Erik Haula was the postseason stopper for the Minnesota Wild in 2014, tasked with using his speed to harass and defend Chicago’s Nathan McKinnon and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews.
Just a rookie, Haula became a vital piece to Minnesota’s playoff success. He entered last season only hoping to continue his growth and build on his postseason run, which included four goals and three assists while playing in all 13 games.
Then, as the Wild were preparing for the playoffs this season, Haula was on the outside looking in as Minnesota head coach Mike Yeo dealt with a deeper lineup. Haula’s trying season left him out of the playoffs until Justin Fontaine was hurt.
"It was mentally the hardest thing I’ve been a part of in my short career so far," Haula said after the season. "I learned a lot of what it takes to be a pro, and what this world is like, and now I just want to move on. I want to get out of that, and I want to make sure I’m contributing and playing the game the way I’m supposed to every single game, and that there are no questions asked and I just do what I have to without being asked."
Haula opened the season in the Wild’s starting lineup and played in 72 games, but he was a healthy scratch at the end of the regular season in which he finished with 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) and a minus-7 rating. A year earlier, in just 46 games as a rookie, Haula had six goals, nine assists and was a plus-14.
The native of Pori, Finland who developed at the University of Minnesota was scratched in three of the final six regular-season games. He played in just two playoff games this season, both coming against Chicago, the team in which he enjoyed part of his postseason breakout a year earlier. He scored three goals and two assists in the second round last year against the Blackhawks.
"Going into the playoffs last year, there was a much different feel to his game," Yeo said during the playoffs. "I know there was a lot of reference to what happened in the playoffs last year. I think he was in a different place, as well."
Yeo said his team had changed, but the message was clear: Haula wasn’t providing the same impact.
"Of course, it’s on you when you’re not playing," Haula said. "It’s obviously a little bit on me and how the season went. There were good parts of the season, for sure, where I played really well; and there are parts where it didn’t go as I wanted it to go. I just want to move on and become the player that’s really consistent."
Haula was caught in a crunch of several forwards competing for time on the fourth line. The top three lines had settled, at least in terms of the nine players, by the end of the season and Haula, Fontaine, Matt Cooke, Ryan Carter, Sean Bergenheim and Jordan Schroeder were part of the mix of depth forwards.
"I’ve said it before, it’s not about beating up on Haula," Yeo said. "There’s other guys that just deserved to be in the lineup, and we were choosing to only dress 12 forwards."
Haula, 24, doesn’t want to be any part of lineup decisions going forward. Part of the Wild’s young core, Haula is a restricted free agent. He wants to be back with Minnesota and plans on working this offseason to ensure he doesn’t have to worry about being a healthy scratch.
"I obviously love it here, and there’s no questions there," Haula said. "I just have to put in a lot of work this summer and just have a great attitude and be ready."
In fact, Haula plans to stay in Minnesota for the offseason. He’ll return to the University of Minnesota to train where he can work with Gophers strength coach Cal Dietz.
"It’s going to be everything," Haula said of his offseason approach. "It’s not just one focus. But it’s about on-the-ice stuff. You can do so much in the gym, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be the best player on the boards. It’s a mindset, it’s something to prepare for and think about."