COLUMBUS, OHIO – After leading the nation’s highest-scoring team in scoring the past two seasons, Erik Haula knew it was time for the next challenge.
Still, leaving the University of Minnesota for a pro contract with the Wild wasn’t easy, especially since Haula felt like he left his collegiate career incomplete after the Gophers were beaten in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“Being with the same guys for three years, it’s not easy to leave,” Haula said after arriving in Houston on Sunday. “We’ve had pretty good success lately, and to not get to that last game of the year this year was really disappointing, so that made the leaving part harder.
“But it’s time to take the next step.”
Haula, 22, signed a two-year, entry-level deal that starts next season. In order to get his pro career going, the Pori, Finland, native signed an amateur tryout with the Aeros, the Wild’s American Hockey League affiliate. He is playoff-eligible and can play in the regular-season’s final six games beginning Wednesday against Oklahoma City.
“My dream has always been to have a chance to play in the big leagues and this is the start,” the 2009 seventh-round draft pick said. “I’ve worked hard for it and I’m really excited to get started with a great organization.”
Haula can’t wait to soak everything in and adjust to the pro game in time for the Wild’s training camp next fall.
“I know I have to learn how to play against men, and I’d love to have success right away, but it doesn’t always happen that easily,” Haula said. “It takes time, and I’m willing to put that time in.”
Haula, the second European to play for the Gophers, is 49th on the school’s all-time scoring list with 124 points in 114 games. He scored 42 goals and was the first Gopher since Ryan Potulny (2003-06) to average more than a point a game in his collegiate career.
This past season, Haula ranked second in the NCAA with 35 assists and was the first Gopher to top 50 points (51) since 2005-06. He was plus-20 and an All-WCHA second-team selection.
Haula’s the fifth Gopher to leave since the overtime loss to Yale ended Minnesota’s season. Nate Schmidt signed a free-agent contract with Washington, while Nick Bjugstad (Florida), Zach Budish (Nashville) and Mark Alt (Philadelphia) signed with the teams that drafted them.
“I’m happy with the choice I made three years ago to go with the Gophers,” said Haula, who played at Shattuck-St. Mary’s. “Individually, I think I had three pretty good years and tried to be consistent. That was the big key to my decision to leave.”
With veteran defenseman Tom Gilbert struggling, coach Mike Yeo pulled him from the Wild’s lineup Sunday against Columbus. Gilbert said it was the first time in his career he was a healthy scratch.
“Hopefully this is something that spurs him to get it back,” Yeo said. “I’m not saying that he’s been awful … but I think it was time to make a change. Hopefully this helps him get back on track.”
Gilbert is minus-13, which is tied for 269th out of 275 defensemen.
“I just need to find my game,” Gilbert said. “It hasn’t been my best, let’s put it that way. [I have to get back to] simplicity, good first pass.”
Brett Clark was also scratched; defensemen Justin Falk and Nate Prosser played.
• Center Matt Cullen, who has missed three games with a lower body injury, is expected to be evaluated by Wild doctors Monday. The hope is he’s closing in on a return.