Every year, fans of the Boston Bruins get the chance to vote for the player they deem to be the most deserving of the NESN 7th Player Award. This award is given annually to the player on the team who has performed well beyond expectations and can be considered an unsung hero.
To find the player on the Bruins who fits that criteria best, one wouldn’t have to look any further than the second-line center spot on the team. A role that was very much a question mark heading into the season due to the offseason departure of David Krejci, the Bruins needed a player to step up and make an impact.
Enter Erik Haula.
Haula, signed to a two-year, $4.75 million contract in the offseason, was expected to fill a depth role with the Bruins this season. In fact, the additions of Haula, Tomas Nosek and Nick Foligno during the offseason were all met with very lukewarm responses at best. Nosek and Foligno have generally proven to be depth pieces as expected, but Haula has settled in nicely on the Bruins’ second line between Taylor Hall and David Pastrnak. (He and Hall have still produced even in the absence of Pastrnak as of late, too).
Though Haula did have a season with 29 goals and 55 points in 76 games during the 2017-18 season, he’s never replicated that type of production in any season since and never even came close to that in any season prior. It’s not unfair to say that his production has been more in line with that of a bottom-six contributor as a whole which is fine given the contract he signed in July. While he’s been a solid player throughout his career, nobody could have possibly expected the impact he’d have on the Bruins who are just one point away from another 100-point season.
With 15 goals and 40 points in 73 games this season, Haula is officially having the second-best season of his career at 31 years old and has looked every bit the part of the second-line center the Bruins desperately needed early in the season. He ranks eighth on the Bruins in goals-scored and seventh on the team in points scored.
Haula Scoring Offense at a Top Six Rate
Though the numbers may look solid but not necessarily jump-off-the-screen good, it’s definitely important to acknowledge the rate at which Haula has produced points since being moved to his new role at the start of the 2022 calendar year.
In the first 25 games of the 2021-22 season, Haula would score just one goal and five points and even found himself as a healthy scratch. In the next 48 games, though, Haula would score 14 goals and 35 points. For reference, that would give him nearly 24 goals and 60 points over the course of an 82-game season. Those are legitimate top-six numbers and certainly fit the criteria of exceeding expectations and being an unsung hero of the team.
Related: Bruins’ Haula Hitting Offensive Stride
Outside of Haula, it’s hard to find anyone else who even remotely would fit the bill for this award so perfectly outside of perhaps Jeremy Swayman. Even then, Swayman had such a solid start to his career last season that there were high expectations coming into the 2021-22 season. This was still true despite the signing of Linus Ullmark in the offseason and the re-signing of Tuukka Rask in-season prior to his eventual retirement and hiring as a brand ambassador with the team.
Swayman has been good (despite a recent slump taking it’s toll on his peripherals), but Haula has ticked off every box as a player who has been way better than advertised or expected. Clearly the Bruins and general manager Don Sweeney had interest in Haula for a reason given his skillset, but nobody could have imagined he’d turn into his version of himself when given the opportunity.
It’s certainly been a match made in heaven for both sides as Haula has silenced the critics who insisted the Bruins needed to make a splash to address the center position. The 7th Player Award may not be as important a distinction as winning a Stanley Cup, but being acknowledged and recognized by the fanbase in Boston for what you contribute to the team certainly speaks volumes to players. Giving them a certain level of vindication and satisfaction is good, especially heading into the postseason when having high morale is undeniably important.
Haula may not be the most flashy name among centers in the NHL, but no team should be taking him lightly when they gameplan against him. He’s proven this season that he can be a major player on a very good team and the Bruins have let him flourish as a result.
With the postseason right around the corner, the Bruins are in a good spot with Patrice Bergeron and Haula as their one-two punch down the middle.