristan Jarry as he recorded his third shutout in his past four starts. It was only the second time this season they failed to record at least 24 shots on goal in a game (previous low: 19).

The Blue Jackets’ locker room remained closed longer than normal after the game, and once it did open there didn’t seem to be any answers for what had just happened on the ice other than the fact they had just been thoroughly outworked.

“They just worked,” said Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno. “They knew they were banged up. They just worked extremely hard. Early on we did not match that intensity at all. That is unacceptable on our part. We had moments, but not enough sustained pressure, not enough of what we bring. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that is not going to be the recipe for winning, especially in this league with how hard it is.

“We need to make sure that is never the case again where we are getting outworked by a team that knows its backs against the wall with the situation they are in. We are no in position, with the situation we are in, to take anyone lightly or thinking it’s going to be an easy game. I don’t think that was the case tonight, but it just didn’t look like we had the jump tonight. It is unacceptable.”

When asked if anything changed going into the game for Columbus knowing that the Penguins would be without Crosby (sidelined for four weeks) and Malkin (late scratch due to being sick), Foligno was quick to say the team’s mindset was to “just jump on them.” He said their inability to do so was what made their slow start so disappointing.

Head coach John Tortorella was not quite as in depth with his post-game responses and, quite literally, had no words to describe what he saw.

When asked about Thursday’s performance overall: “I don’t have any words to describe it.”

On whether or not he knew what to expect from this team on a game-to-game basis: “I don’t have any words to describe it.”

If he thought the performance in Washington would lead to a positive carry-over for a game like this: “I don’t have any words to describe it. I don’t know what to tell you guys. I hope you asked [the players] the same questions. I hope they answered you honestly.”

When asked if he was disappointed in the low number of shots, he sarcastically quipped, “I’m just thrilled with it,” before adding “that’s a great question, too.”

And that was it.

This always seemed like it was going to be a tough season in Columbus following the offseason exodus that saw Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel bolt in free agency. But the Blue Jackets remained bullish about their chances and the team they were bringing back, and there were certainly reasons for optimism. Whatever optimism existed, however, is quickly fading. After Thursday’s loss in Pittsburgh the Blue Jackets remain in seventh place in the Metropolitan Division, are 10 points back of a playoff spot, and are now near the bottom of the league in nearly every major statistical category.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Report: Sabres’ Bogosian requests trade

Zach Bogosian Trade Request
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With the Buffalo Sabres dealing with a logjam of defenseman, the team has been active in NHL trade rumors as general Jason Botterill tries to make a move to help address the team’s depth at forward.

It is not hard to connect the dots and assume a defenseman could be the player eventually on the move. And it seems veteran Zach Bogosian might be making the decision on which one to trade a little easier. According to TSN’s Darren Dreger, Bogosian has reportedly requested a trade out of Buffalo.

He is also not in the lineup for their game against the Nashville Predators and will be a healthy scratch as the team dresses seven defenseman, including second-year standout Rasmus Dahlin.

Dahlin will be making his return to the lineup after missing the past eight games due to a concussion.

As for Bogosian, he has been limited to just 10 games this season while injuries have been a constant issue for him throughout his career. That has been especially true during his Sabres tenure where he has never played more than 65 games in a season. He is in the final year of his current contract and will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

The Sabres have 12 defensemen in the organization with NHL experience and are currently carrying eight on the roster.

As far as a potential return is concerned, expectations should be kept within reason given his contract status and inability to stay in the lineup over the past few years. It might be worth noting the Sabres have been rumored to be one of the teams interested in Pittsburgh Penguins forward Alex Galchenyuk as he continues to struggle to fit in with his new team.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.