This season, Wild prospect Erik Haula and his University of Minnesota teammates have expectations as high as Felix Baumgartner’s Stratos Jump. The Pori, Finland native led the Gophers in scoring last year (20-29=49) and the squad returns a glut of offensive power, including Florida Panthers prospects Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau (brother of the Houston Aeros’ Chad Rau), and Nashville Predators property Zach Budish.
That offensive punch, along with a solid blue line, had the Gophers tied for first with Boston College in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine preseason poll, and ranked second to BC in the USCHO.com preseason poll.
After the opening weekend of college hockey, Haula and company look poised to live up to the hype. In a two-game sweep against Michigan State, the Wild prospect registered two goals and an assist, as Minnesota outscored the Spartans 12-2. The performance vaulted the Gophers to the top of both the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine and USCHO.com polls.
Wild Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr was at Friday’s game and is impressed in the way the forward has developed while at Minnesota.
“He’s matured into a leadership roll on the team,” Flahr said. “He’s a smart player with good offensive instincts and he along with the group of skilled forwards, they have should have a productive season.”
With all the skill the Gophers have up front, power play time is something that has to be managed amongst the forwards. To add even more of a punch on the top unit, Head Coach Don Lucia has Haula playing the point.
“He’s comfortable there; he sees the ice well,” Flahr noted. “That’s a pretty dynamic power play for the college level.”
One aspect of Haula’s game that needed improvement was his overall strength. At this summer’s Wild Development Camp, the 5-foot-11 forward weighed in at 189 pounds, up nearly 20 pounds from his listed weight after being drafted by the Wild in the seventh round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
“The biggest thing that he needed to improve on since his freshman year is his strength,” Flahr said. “You can tell he’s significantly stronger than he was. Not only does it help his skating, but being able to win battles and keep the puck in traffic.”
The work in the weight room has paid off immediately, as both of his goals came on power-forward-type moves. On Friday, Haula had the puck in the corner and made a quick cutback, leaving the Michigan State defender lunging. The left-handed shot then drove the puck to the net, fired an initial shot, and then banged home his rebound in traffic. Check out the goal, here.
On Saturday night, it didn’t take long for the 21-year-old to get the Gophers on the board. One minute and 25 seconds into the game, the Junior winger received a pass and cut across the blue line with speed. He fired a shot that was blocked by the Spartan defender blocked, which apparently the forward didn’t appreciate. With the puck between the defender’s legs, Haula shoveled the defenseman, the puck and the Spartan goaltender into the back of the net for a goal. It was a Feat of Strength that would’ve made Frank Costanza proud at Festivus.
The Gophers have stated that their goal this season is to win a NCAA National Championship. In the school’s final season in the WCHA (they jump to the Big Ten conference next season), Haula and Minnesota would like to cap their run and live up to expectations by adding a Broadmoor Trophy and MacNaughton Cup to the school’s trophy case, as well.