The more things change for Wild prospect Erik Haula
, the more they stay the same.
Haula, a seventh round pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, has become somewhat of a veteran at the Wild's summer Development Camps. But there was something different about this year's camp for Haula – it was his first as a professional after signing an entry-level deal with Minnesota in April.
Although his hometown is listed as Pori, Finland, Haula has been in the State of Hockey for much of the last five years -- first as a player at Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault and then as a three-year star across town at the University of Minnesota.
After the Gophers were knocked out of the NCAA Tournament last March, the Haula-watch was on. A couple of weeks later, he signed his two-year contract and began his professional career with the Houston Aeros, scoring four points (1-3=4) in 11 games (including five Calder Cup Playoff contests) in the American Hockey League.
And while 11 games doesn't sound like much, that small taste of the pro game has made Haula hungry for a shot at cracking the Wild's lineup this fall when training camp begins in September.
"Obviously, I had never played pro hockey before, so it was nice to get started and I don't have to start from a clean sheet," Haula said. "It's nice to have some familiar faces. It makes you feel more comfortable.”
With veterans Matt Cullen, Cal Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard gone from the Wild locker room, Haula will be among a handful of young players the franchise has said will have a legitimate shot to stick with the big squad this fall.
"Every time you go to training camp, that what you have to feel like," Haula said. "You have to stay confident with yourself. There have been some big moves lately and there is definitely room for some younger guys.
"But like I said, one day at a time and we'll see where that takes me."
It's that day-at-a-time approach that made Haula one of the best collegiate players in the country during the past few seasons. During the 2011-12 season, Haula scored 20 goals and 29 assists (his 49 points was ninth-best in the country) and led the Gophers to the NCAA Frozen Four.
Following that season, he was named an assistant captain heading into his junior year. He responded with perhaps his best individual effort to date. His 35 assists ranked second best in the nation while his 51 points were fourth best.
"If you look at him from even two years ago, his physique, his physical maturity, he's grown a lot," Wild Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr said. "Obviously he's produced at the college level and been very good, and that experience in Houston for him was extremely valuable for him."
Flahr said that physical growth is one thing that has surprised him about Haula the last couple of years—complementing his hard work and dedication to getting bigger and stronger as one of the reasons why he could challenge for a spot with the Wild this season.
"His draft year, he was a small body," Flahr said. "He has made himself a pro.
"I think he has a chance to come in and challenge and certainly make a name for himself,” Flahr added. “He's made a good impression (at Wild Development Camp), he's worked hard and been a leader for the young guys. He's really shown well."
Improving his body as well as his all around game was important for Haula. Flahr cited numerous conversations with Gophers coach Don Lucia, where the bench boss raved about Haula's desire to be the very best. When the time came for the forward to decide whether to stay for his final season with the Gophers or move on to the pros, the decision was simple.
"[The Wild] expected me to take that step and wanted me to," Haula said. "They thought that I was ready and I think both parties agreed that it was time for me to go."
From skinny seventh round pick to the verge of the NHL, Haula says he isn't about to change his approach now.
"Stay confident and believe in yourself," Haula said. "Know the type of player you are and take it day-by-day."