Pierre Engvall

Wild will seek spark anew from surging Fiala when NHL’s back

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Frozen by the virus shutdown but not forgotten was Kevin Fiala‘s emergence, a surge that gave the Minnesota Wild a glimpse of the go-to scorer they have lacked for much of their history.

Emelia Parise will remember it as well as anyone.

Zach Parise‘s daughter became quite the fan as her father’s teammate racked up 14 goals and 12 assists over the last 18 games before NHL play was halted. When school was still in session earlier this year, Parise’s 6-year-old twins, Emelia and Jaxson, took part in a pick-a-local-sports-hero project with their classmates who were well aware of Parise’s occupation.

”I’d say 90% of them wrote Zach Parise’s their favorite. Except for my daughter. She wrote Kevin Fiala,” Parise said recently. ”So that’s how things are going in my household right now.”

Who could blame her? The 23-year-old left wing had already matched his career best with 23 goals and blown by his personal assists record (31). Fiala leads the league with four game-winning goals.

”He’s been playing awesome for us,” Parise said. ”He was on a tear before this thing ended up happening, so hopefully he can keep that momentum.”

If the 2019-20 season ever resumes, Fiala’s sequestering spot at his summer home in Gothenburg, Sweden, ought to help him recapture some of that mojo. There, society has operated under fewer restrictions, allowing Fiala the opportunity for daily ice time. He has skated with fellow NHL players Anton Blidh, Pierre Engvall and John Klingberg to try to stay in shape.

”It’s very important for me to be consistent and just continue like I finished, if it continues or if it’s going to start next season, you know?” Fiala said on Wednesday on a video conference call with reporters. ”I’m comfortable I can do that.”

He later added: ”I don’t want it to be just one season. I have a lot of work to do, and I’m still a young player. My career is hopefully still long.”

The only pure scorer with true take-over-a-game ability the Wild have had in their two decades is Marian Gaborik, who had 38 goals in 2005-06 and 42 in 2007-08. The only other Wild player to ever top the 35-goal mark was Eric Staal, with 42 goals in 2017-18. Whenever the NHL gets the green light to stage games again, the spotlight will be on Fiala as he attempts to continue his development into the top-line star the Wild have been waiting for.

”He’s the guy where fans are starting to get out of their seats now,” goalie Alex Stalock said last month before the shutdown. ”Not only can he do it, with the moves and be a defenseman, but the puck finds the back of the net, and that’s not easy to do.”

Fiala’s production in February and March provided some validation for former general manager Paul Fenton’s otherwise unsatisfying 15 months on the job. Acquired just before the trade deadline from Nashville for another underperforming first-round draft pick, right wing Mikael Granlund, Fiala finished with only 13 goals in 83 games between the Predators and the Wild.

This season started similarly slow for him, as the Wild fell immediately into a big hole in the Western Conference standings. Fiala didn’t score until November. Over a 17-game stretch from Dec. 17 through Feb. 1, he had only one goal. He began to find a groove after that, though, with those slick stick skills and keen ice vision coming to the surface and helping the Wild climb back into the playoff chase.

When coach Bruce Boudreau was fired on Feb. 14, the promotion of Dean Evason to replace him gave Fiala the comfort of a familiar voice who already knew his game inside and out. They played three seasons together in the AHL in Milwaukee, Nashville’s primary affiliate.

”Honestly, I didn’t have the patience sometimes, so we got sometimes into a fight,” Fiala said, ”but when I look back, I was always happy I did it that way, and I was happy he was my coach, because he taught me a lot of things.”

Evason’s bid to shed the interim tag and become the next bench boss has been held up by the pandemic. His connection with Fiala sure won’t hurt his candidacy.

”The team was rolling,” Fiala said. ”We had some huge wins in the end, and just one point right now outside of the playoffs, especially with that start we had, we want to get back.”

Long-term outlook for Toronto Maple Leafs

Maple Leafs long-term outlook Tavares Marner Matthews Nylander Hyman
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Confession time. When I first started scrolling through the Maple Leafs’ forwards at Cap Friendly, I cringed.

Maybe it’s only natural. When you realize that Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander combine for more than $40M per year, it’s reasonable to feel bewildered for a second or two. That’s basically half of their salary cap.

Yet, if you’re going to invest a ton of money in any hockey area, go with star forwards. And while John Tavares awaits the aging curve at 29, Marner and Matthews are only 22, and Nylander’s merely 23.

While GM Kyle Dubas & Co. didn’t leave unscathed, you could say the Maple Leafs are out of the woods. Or … out of the most treacherous woods?

For a team that is so heavily invested in a few forwards, it’s interesting to see quite a bit of medium-term deals for supporting cast players.

You can’t pin that on Lou Lamoriello, either. Dubas retained Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen before hashing things out with Marner. He traded for a goalie with some term in Jack Campbell. Time will tell if it was wise to invest in an extension for Jake Muzzin, who’s already 31. Pierre Engvall and Justin Holl also received some interesting term.

Some significant “Who else will be a part of the core?” questions remain. Things could also change thanks to the cap uncertainty, not to mention the Seattle expansion draft. Still, a lot of the core is in place, and while it isn’t cheap, it’s quite impressive.

