Devils Would Be Smart to Trade for Wild’s Kevin Fiala

The offseason may only be a week old for the New Jersey Devils, but they’ve already been connected to one big name who could be on the trade market this offseason. That player is Kevin Fiala, who Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek reported is a player “the Devils really do like” and that he could be someone they consider trading their first-round pick for. 

Fiala finished this season with 33 goals and 85 points in 82 games for the Minnesota Wild. He’ll be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this offseason, and with the Wild in a severe cap crunch, he may end up as a cap casualty. That could be the Devils’ chance to pounce on an opportunity to add an impact player to help support Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and the rest of the team’s top-six. 

Fiala Is Truly an Impact Player 

Since the Wild acquired Fiala in the trade that sent Mikael Granlund to the Nashville Predators, he’s morphed into a legit first-line winger. In Fiala’s first two full seasons in Minnesota, he totaled 43 goals and 94 points in 114 games across the two COVID-shortened seasons (2019-20 and 2020-21). That comes out to an average of 31 goals and 68 points per 82 games. Considering he averaged 39 points per 82 games during his tenure with the Predators, that’s a breakout in and of itself. 

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But apparently, that wasn’t enough for Fiala. Not only was it a career season for him in 2021-22, but he was also one of the best wingers in the NHL. He averaged 3.07 points per 60 minutes at five-on-five, ranked ninth in the league for forwards with at least 150 minutes logged at that game state. To put it in perspective, he was a more efficient five-on-five scorer than Nikita Kucherov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nathan MacKinnon and Brad Marchand. 

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Fiala also posted strong on-ice results at five-on-five. He finished with a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 52.29 percent and an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 56.21 percent. He was the Wild’s best offensive generator, as the team averaged 2.86 expected goals per 60 minutes with him on the ice, ranked first on the team. And no, his success is not because he was on a line with Kirill Kaprizov; the two spent just 40 minutes together at five-on-five this season. 

The 2021-22 campaign wasn’t the only year Fiala posted strong underlyings at five-on-five. Since the start of 2019-20, he has a 51.28 CF% and 53.63 xG%. He’s averaged 2.66 points/60, so he has the track record to back up top-six production. If we look at his player card from JFresh Hockey, he ranks in the 90th percentile in wins above replacement (WAR) among his peers:

Kevin Fiala
Kevin Fiala Player Card 2021-22 (via JFresh Hockey)

What makes Fiala an intriguing target for the Devils is he can create offense, but he’s also a high-end shooter, ranking in the 89th percentile in finishing. He’s an elite skater with great edge work who excels in transition, just the type of player the Devils could use around Hughes and Hischier. The question is, what will it cost to acquire him? That’s where things get a bit interesting. 

Behind the Wild’s Cap Predicament

Because the Wild bought out Zach Parise and Ryan Suter a year ago, they will have a dead cap hit of $12,743,588 next season and $14,743,588 in the two seasons following before it comes down to $1,666,666 for the 2025-26 campaign. With Matthew Boldy and Ryan Hartman needing extensions next summer, that puts the Wild in a precarious situation where they may have no choice but to trade Fiala. 

On an episode of The Jeff Marek Show (11:30 in), Michael Russo, the Wild’s beat reporter for The Athletic, stated that he thinks Fiala will get traded at the NHL Draft in early July. He also mentioned that while it’s known the Ottawa Senators want Fiala badly, one team that makes plenty of sense to him is the Devils. He noted that Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald and Wild GM Bill Guerin are good friends. The Devils’ Director of Pro Scouting, Jim Mill, is based in Minnesota and has scouted the Wild plenty, so it’s easy to connect the dots. 

Russo concluded the segment by saying he thinks the Wild will regret the day they decide to trade Fiala but “that they’ve put themselves in a position where they really have no choice.” Keeping in mind, Russo reported this on Friday before Marek confirmed himself Saturday night that the Devils are interested in Fiala. 

What a Fiala Trade Could Look Like

Given what Russo said, it sure seems like the Devils and Wild are ideal partners in a potential Fiala trade. As of today, the Devils have the fifth overall pick at the draft, though we’ll know their exact position after the draft lottery takes place tomorrow night. If they stay at fifth overall or drop a slot or two to sixth or seventh overall, that increases the chances they move the pick for Fiala. If they win the lottery and end up in the top 2, they’re hanging onto the selection.

Kevin Fiala Minnesota Wild
Minnesota Wild winger Kevin Fiala (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

As for what the Devils would have to give up, this is where it gets a bit tricky. Given the Wild’s cap situation, they have little leverage in getting a massive return for Fiala. Everyone knows the dead money they have coming this summer and for the next few seasons. Teams may part with their first-round picks, but they will not give up all of their best assets, especially if they aren’t confident Fiala signs a long-term deal with them, which Russo commented on in his segment with Marek. 

