Mark Bowie The Hockey Writers
Uncovering the Wild’s Most Underrated Player
When the average hockey fan talks about the Minnesota Wild these days their conversations often include the likes of Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Eric Staal, or Devan Dubnyk. The more dedicated fan might throw in the names of Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, or Jonas Brodin. One name, however, that is quite often overlooked amongst the League’s 29 other fanbases is that of Wild third-line centre Erik Haula.
I expect that will soon change.
Arrival in North America
A seventh-round pick of the Wild in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, the native of Pori, Finland came over to the United States at the age of 17 and played his 2008-09 season with the famous Shattuck St. Mary’s Midget Prep team in the United States High School league. Haula had a very successful first season in North America as he registered 84 points in 53 league games in addition to four points in six games at the IIHF World U18 Championships where he represented his native Finland en route to a bronze medal.
Luckily for the Wild, they had the inside scoop on Haula all along. His USHS team was based out of Faribault, Minnesota and the World U18 Championship event was also held in Minnesota that year. The Wild took advantage of their excessive viewings of the 6’0″ forward and managed to make him the first pick in the last round of the 2009 draft when they quietly selected him 182nd overall.
Haula found himself in high demand after his impressive debut season on North American ice as he was drafted into both the United States Hockey League (21st overall by the Omaha Lancers in the USHL Entry Draft) and the Canadian Hockey League (60th overall by the Calgary Hitmen in the CHL Import Draft).
By the time he was drafted by the Wild, Haula had already verbally committed to play for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers beginning in the 2010-11 season but, following his selection in the import draft, he suddenly found himself with the option of going the Canadian major junior route as well. Ultimately, it was up to Haula to decide which path would be best for his development and most beneficial for his hockey career.
In the end, the Finnish centre stuck with his commitment to the Gophers and decided to spend the 2009-10 season playing in the USHL in preparation for the jump to NCAA hockey.
In his sole season playing in the USHL, Haula finished fifth in league scoring with 72 points in 56 games and was named to the All-Rookie Team as well as the Second All-Star Team. Haula would follow that up with three outstanding seasons as a member of the Golden Gophers where he twice led the team in scoring and finished his collegiate career with 124 points in 114 games.
On top of his personal success with the Golden Gophers, Haula also represented his country at the 2011 World Junior Championships where he put up four goals and seven points in six tournament games.
Haula’s stellar play was enough to earn him an NHL contract as he signed with the Wild following the conclusion of his 2012-13 NCAA season. The pivot made his professional debut with the American Hockey League’s Houston Aeros that same year and would get his feet wet by playing in six games at the conclusion of the AHL regular season followed by five playoff games before a first round exit ended his campaign.
In his first full professional season, Haula spent only 31 games playing in the AHL before he was called up to the Wild for good. He would finish his rookie NHL season with 15 points in 46 games in the second half of 2013-14 and then made the Wild roster out of training camp the following season.
After suffering through a sophomore slump in 2014-15, the hard-working centreman was able to put together a solid campaign this past season as he registered career-highs across the board with 76 games, 14 goals, 20 assists and 34 points while averaging 12:44 of ice time per game.
Now that Haula has established himself as a regular NHL player and has shown glimpses of more, it’s just a matter of time before makes his mark on the Wild team and commands the attention of fanbases throughout the league.
A very fast skater who is also defensively responsible, Haula has become a dangerous weapon on the Wild penalty kill. He is able to use his impressive speed to get into lanes, disrupt scoring chances, and shift momentum in the other direction for shorthanded rushes. A comparable player in this sense of his game would be Michael Grabner but give the advantage to Haula in terms better finishing skills.
With respect to his even strength play, Haula is an excellent two-way player who also possesses good hockey sense and the ability to get in on the forecheck. A pass-first type of player by nature, he needs to focus more on using his shot and putting pucks on the net while also driving the play to the goalmouth.
Haula has mostly been deployed in the role of a shutdown forward so far in his NHL career and it makes sense based on his skillset. Aside from his speed, two-way sense, and tenacity, he is also strong on the draw and raised his face-off percentage to 53.3 this past season. He might not have the size to overpower his opposition but is often able to use a combination of his speed and awareness to disrupt the attack.
Haula is pencilled in to start the new season on Minnesota’s third line in between a breakout candidate in Nino Niederreiter and a bounce back candidate Jason Pominville. The line does have the ingredients for potential success but also comes with a lot of uncertainty.
The potential for more offense is definitely there as Haula does have a history of posting big numbers in lower levels of hockey and he might just need the right opportunity to show that he can score at the top level as well. He has already shown that he can score on the penalty kill, as evidenced by his four shorthanded points last season, and it could be said that some power play time might go a long way for the fourth-year vet.
An important factor to consider is that Minnesota will be coached by offseason hire Bruce Boudreau who has publicly stated that ice time will be earned and that players will be held accountable for poor performance. If Boudreau is a man of his word then Haula should definitely see a jump in ice time as he is a very driven individual and will be out to prove himself to his new coach.
Depending on power play time and overall usage, it’s not out of the question that Haula could see his offensive production climb to the 40-50 point range this season. A good comparable would be former New York Islanders centre Frans Nielsen who, himself, was also very underrated throughout the league for quite a long time.
For now, Haula remains under the radar but one thing that won’t be questioned, at least among Wild fans, is the importance of having a versatile player like him in the lineup. Someone who can take on the hard defensive minutes but also has the ability to put the puck in the back of the net and cause havoc for opposing defenders with his blazing speed.
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