Haula: Olympic break reassignment ‘a huge plus’

While his teammates compete in the Olympics or take an Olympic break, Erik Haula is getting some bonus ice time in the AHL.

Jerome Miron/Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Some teammates jetted halfway around the country to participate in the Olympics, others were heading out for vacations or time with family.

Erik Haula, the Minnesota Wild rookie forward, instead made the trip to Des Moines, Iowa to play with Minnesota’s American Hockey League affiliate. Haula was the only NHL regular reassigned during the Olympic break.

Haula didn’t sulk. He figured the reassignment was coming and welcomed the chance to keep playing during the two-plus week break. Haula embraced the chance to build on the momentum that has seen him play 25 games in the NHL already this season.

"I look at it as a huge plus," Haula said before the NHL break. "I get to go down there and get a lot of ice time and just stay in shape, just keep working on my game and hopefully after break I get to come back. If not, then I’ll just keep working on my game and just wait for the opportunity again."

If he keeps up his pace, his next opportunity will come soon.

Since being reassigned, Haula has three goals and four assists in four games for the Iowa Wild through Sunday. He has 12 goals and 12 assists for Iowa this season, ranking first on the team in goals and third in points despite only playing in 28 of the team’s 49 games.

Haula, 22, wasn’t expected to play such a vital role for Minnesota this season. He was one of the final cuts from the NHL Wild during training camp in his first full year as a professional. But he earned his way back to Minnesota and has played in nearly half of the team’s games so far this season.

The Finnish native who moved to Minnesota in 2008 to play high school hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary’s has two goals and two assists in the NHL this season and had worked himself into a role as a penalty killer for the Wild prior to the break.

Photos of the Week: 2/9/14-2/16/14

The rookie was in the NHL killing penalties and even playing in late-game situations, showing the trust the coaching staff has gained in Haula.

"Yeah, well he’s earned that," coach Mike Yeo said. "When a young player comes up you don’t obviously know what to expect. We got into situations at different times where there was opportunity for a guy because of who was out of the lineup and he took advantage of it. He’s built it. He’s built that confidence in us."

Minnesota has to keep a full 20-man roster, including Olympic players and two goaltenders, during the break, per NHL rules. The NHL also stipulated that players who had seen action in 16 of the team’s previous 20 games into the break weren’t allowed to be sent to the AHL to play during the break.

Haula knew how the math calculated. He was recalled from Iowa in early January in time to play on Jan. 7. He played in 15 straight games before the break and knew all about the 16-game threshold.

"I have a pretty good idea that I’ll be going down and I’m OK with that fact," Haula said. "It’s a plus going down to Iowa, for sure."

But he’s taking advantage of the opportunity, just as he has since being a seventh-round draft pick by the Wild in 2009.

A year ago in February, Haula was starring for the University of Minnesota, where he scored 36 goals and had 64 assists in two seasons. He decided to turn pro after the Gophers’ season and played six regular-season games in the AHL last year before playing another five games, with a goal and assist, in the Calder Cup playoffs.

Haula reached the NHL in November and then was sent back to Iowa in December. He got back to Minnesota and scored his first two NHL goals in the 15 games since his recall.

"I feel like I’m taking little steps, just learning the ropes so to say," Haula said. "I’ve said from the beginning, I’ll just try to learn from the older guys. I’ve tried to do that. I just try to play a good two-way game."

His two-way game, along with his speed and recognition, have allowed him to earn his current role in the NHL as the Wild’s fourth-line center and a penalty killer.

"A guy like that’s in your lineup, you need him to play," Yeo said. "Ideally you’ve got pretty much everybody on your team playing some kind of a role other than the 5-on-5 play. Obviously power play guys, they get that. But if you’re not on the power play, it’s nice when those guys can factor in on the penalty kill just because you balance things out a lot more.

"His speed is definitely noticeable. But it’s one thing to skate fast, it’s another thing to think fast. And that’s what I’ve liked about him. There’s a lot of guys that skate really fast and skate themselves out of position in a hurry and I think that because he skates fast and thinks the game fast, it makes him an effective player."

Haula knows working on the penalty kill, a challenge rarely afforded a rookie, shows the confidence the coaches have in him and he knows it helps keep him in the rotation, where he wouldn’t get consistent minutes simply as a fourth-line player.

Scoring is always the highlight, but Haula said, "I love playing penalty kill."

"I just try to pride on a defensive game and just playing good two-way hockey," Haula said. "It’s rewarding playing in the end of the game knowing that you haven’t played that much or you don’t play that much. Just the trust factor, I think for every individual it boosts your confidence a little bit as well."

The confidence is good. Yeo just wants to make sure it’s checked.

"I know I saw all the cameras and all the microphones in his face (two weeks ago), so I’ll make sure that I grab him today or tomorrow morning and say, ‘Let’s go,’" Yeo said. "Because we’ve seen it, young players, there’s many times you get feeling really good about yourself and then the next game you come back with a letdown. I just want to make sure we keep pushing him. I said it (after beating Tampa Bay before the break), it’s our goal to win hockey games. It’s also our goal to keep developing these young players too."

Haula is developing for the Wild, whether in Minnesota or Iowa.

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