On talent alone, Fiala is worth giving up a high pick for, especially if the Devils fall a couple of slots to seventh overall. But they should not part with their top prospects if they’re giving up a selection in the 5-7 range at the draft. Not Alexander Holtz, not Dawson Mercer, probably not Arseni Gritsyuk, and certainly not Luke Hughes. 

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Fifth overall or lower, a young player like Ty Smith or a B-level prospect (not both), and perhaps a later pick in 2023, should be the max of what the Devils are willing to give up for Fiala. If a bidding war ensues and the price climbs above that, then Fitzgerald should walk away and make a selection at the draft instead. 

If the Devils acquire Fiala at the draft, they would have six days between then and free agency on July 13 to sign him before he becomes eligible for an offer sheet. My guess is that wouldn’t be much of an issue since they have the cap space, and fellow countryman Nico Hischier would probably be an enticing reason to stay in New Jersey for the long haul. 

A Fiala Extension and the Devils’ Salary Cap

Given the season he had, it’s probably safe to say Fiala’s average annual value (AAV) will come in between $7-8 million. Jack Hughes’ $64 million extension has an AAV of $8 million that kicks in next season. Jesper Bratt is an RFA this offseason and will probably earn a new deal that pays him between $6 to 7 million annually. 

Between Bratt, Hughes, Hischier, Fiala and Dougie Hamilton, they’d have five players with AAVs over $6 million. Yegor Sharangovich, Damon Severson, Jonas Siegenthaler and Ryan Graves will all need new contracts a year from now too. There’s obviously the salary cap to consider, but their cap should still be in a decent spot even after re-signing Fiala. 

Kevin Fiala Minnesota Wild
Signing Kevin Fiala to a new contract shouldn’t be a problem for the Devils (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Why is that the case? Because the Devils project to have a whopping $56,105,833 in cap space next summer. Of course, there are plenty of players to re-sign between now and July 2023. But they should have the money to re-sign the players they need to re-sign, plus make additions through trades and free agency this offseason and next. 

It’s also worth noting that Andreas Johnsson, Tomáš Tatar and Jonathan Bernier’s contracts all come off the books in 2023, freeing up $12.025 million in cap space. Graves and Severson shouldn’t get massive raises from their current cap hits of $3,166,167 and $4,166,666 if the Devils decide to extend each defenseman. Siegenthaler and Sharangovich will cost the Devils the most money to re-sign, but they should still be OK cap-wise. They shouldn’t find themselves in a position like the Wild where they can’t afford to re-sign a player like Fiala in the coming years. 

Pros and Cons of Acquiring Fiala

While there are plenty of pros to acquiring Fiala, there are some cons, namely giving up a top-5 pick. This draft class isn’t as bad as some make it out to be. There are good prospects such as Logan Cooley, David Jiricek, Juraj Slafkovsky and Simon Nemec in the top 5. When the Devils are really ready to be contenders two to three years from now, whoever they draft from this class will be on a cheap entry-level deal. That’s not for nothing and is something Fitzgerald has to consider.  

On the other hand, how close do you believe the Devils are to contending for a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division? Their 27-46-9 record would say probably not very close, but their .881 team save percentage cost them big time, about 11 wins, to be precise. If they got league-average goaltending, they would’ve had a 38-35-9 record, which would’ve made them an 85-point team. That would’ve still put them 15 points out of a playoff spot, but the cutoff for the postseason isn’t going to be 100 points like it was in 2021-22. It will regress back into the 90s in the future. 

Tom Fitzgerald, general manager of the New Jersey Devils
Tom Fitzgerald, general manager of the New Jersey Devils (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Assuming further development from Devils players, an improved power play, and another acquisition in addition to Fiala on the wing, it’s not hard to imagine the team taking a big jump next season if they find a goalie (maybe two if they decide it’s time to cut ties with Mackenzie Blackwood), and it’s all doable in one summer. 

That’s why the pros of acquiring Fiala seem to outweigh the cons, and I do think the Devils are closer than their record indicates if they fix goaltending. By all accounts, Fitzgerald seems to believe that’s the case too. And for what it’s worth, Elliotte Friedman said on Friday’s episode of 32 Thoughts that the Devils look like they’re a team getting ready to make a jump. If that’s the case, then it’s a smart decision to target Fiala in a trade. He’ll provide an immediate upgrade to the top-six and would help make the Devils a much more competitive team in 2022-23 and beyond while fitting in with the team’s core at 26 years old.

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat TrickEvolving-Hockey