At the University of Minnesota, high-scoring, hard-working forward Erik Haula got accustomed to running a power play. If he really wanted to last spring, Haula could have pulled one on the Wild, too.
Like former Gopher Blake Wheeler once did to Phoenix, like University of Wisconsin defenseman Justin Schultz did last year to Anaheim, Haula could have become a free agent.
It had been four years since the Wild chose Haula in the seventh round of the 2009 draft. That meant if Haula wanted to pick his team and arguably find a better fit or spot on a depth chart, all he had to do was refuse to sign with Minnesota.
“But he stayed loyal to the Wild,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “He could have done what Wheeler did, but the Wild’s been honest with him, he likes their track record with Finns and this is where he wants to be — Minnesota.”
Haula may have been born in Pori, Finland, but at this point, he’s basically a Minnesotan. He barely has a distinguishable Finnish accent, went to high school at Shattuck-St. Mary’s and he’s close to graduating from Minnesota. He also is spending the entire summer working out with Gophers strength and conditioning coach Cal Dietz to put himself in as good a position as possible once the Wild’s training camp opens Sept. 11.
“This feels like home,” said Haula, wearing a Twins baseball cap. “All my friends are here, and knowing this team so well, it would be a dream come true to put on a Wild jersey some day and play in front of my friends and [Gophers and Shattuck] coaches.”
At the U, not only does Haula get to work out with recently signed Wild defenseman Keith Ballard, several other NHLers (Thomas Vanek, Paul Martin, Jordan Leopold, Dustin Byfuglien, to name a few) train at Mariucci Arena weekly, if not daily.
“Plus, [Nick] Bjugstad and Nate [Schmidt], two guys I grew up with that also signed [with Florida and Washington], are there, too, so since we’re all basically in the same situation, I think it’s the best place for me,” Haula said. “We can push each other.”
Haula led the Gophers, the nation’s highest-scoring team, in scoring the past two seasons and is 49th on the school’s all-time list with 124 points in 114 games. He was the first Gopher since Ryan Potulny (2003-06) to average more than a point a game in his collegiate career.
After signing a two-year deal with the Wild in April, Haula got a brief taste of professional hockey by playing for the Houston Aeros. In six regular-season games, he recorded two assists. In five playoff games, he scored a goal and assist.
It gives him a comfort level heading into the fall, where Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said Haula shouldn’t be “completely dismissed” in terms of potential second-line center options.
With the loss of veteran Matt Cullen to free agency, Fletcher said the most logical options barring another acquisition are 21-year-olds Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund.
But at 22, Haula’s “play in training camp will dictate everything. He’s not an 18-year-old kid,” assistant GM Brent Flahr said. “Where he’s going to have to work is finding his niche. I don’t think he’s going to come in and run our power play from the back end like the U. We’re not expecting him to come in and score 80 points.
“But he’ll need to find his niche, whether it be the third or fourth line, or maybe higher, who knows, whether it be penalty kill or a skill line. He’ll get a good look.”
Haula says he has added 14 pounds to his 5-11 frame from last summer’s development camp. What will be watched over the next few years is whether the skill Haula brought to the college game translates to the pros.
“You can see that he’s thicker. He doesn’t look small in the rink anymore,” Lucia said. “He’s a very skilled player. He’s such a competitive kid, such an intelligent kid and has such a will to win. But normally the question becomes when kids move to the next level, are you physically strong enough and do you skate well enough?
“The NHL is the top of the pyramid. A lot of good players fizzle out. I think Erik can think the game at a very high level, I think he skates well. The biggest transition for him will be defending bigger, stronger players, like any young kid. I think that’ll be in some ways more of a transition than the offensive end.”