ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota hockey fans have become accustomed to the offensive skill of Erik Haula over the past five years, but even the biggest followers of the University of Minnesota men’s hockey team — where Haula starred for the past three seasons — might have been surprised at his latest show of talent.
Competing in a shootout at the end of the Minnesota Wild’s development camp, Haula provided the highlight of the Saturday scrimmage when he scored with a spin-o-rama goal, similar to the move former Wild forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard had done in actual NHL shootouts.
The goal shows the type of skill level that will have fans excited about Haula’s potential. The Wild were impressed with Haula before the slick move was used in an exhibition, pleased with the growth he’s shown since he was a skinny teenager drafted in the seventh round of the 2009 NHL Draft. A veteran among the participants in the Wild’s development camp last week, Haula willingly took on a leadership role for the younger prospects.
“He’s made a good impression here,” Minnesota assistant general manager Brent Flahr said. “He’s worked hard and been a leader for the young guys and has really shown well for himself.”
If Haula can continue to show well, he could carve out a role in the NHL a year after leaving the University of Minnesota. Haula made the decision to sign a two-year, entry-level contract for the Wild earlier this year, even though he could have held out and become a free agent in the same manner as Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz did a year earlier when he set off a bidding war for his services eventually won by the Edmonton Oilers.
But by now, Haula, 22, might be more of a Minnesotan than Finn, though he was born in Pori, Finland. Haula still visits his native Finland, but the traces of an accent are nearly gone. He played his prep hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, Minn. and then turned into an offensive star for the Gophers, where he finished his Minnesota collegiate career with 100 points over the last two seasons.
Haula had 20 goals as a sophomore in helping the Gophers to the NCAA Frozen Four. He followed with a junior season in which his 35 assists were second in the nation and his 51 points were fourth.
“I just think my success individually and as a team was pretty good, and when I talked to my coaches, Don (Lucia) and stuff, they thought that it was time for me to go, as well,” Haula said about his decision to leave the Gophers and sign with the Wild. “That helped with my decision.”
Haula said he felt the Wild were ready for him to turn pro, as well. He will be entering his first full professional season, but Haula’s older than many of the team’s top prospects and the team will give him the chance to compete for an NHL roster spot.
“I think so,” Flahr said of Haula getting a shot in training camp to make the Wild roster. “We think of Erik Haula, even from just two years ago, his physique, his physical maturity, he’s grown a lot. Obviously he’s produced at the college level and been very good. People don’t realize he’s a year older than (Mikael) Granlund, (Jason) Zucker and these guys, too. He is older, but at the same time, I think the experience in Houston at the end of the year was extremely valuable for him, to see where his game is at and what he needs to work on. I think he has a chance to come in and challenge some of the other guys, some of the young guys and certainly make a name for himself.”
When the Gophers’ season ended last year in the NCAA tournament, Haula was one of several Minnesota players that decided to turn pro. Haula surrended his senior season to sign with the Wild and quickly made his way to the Houston Aeros to make his professional debut. He had two assists in six regular-season games and then added a goal and assists in five Calder Cup playoff games.
“It helps a lot,” Haula said of learning from his first professional experience. “Some familiar faces coming to camp, that helps a lot. I haven’t played pro hockey ever, so it’s really nice to get started so I’m not starting from a clean sheet. It’s really nice to have some familiar faces so you feel comfortable.”
Playing the part of newcomer perfectly, Haula refused to say if there’s a chance for him to compete at the NHL level next season, but it’s apparent he sees the opportunity.
“Obviously every time you go to training camp that’s how you have to feel, like and you have to stay confident with yourself,” Haula said. “Definitely there’s been some big moves made lately and there’s definitely some room for younger guys. One day at a time and we’ll see where it takes me.”
With the Wild looking for contributions possibly from two to three young players, Haula doesn’t need to speak for himself. Minnesota has been open about giving him a chance, along with a few of the other young forwards like Granlund, Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Brett Bulmer and Zack Phillips.
Haula might have to continue to adapt if he does make the NHL next season. Flahr said Haula’s initial roles might be different from being the offensive playmaker he was with the Gophers. Flahr even said he believes Haula could handle a fourth-line role, if needed. But the Wild also know that Haula will continue working to make his own way, just like he’s done with the Gophers since he was drafted.
“I think when you look back at him in his draft year, he was a small body,” Flahr said. “He’s really worked hard to make himself a pro. I think everybody kind of knew he’d be a good collegiate player, but he’s really worked at his game. I think from Day 1, in talking to Don Lucia, he was really impressed with his focus and he has mentioned all the time, ‘this guy really wants to be a player.’ He’s worked hard at it. He’s deserved it…The quicker he adapts, the quicker he’ll be in the league, but he’s a competitive kid and a smart, smart player. So, we think he’ll adapt eventually.”