Here's a complete list of things that went right for Erik Haula last season:
At the end of March 2014, Erik Haula took a hold of a bigger role with the Wild and ran with it. For the next 20 games (including playoffs), Haula was arguably the Wild's best player, scoring 14 points (7G-7A) and being impossible to contain with his speed. It was a performance that elicited praise from one of the elite players in the NHL. The question of whether Haula's emergence made a player like Mikko Koivu expendable was raised by even the most respected among Minnesota sports media.
Fast-forward to now, after a season where Haula spent time in Mike Yeo's doghouse for both his play and (reportedly) his conditioning. A season so unimpressive that the breakout performer of the 2014 postseason spent the majority of the playoffs in the press box. A season where Haula was barely able to match the production of that magical 20-game stretch in 2014, despite playing in 72 games.
The question now isn't whether Haula has made others expendable. It's whether he's done that to himself.
I don't think he has. I put Haula 10th on my personal rankings because I believe that he still has the chance to become a valuable contributor for the Wild.
Let's throw out the two outliers that we've seen (the 2014 playoffs and last season) and focus on what Haula was before bursting onto the scene. Haula was a 7th-round pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, and he forced his way into being considered a legitimate prospect. After a productive but unspectacular freshman year, Haula broke out as arguably the Gophers' best player, scoring a team-leading 100 points (36G-64A) in 80 games in his sophomore and junior seasons. On a team which also featured legitimate NHL prospects in Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau, and Haula was shining brightest of all.
Once Haula signed a pro contract, the real test began. After all, there've been lots of players (particularly ones under 6'0") who had success in the NCAA, but couldn't stand out as much when playing against older, faster, stronger AHL competition. But Haula played brilliantly, easily being the most dominant forward on a terrible Iowa Wild team. Playing in only 31 games, Haula scored 27 points, which put him into the Top-5 on the team in scoring. For context, former first-round pick Zack Phillips led the Baby Wild in scoring with 33 points that season, which he accumulated in 76 games.
Until last season, Haula was out-performing every expectation and scoring at every level he made it to. So what happened last year?
I think the simplest answer is injuries. Shortly after the Wild's elimination from the 2014 playoffs, Haula played in the World Championships, where Evgeni Malkin elbowed him in the head, breaking his jaw. Haula recovered in time to make the Wild out of training camp, but at the end of October, he suffered another head injury when John Moore's elbow concussed Haula.
If you consider those injuries, it makes sense that there would be an otherwise inexplicable decline in Haula's play. Wild fans may recall Jonas Brodin's sub-par play in the 13-14 season and remember that he went downhill directly after suffering a broken bone in his face. One must also remember that head injuries don't merely keep you from playing NHL games, oftentimes they will prevent a person from being able to work out without re-triggering concussion symptoms. It's not just possible, it's likely that Haula's head injuries were at the root of his conditioning issues.
So after an extreme high in 2014 and an extreme low in 2015, what's Haula's future with the Wild?
In my mind, Haula slots in as an ideal third-line player. We all know that he's fast. His speed is rivaled in the organization by only Zucker, and when he's on his game, his speed creates a myriad of issues for opponents. But beyond that, the offensive skills that Haula flashed in the 2014 postseason are no fluke. His shot isn't lauded in the same way as Niederreiter or Jason Zucker, but it's good enough to beat goalies one-on-one without a lot of deception. And while he hasn't had the amount of assists that his college history suggests, it may be partially due to the fact that Haula has spent most of his NHL career playing on third or fourth lines, away from prime scorers like Zach Parise or Jason Pominville.
Furthermore, Haula has proven to be capable as a defender, and was even a great penalty killer last season, limiting opposing scoring chances while generating a few of his own. It's not hard to imagine the Wild throwing out Haula with Zucker to create a penalty kill unit whose speed will strike fear into the hearts of power-play point men everywhere.
This year is a clean slate for Haula- he's had four months to put his injuries and confidence issues behind him and focus on getting ready for this season. If he can do that, there's no reason why he can't be a change-of-pace third-liner who can kill penalties with aplomb and contribute on the score sheet. My bet is Haula will make Hockey Wilderness look silly for ranking him 14th on our Top-25 Under-25.