Bruins Address Depth with Haula But Questions Linger

The Boston Bruins made a flurry of signings on the first day of free agency. In an effort to address their lack of depth scoring, they signed three forwards in Erik Haula, Nick Foligno, and Tomas Nosek. While none of them will be able to replace their now biggest hole on offense in the second-line center spot, all three may prove to be decent signings to address an issue that has been hanging over this team for years now. 

Now that we are a few weeks removed from the hecticness of free agency and the season is still a month and a half away, it’s the perfect time to delve deeper into who these new faces are. First up is Haula.

Road to the NHL

Haula was born on March 23, 1991, in Pori, Finland. In his teenage years, he played in the Finnish league, SM Liiga, which has produced numerous talented Finnish players over the years. He played on the U16, U18, and U20 teams for Ässãt. In addition, he made appearances on the Finnish national team on multiple occasions.

During his draft year, Haula made the transition to play in North America. He attended the prestigious boarding school Shattuck St. Mary’s, which boasts tremendous hockey alumni such as Sidney Crosby, