Erik Haula's rookie season didn't get off to the best of starts.
The 23-year-old spent much of the first half of this season in the American Hockey League and struggled through a 12-game scoring drought in December and January shortly after being called up by the Minnesota Wild.
He was a healthy scratch in consecutive games in mid-March, but since being reinserted into the lineup on March 22, Haula has slowly started finding his stride. Lately, he has been deployed in the middle and if he can provide some much-needed depth at center, the Wild might find enough chemistry up front to get past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Unfortunately for the Wild, it took an upper-body injury to playmaking center Mikael Granlund for Haula to find his game. Replacing his Finnish countryman on Minnesota's second line, Haula started seeing results, scoring in his first two games as a top-six center, including the winning goal in a 4-0 home win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 5.
Haula's strong two-play was a big reason for Minnesota playing well down the stretch and clinching a playoff berth. His defensive game improved as the season went on and the opportunity to play on the Wild's second line helped round out his overall game. Haula ranked among the top five among the Wild in plus/minus despite playing a fraction of the minutes of the teammates ranked ahead of him.
As he earned more ice time, Haula managed to serve the Wild in a number of ways, including on the penalty kill. But the area of his game that has seen the most improvement has been at the faceoff circle. Haula's success rate on faceoffs took off while Minnesota made its playoff push. His best faceoff performance may have come in the playoff-clinching 4-3 shootout win against the Boston Bruins on April 8.
Against one of the League's top faceoff teams, Haula won 10 of 14 faceoffs for an impressive 71.4-percent success rate. He won eight of 10 draws in the second and third periods and one faceoff win in the Boston zone led directly to Jason Pominville's tying goal in the first period. Making the play even more impressive was the fact Haula won that draw against Patrice Bergeron, arguably the League's top faceoff man.
Haula has already cultivated plenty of good favor in Minnesota. He played at Shattuck-St. Mary's School in Faribault, Minn., before starring at the University of Minnesota. If he can continue to make plays when Granlund returns from injury, the Wild could be a tough team to play against in the opening round of the playoffs.