The Admirals Super Swiss Prospect
By Jason Karnosky
Milwaukee, WI - In the American Hockey League, few players rival Milwaukee Admirals rookie forward Kevin Fiala in terms of flashiness and the ability to bring fans, or even a whole building, to the edge of their seats.
The 18-year-old Swiss rookie dazzles with a special combination of fluid skating ability, top-flight speed and a set of hands arguably the best his country has ever produced.
“(Kevin)’s a skilled young forward with a knack for scoring goals,” Admirals captain Joe Piskula said of Fiala, who ranks eighth on the team’s active roster with 20 points in 33 games. “He knows where to be and it’s a great asset to have in the offensive zone. His goals are often him just being in the right spot at the right time.”
It is no wonder why this past summer the Nashville Predators made Fiala just the team’s second first-round draft choice in the past four years, and only the franchise’s fourth top 15 selection since NHL’s 2005 lockout.
“(He)’s a special player,” Milwaukee coach Dean Evason said of Fiala, who draws comparisons to Patrick Kane. “Nashville obviously knew it when they drafted him . . . His skill level is one thing, but he wants to play, wants to win (and) he’s a good teammate. He’s done everything to set himself up to be a great, great pro, (but) he just needs a bit more time because he’s 18.”
Born in St. Gallen, Switzerland, scouts began taking notice of Fiala in 2013 when he ventured to Sweden to play in Malmo. A year later as a 17-year-old, Fiala was competing against some of the best players in the world in the Swedish Elite League. The 5’9” forward scored regularly for HV71 Jonkoping, contributing 11 points in 17 games, plus a pair of assists in five playoff games.
Fiala’s coming out party came during the 2014 World Junior Championships in Sweden. There in the under-20 tournament he led all Swiss skaters with five points.
“His stick skills, his skating and his competitiveness allowed him to have success at an early age,” Evason said. “You watch him at the World Junior Tournament and he dominated games there.”
After attending Nashville’s development camp and training camp, Fiala returned to the SHL to continue his maturation process. There he carried on production at nearly a point a game clip (14 points in 20 games), signaling to the Predators that the franchise’s top prospect was ready for the transition to professional hockey in North America.
Shortly after Christmas, Fiala was reassigned to Milwaukee well ahead of the team’s initial timetable for the forward.
“After I attended Nashville’s training camp over the summer and tried to make the team, I expected to be in Sweden the whole year,” Fiala said. “(Certainly), I didn’t expect to be back here so soon.”
Fiala made an immediate impact on his new team, debuting with a shootout goal in the Admirals’ 3-2 victory over Utica.
“It was a nice goal actually,” Fiala said of the play. “I’m happy to score (in my first game) and it was a good experience, but the most important thing is that we won.”
In the AHL, Nashville’s 11th overall draft choice expected to absorb some lumps against older, tougher and more seasoned primarily American and Canadian talent.
“(Kevin’s) played pro hockey, just not pro hockey in North America, so there is going to be some growing pains,” Evason said. “But he’s an intelligent kid, loves the game and loves to play hockey. That sets him up to have success.”
The first-year forward got a crash course in physical play when the Admirals battled rival Rockford in a back-to-back, home-and-home series in his seventh and eighth games with Milwaukee (February 7-8). Battling in tight spaces against the IceHogs’ hard-nosed defense, Fiala picked up a pair of goals as the Admirals’ won 4-1 in Friday’s contest.
“Today was a heavy game and he’s not used to playing that way,” Evason said in the postgame scrum. “That’s why he is here preparing to play for the Nashville Predators. The (North American) game is quick and people are on him fast. But those goals he scored are gifted goals and he’s only going to get better and better.”
Evason was even more impressed with how Fiala responded as the game got even rougher back in Rockford the next night.
“(Kevin) went through a real good learning experience,” Evason said. “The (IceHogs) hit him, stuck him, yapped at him every opportunity they had. He took a bad penalty and we made him aware of it, but we like the fact that he pushed back.”
The diminutive forward duplicated his two-goal feat 10 days later in his team’s 5-2 drubbing of Lake Erie. Fiala finished February with six goals and 11 points is as many games.
“You get no time over here,” Fiala said of the transition to AHL hockey. “You have to watch always and look around to see if somebody is coming. That’s the most different thing playing in North America (compared to Europe).”
To date Fiala has 11 goals in his first 33 AHL games, with a majority of them of the highlight variety. While Milwaukee fans have watched many outstanding plays out their talented rookie forwards this season, Fiala’s goal on March 21 against Texas might be the best of the collection.
“I got the puck from (Triston) Grant at the blue line and then I saw the defender crossover his feet so I went for his other side,” Fiala said of his spectacular move on Stars’ blue liner Jamie Oleksiak, who has 59 games of NHL experience. “He couldn’t reach his stick on me. I was able to hold on, fake again on the goaltender (Jack Campbell) and score.”
Though that spectacular goal failed to ignite an Admirals’ charge against the Stars, the Admirals second smallest player did pick up one the biggest goals of the season when he buried the overtime game-winner last on April 1st in Lake Erie as Milwaukee completed a 3-2 come from behind victory over the Monsters.
That goal came just three games after his first National Hockey League call up, which occurred after the Admirals’ 4-3 loss to the Stars. Fiala’s first NHL game on March 24 against Montreal resulted in no points, but he did help the Predators secure a 3-2 overtime victory over the Atlantic Division leading Canadiens.
Back in Milwaukee, Fiala knows he must continue to produce in order to ready his game for the next level and help the Admirals find success. Milwaukee (33-25-7-6—79 points) currently stands in a tenuous ninth place in the Western Conference, with every team chasing them with games in hand.
Therefore, every contribution the Admirals can get from their super Swiss import will be counted on as Milwaukee vies for its 13th straight trip to the AHL postseason.
“I’m a goal scorer and a skilled guy,” Fiala said. “When I’m here I will give 100 percent for the team to help the team win.”