Erik Haula and the Minnesota Wild are scheduled to head to arbitration on July 31. With just Haula left to sign, the Wild are sitting right around $2 million in cap space (assuming a roster constructed similar to this). Haula made $900K last year, and put up pretty underwhelming numbers across the board. He was very good on the penalty kill, but I would imagine contribution in that regard may be difficult to definitively quantify and valuate in an arbitration hearing; mostly due to the fact that the Wild as a whole were great on the kill, so it's difficult to parse the contributions of an individual player.
The Wild cannot ask for more than a 15% reduction in Haula's salary, and with Haula's down year, I would bet that their ask heading into arbitration is right at $765K. Haula's camp seems to have limited ammunition heading into this hearing and so I cannot imagine them asking much more than $1 million (though they likely will).
It's important to note that the Wild cannot just walk away from a salary awarded by the arbitrator because Haula will not meet the minimum salary for that option. Here's a great arbitration primer for those interested.
If Haula is brought back at a similar cap hit to last year, is his unrealized potential worth keeping him on the roster as the fourth line center? Should the Wild try and move Haula before the season, or attempt to get him through waivers to Iowa and explore other options at center?
The Wild should count on a bounce back year from Haula:
Much of the negativity towards Haula's play may just be that he is still suffering from over-inflated expectations due to an incredible performance in the 2013-14 playoffs with goals like this:
He may never reach that second line center potential we all assumed he had after those playoffs, but Haula is only 24, and the seventh round pick is likely still set to improve most areas of his game. He was able to effectively use his speed on the penalty kill last year resulting in the team only allowing seven shorthanded goals with him on the ice. Some of his paltry point total can be explained by poor shooting luck as he sported a 96.8 PDO. Surely that number will level off next year resulting in more visible production. Even if Haula does not vastly improve his game, he is still an offensively capable, penalty killing, bottom line center, and at his cost, that has value. It would be extremely disappointing for the Wild to have found an NHL caliber center in the seventh round and lose him for nothing through waivers.
It's also a real possibility that Haula's down year and conditioning issues can be explained by a concussion suffered at the World Championships, and if that is the case, it is definitely worth giving him another season to prove his true value and fulfill his potential. Bringing Haula back to fill the fourth line center roll is the easy choice, and if he doesn't pan out, the Wild can always pick up a capable center midseason. Anybody need a 2025 second round pick?
He had his chance, time to move on:
Over a full season last year, Haula's game showed little to no growth, and at 24 he has outgrown the "young and developing" tag. Most players are entering the prime of their career at his age, so it is simply unreasonable to expect Haula to make major improvements to his game at this juncture. While his PDO may have indicated he had some bad shooting luck last year, his possession numbers (-2.83 CF%Rel) were among the worst on the team. So even if the shooting percentages level off, it is unlikely to see much of an overall improvement in his game because of his inability to drive play in a positive way. He's a liability in the faceoff circle, winning just 45.4% of draws last season, down from 46.3% the year before. His contribution on the penalty kill was great, but the Wild have shown they can roll out a solid PK year after year no matter who is on the roster.
This team has a two or three year window to really challenge for the cup before the core ages out. Finding a way to reallocate Haula's cap space to a current UFA center is an easy way to immediately improve the team. And while losing a young-ish depth player on waivers is not ideal, icing the best team possible in the next two years should be the primary concern. Look at this list of UFA centers who are currently dangling without a team and how their numbers over the last two seasons compare to Haula's:
If any of these guys (maybe not Weiss) would accept a $1 million or less "show me" deal, the Wild's roster would improve. If the Wild want to stop tossing away second round picks on deadline acquisitions to fill in depth spots these are the kind of signings they need to make. Banking on players to improve season over season is an imprudent way to build a team. The reality is breakout seasons happen for maybe one or two players per team each season and the possibility of a down year is just as likely as a player improving. The Wild should not get hung up on developing bottom six forward talent because those kind of players are available for cheap in free agency year after year (hello Jordan Schroeder and Ryan Carter).
Using precious cap space to sign the best players available to fill roster spots is how a cap-strapped team pushing for a serious playoff run should be operating. It's a simple concept, but teams (and fans) often overvalue their players by relying too much on guys realizing their perceived potential when evaluating the roster for upcoming seasons. Even though it would be hard to move on from a home grown talent in Haula, the reality is that there are better players out there, and losing out on what potential he may have left is a small price to pay for this team to get better right now.