“I don’t think I’ve ever played with a player like Kevin.”
That line says a lot when the speaker is Drew Doughty, doesn’t it? A veteran of more than 1,000 games and a two-time Stanley Cup champion. But that’s what Kevin Fiala has brought to the Kings as we pass the halfway mark of his first season with the organization.
Make no mistake, Doughty has played with some unbelievable players in his time, first in line being his two current and longtime teammates in Anze Koptiar and Jonathan Quick. They’re all different players though. The gamebreaking, elite offensive package that Fiala provides is different than most and has brought an element to the Kings that they haven’t had in a while.
“The closest would probably be Gaborik, but [Kevin]’sa little different than Gabby was,” Doughty detailed. “He’s more 1-on-1, where Gabby was more speed and the shot, got tips on pucks and stuff like that. He was a really good player too, don’t get me wrong, but Kevin is a little bit different than him, I think he has a little more 1-on-1 ability than then Gabby did.”
A seven-time 30-goal scorer – three times with 40 – is certainly not a bad guy to see yourself compared to and the 1-on-1 ability that Doughty mentioned is something that allows Fiala to create offense sometimes seemingly out of nothing.
Kings Head Coach Todd McLellan has said that as a whole, the Kings have to adjust their game to Fiala as much as Fiala has to adjust his game to the Kings. When you have an elite talent, someone capable of producing offensively on any given night that comes with the territory. McLellan called Fiala a bit more of a “gambler” when it comes to looking for things the other way, though he’s settled more and more into the system as he’s gotten more and more comfortable. Twice over the last couple of weeks, McLellan has complemented elements of Fiala’s 200-foot game, which has not come at the expense of any offensive production with ten points over seven games played this month.
Looking at how Fiala’s game has impacted the Kings, to me it starts with his playmaking abilities.
As you watch Fiala play, it’s clear that he can make and execute passes on the ice that most players can’t. Many might not even think about attempting them, but Fiala seems to find a way to make them work more frequently than you think they might for the average player. It’s an aspect of his game that his current linemates – Blake Lizotte and Gabe Vilardi – and one of his most common other linemates, Adrian Kempe, have had to learn and adjust to the more they’ve played together.
Vilardi – Yeah for sure, he does see the game differently, that’s why he’s an NHL All-Star. You get used to that, like all things it takes time getting used, playing with different guys. It’s always a little adjusting, but it’s been good so far.
Lizotte – He does some things that maybe with some other guys, they make a play when it probably shouldn’t be made, but he makes it work because he’s that good. You’ve got to always be ready, stick always on the ice and expect to get the puck back basically at all times. It’s definitely a mindset change from some other guys I’ve played with.
Kempe – I’ve never played with a guy who has made a lot of those passes before. If you’re sitting on the bench, when I’m not playing with him and you’re like, “oh, this pass is never getting through” and it ends up getting through. It’s a skill he has, and when you play with confidence, a lot of those things work out.
Fiala with the dish, Kempe with the finish. 🧑🍳 pic.twitter.com/fR2wq2oM5e
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) January 4, 2023
Vilardi admitted he simply enjoys watching Fiala play, with his high level of skill, while Lizotte went on to complement how well he’s able to hold onto the puck, as well as how he can distribute it. Perhaps that’s a part of what makes him so effective, in that he has the ability to deceive with how well he can do both as needed. All three players agreed that you have to be ready at all times when you’re on the ice with Fiala, because he can see and execute those plays that perhaps you’re not prepared for.
If you cared to look back, you’d see similar comments earlier this season from Carl Grundstrom and Rasmus Kupari, who made up the team’s third line along with Fiala back for a long stretch of games in November. Both admitted they’d never skated with a player like tht before. It’s one of several offensive units that Fiala has been placed on this season and his production has been maintained regardless of who he’s played with.
“He’s dangerous and he can play up and down the lineup, his game transfers with him wherever he goes,” McLellan said. “He can play with big players, small players, quick or crafty players, straight-line players. It’s rare to find a player like that and he makes the players around him better.”
When McLellan says that Fiala makes those around him better, the numbers support the assertion. McLellan also called him a team player and noted that there is no conversation needed when it comes to which line on the chart he skates on, especially considering the universal offensive success coming in different slots, because Fiala can excel in multiple situations.
Looking at his three most common pairs of linemates this season, each pairing has scored at a higher rate with Fiala on their line than without. That includes the team’s top offensive duo of Kopitar and Kempe, as well as the pairings of Lizotte and Vilardi, as well as Kupari and Grundstrom. The same can be said for expected goals for as well, with all three pairings showing higher totals playing with Fiala than without him.
There’s also the increased power-play production as of late, even if much of that is driven by the game against Edmonton, as well as more affection shown for Fiala’s defensive contributions as well. McLellan noted recently that the coaching staff compiled a video of clips for Fiala, of plays he made defensively that led to offensive chances the other way, and felt it was sizeable and impactful.
“He’s getting very committed in that area and he fits the team really well. He’s playing to win.”
As mentioned this morning, Fiala was back on his usual line with Lizotte and Vilardi during today’s practice, with Vilardi re-joining the group after a couple of days away. With a day-to-day designation, Vilardi’s status is up in the air until he plays. McLellan said yesterday morning that he initially expected Vilardi to play against the Stars, so it felt like he’s close with what could be just a short absence.
As the Kings begin a trip, having that balance in the lineup is key, which is something that Fiala is able to bring by playing on a lower line at even strength. How many opponents can truly matchup effectively against a team that has a point-per-game player and their second-leading goalscorer on their third line? Don’t think it’s all that many, when all three lines are humming along. As noted above, Fiala has the ability to move around the lineup and be productive, with McLellan indicating that the Kings could opt to design certain looks for certain opponents. For now, the added depth is a boost for a team looking to get back in the win column after a pair of defeats at home.
Just touched down in Honky Tonk, Insiders. Morning skate coverage to follow in the AM from Bridgestone Arena!