Long-term needs for Maple Leafs

Chalk it up to luck or coincidence, but the Maple Leafs don’t face too many big calls during an upcoming offseason thrown out of balance by COVID-19 fallout.

Further down the line, there are some key calls, though. Frederik Andersen, 30, needs a new contract after 2020-21, while Morgan Rielly, 26, awaits a big raise following 2021-22. The Maple Leafs need to find answers to those long-term (mid-term?) questions down the line.

Speaking of down the line, the Maple Leafs must hope that Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren develop into useful defensemen for them. Defense is a big problem for the Maple Leafs, and while (likely departing) Tyson Barrie disappointed, he also did so at a cheap clip of $2.75M. The Maple Leafs want to improve on defense, yet they don’t have a ton of cash to make such improvements, so it would be crucial to get the most out of two blueliners on entry-level contracts. Their respective developments seem pivotal.

Overall, the Maple Leafs need to squeeze every bit of value out of their robust analytics department.

That means finding useful, cheap players, like they did with Jason Spezza. They’ve burned significant draft capital in trades involving Muzzin and Patrick Marleau over the years, so they’ll need to unearth prospects through a mixture of luck and deft scouting.

Considering monetary limitations, they might also need to get used to saying goodbye to players they like, but don’t need. Would it really be wise to bring back Kyle Clifford, for instance?

Long-term strengths for Maple Leafs

Again, the Maple Leafs boast a formidable foundation of young talent thanks to their big three forwards (plus Tavares).

Frankly, their front office now appears to be a long-term strength, in my eyes. Rather than the mixed messages of old-school (Mike Babcock and Lamoriello) battling with Dubas, there’s now a unified viewpoint. Dubas has his analytics team, and he has his coach in Sheldon Keefe.

A more rigid team might panic with, say, Frederik Andersen. Maybe Dubas will make the right moves there, even if it comes down to going with Campbell and someone else instead?

It’s that kind of thinking that could really help Toronto sustain itself even with pricey top-end players. There’s already some promise, also, in seeing solid scouting. While placing 21st on Scott Wheeler’s Prospect Rankings (sub required) isn’t world-beating stuff, it’s not bad considering how many picks the Buds shipped off in trying to rise to that next level.

Of course, for Dubas & Co. to be a long-term strength, they need to remain in place for some time, and that might hinge on the Maple Leafs making short-term gains. Considering the teams in front of them in the Atlantic, that won’t be easy.

There’s a lot to like for Toronto … but is there enough? We’ll find out — eventually.

MORE ON THE MAPLE LEAFS:

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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Maple Leafs on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Penguins come into this game having won five of their last seven games (5-1-1) and have closed in on the division leading Capitals. Pittsburgh trailed Washington by 13 points entering play on Dec. 12, 2019, but have gone 19-5-2 (40 points) in 26 games since then to close the gap to just one point.

The Penguins have earned at least one point in each of their last six games at PPG Paints Arena (5-0-1) and recorded their 21st home win of the season overall – matching the Bruins for the most home wins in the NHL.

Jason Zucker, who was acquired on Feb. 10 from the Wild for Alex Galchenyuk, prospect Calen Addison and a conditional first-round pick, has three points in three games for the Penguins and has been skating on the top line with Sidney Crosby. He tallied his first multi-goal game of the season in Friday’s 4-1 win over the Canadiens, and then added an assist in Sunday’s 5-1 win over the Red Wings.

The Leafs enter this game having lost five of their last eight games (3-4-1). Toronto is coming off a 5-2 loss at Buffalo on Sunday night where they gave up three goals in the span of 91 seconds in the third period after the score was even at 2-2. Toronto sits in third place in the Atlantic, but the fourth place Panthers are just two points back with one game in hand.

Leafs star forward Auston Matthews is currently tied with Boston’s David Pastrnak for the league lead with 42 goals this season, and his 42 tallies have already set a career high. The Leafs star has done the majority of his damage on
home ice with 30 goals in 30 games any Scotiabank Arena.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Toronto Maple Leafs at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Tuesday, Feb. 18, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner
William NylanderJohn TavaresAlexander Kerfoot
Pierre EngvallFrederik GauthierKasperi Kapanen
Kyle CliffordJason SpezzaDmytro Timashov

Jake MuzzinJustin Holl
Rasmus SandinTyson Barrie
Travis DermottMartin Marincin

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

PENGUINS
Jason Zucker – Sidney Crosby – Dominik Simon
Jared McCannEvgeni MalkinBryan Rust
Brandon TanevTeddy BluegerPatric Hornqvist
Dominik KahunAndrew AgozzinoSam Lafferty

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz
Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call the action at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

An hour-long special on Connor McDavid, titled Connor McDavid: Whatever It Takes will premiere following the game at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The feature provides an inside look at McDavid’s comeback from a knee injury in last season’s final game. Click here for a trailer.

The Miracle on Ice – 40th Anniversary, featuring Al Michaels, who called the momentous matchup in 1980, and Mike Tirico, will premiere on Wednesday night at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. 40 years to the month, this 30-minute special will feature Tirico’s wide-ranging conversation with Michaels about the buildup to the game, his iconic call, as well as the legacy of the moment that became bigger than sports and still resonates today.