Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.

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Wild signs Gophers leading scorer Erik Haula; Lineup update vs. Blue Jackets

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news, Wild pregame skate Updated: April 7, 2013 - 1:02 PM

As expected, the Wild has signed Gophers center Erik Haula, who led the U in scoring the past two seasons, to a two-year entry-level deal. He signed an amateur tryout and will immediately report to Houston, where he is eligible to play in the Calder Cup playoffs.

He is expected to make his debut Wednesday against Oklahoma City.

Haula's contract is the max for a 2009 pick, I understand, with max A bonuses. Not bad for a 2009 seventh-rounder.

"My dream has always been to have a chance to play in the big leagues and this is the start," Haula said by phone after flying to Houston. "I’ve worked hard for it and I’m really excited to get started with a great organization."

Here is a feature I wrote on Haula, the Finnesotan, in November.

The product of Shattuck-St. Mary's recorded Minnesota's first 50-point season since 2005-06. He hit the 100-point plateau this past season and ranks 49th on the Gophers' all-time list.

He was the first Gopher since Ryan Potulny (2003-06) to finish his collegiate career with an average of more than a point a game.

"It was tough to leave," Haula said. "Being with the same guys for three years, it’s not easy to leave. 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 and I was happy to get the support from my coaches and teammates."

Haula said he knows he has to learn to play against men and he hopes to take everything in to set himself up for training camp next year. He said he talked to buddy and fellow Finn Mikael Granlund about coming to Houston the other day and the next day he was called up by the Wild.

Haula, 22, ranked second in the NCAA in assists (35) and tied for fourth in scoring (51 points) and was named to the 2012-13 All-WCHA Second Team and the All-WCHA Academic Team. Haula led Minnesota and ranked ninth in the nation in scoring with 49 points (20-29=49) in 43 games in 2011-12 to help the Gophers advance to the NCAA Frozen Four. He tallied 24 points (6-18=24) in 34 games during his freshman season and ranked tied for first on the team in assists and third in scoring.

The Wild, now four points up on surging and ninth-place Phoenix, has a huge game tonight against Columbus. Marian Gaborik will make his home debut. Brandon Dubinsky and Nikita Nikitin are game-time decisions for the Blue Jackets.

Gaborik said in New York, "One team wants you, one team maybe tries to go in a different direction. I told myself this was a new, fresh start, new challenge. Young team, a lot of potential for the future, so I'm glad I made the decision."

The Blue Jackets, 11-3-5 in their past 19 and 9-0-3 in their past 12 at home, have been running hot. The Wild has not and badly needs a victory to stop the bleeding, or things will get real tense.

"They're a desperate team right now, too, based on where they sit in the standings and just kind of the way it's gone for them lately," former Wild coach Todd Richards said. "They were a hot team and have lost some games here in a row, so you know they're going to be ready to go."

Richard said the special feelings of playing the Wild have "worn off."

Niklas Backstrom vs. redhot Sergei Bobrovsky and his gigantic pads tonight.

For the Wild, veteran defenseman Tom Gilbert, whose play has dipped like a few defensemen, will be scratched for what he says is the first time in his career. He says he has to get back to simplicity.

Coach Mike Yeo said, "Hopefully this is something that spurs him to get it back. A lot of it is mental. I don't think we have to get too much into it. I'm not saying that he's been awful or he's the reason that we lost three games, but I think it was time to make a change. Hopefully this helps him get back on track."

Gilbert is a minus-13, tied for 269th out of 275 NHL defensemen, and plainly has been playing badly.

I know fans are clamoring for Clayton Stoner to be scratched, but my sense is Yeo does not feel comfortable giving Justin Falk, Nate Prosser or Brett Clark top-4 minutes. And that is simply the decidling factor. If Stoner sits, somebody has to go into that slot.

Plain, simple. I don't know a better way to explain it. I get your frustration. Stoner has struggled bigtime lately. But this is one of those occasions where the Wild needs to work with him and badly needs for him to improve his play. Taking him out is not simple if you don't have somebody to take that top-4 spot.

Clark sits tonight, too. Falk and Prosser are in.

Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville

P-M Bouchard-Mikael Granlund-Devin Setoguchi

Cal Clutterbuck-Kyle Brodziak-Charlie Coyle

Mike Rupp-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell

The Wild hopes to get veteran Matt Cullen back soon. He is expected to see the doctor tomorrow, but since he hasn't practiced in awhile, we'll see how soon he can get back in the lineup even if he's cleared.

I am not as confident that we'll be seeing Dany Heatley any time soon.

By the way, I will be hosting a live chat on startribune.com on Monday at 2 p.m. CT.

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