Erik Haula was a slight forward out of Minnesota prep hockey factory Shattuck-St. Mary’s in 2009 when the Wild made the Finnish native a seventh-round NHL Draft pick.
There’s no better example of Minnesota’s development as an organization than Haula’s progress since he was taken as a flier nearly five years ago. Haula grew stronger through three years at the University of Minnesota and became a key contributor for the Wild in the playoffs this season.
Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher’s efforts to replenish the organization’s prospects manifested with a second-round playoff appearance and one of the deepest pools of 25-and-under talent in the NHL.
"It’s hard to know," Fletcher said of the development timeline for prospects at his season-ending press conference. "I expected it over time. Sometimes, you never know when that time will be. Certainly, you look at some of the young guys, they still have relatively limited experience in the NHL, and yet they’ve been able to take a step forward.
"I hope this is not their ceiling. I hope there’s a whole other level they can get to and need to get to for us to get to where we want to get to eventually. They all can be better than what they were, yet certainly, they did take a step forward."
Only two playoff teams — the New York Rangers and Colorado Avalanche — had a younger average age among all skaters in the regular season. Minnesota had the youngest weighted average age of defenseman (26.1 years old, on average) of any playoff team.
A highly regarded crop of prospects was a big reason the Wild advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Eight players under 25 played in the playoffs. At least one under-25 player was on each of the top three lines. Three of the six defensemen were under 25.
Haula, 23, and Mikael Granlund, 22, were tied with Zach Parise for the team lead with four playoff goals. Even as the playoffs have continued, Minnesota is still tied for first among all playoff teams with 16 different players scoring a goal in the postseason. Among those goal scorers are Nino Niederreiter (21 years old), Charlie Coyle (22) and defensemen Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella (both 24).
"That’s a very important part of our team," head coach Mike Yeo said. "We’ll keep pushing our older players to improve and keep taking strides. But let’s be honest, part of those core guys, part of what they brought is an established career and established players. The real potential for growth on our team is with our young players. As our young players continue to get better our team will continue to get better. So that has to be a focus for us."
It’s no accident. The search for more talent, with a focus on youth, has been central to the organization’s work since Fletcher took over in 2009. Fletcher and his staff worked to develop a deeper base of prospects for a team that had consistently missed the playoffs and lagged behind others in minor-league development.
Haula and goaltender Darcy Kuemper were drafted in 2009. Kuemper was a fourth-round pick. The pick used to select Haula came via trade, as the Wild dropped four spots in the first round.
In 2010, Minnesota added Granlund as the centerpiece of the youth movement as the ninth overall draft pick. Defenseman Jonas Brodin was selected No. 10 in 2011, the same year Fletcher traded defenseman Brent Burns for Devin Setoguchi, a first-round pick (which was used to pick Zack Phillips) and a big power forward still in college — Coyle.
Niedderreiter, a former No. 5 overall pick, was acquired last year for Cal Clutterbuck and a third-round pick.
"Each one of the young guys, I think we push each other to get better and I feel like that helped a lot," Niederreiter said of this season. "Over the course of the year, each one of us played in different situations and when someone was hurt, there was a young guy ready to step up his game and try to perform at that level. I feel like that was good to be a part of. We pushed each other to be better hockey players in all situations."
Their continued development as established NHL players is what will cement Minnesota as a Stanley Cup contender. And more will be expected.
"We have some kids that can finish that are already here, and typically, 20, 21, 22-year-old kids get better," Fletcher said. "They continue to improve, certainly up to the time they’re 24 or 25, they’re in that statistical upswing part of their career.
"We certainly believe that Nino Niederreiter will be more than a 14-goal scorer, and Charlie Coyle’s going to score more than the number of goals he had this season. Granlund’s going to continue to emerge. We believe Jason Zucker is an NHL-type player; that’ll be up for him to get healthy and prove that to us. There’s some good young players in this organization, and they will certainly be a big part of that offensive improvement."
There’s more talent in the pipeline, but Fletcher will need to turn his focus to retaining the players he’s worked so hard to bring into the organization.
Niederreiter, Zucker, Justin Fontaine (26 years old) and Kuemper are restricted free agents this offseason. Haula, Granlund, Coyle, Brodin and Scandella will be restricted free agents in 2015.
They’ve developed into NHL players. Now they will look to be paid as such.
"You certainly look at what you can do to improve your team for next season, but you better have an eye on three to five years down the road, too," Fletcher said. "Cap space is not malleable. Once you use it, it’s gone. We need to make sure we preserve enough of it to keep the kids we want to keep, and I think that’ll have a major impact on what we do this summer."
Fletcher will try to preserve salary-cap space as he looks to improve the team this offseason. The emergence of players like Granlund, Coyle, Niederreiter, and of course Haula allows Fletcher more flexibility.
"The one thing I will say is compared to last offseason, this offseason we have a lot more holes filled," Fletcher said. "We have a lot more players that we know will be coming back. We’re not looking to fill as many positions as we were last summer, where we had to move by a lot of guys to be salary-cap compliant. This year we have plenty of salary-cap space, yet we also have a lot of good kids. We’ll try to balance everything out and go from there."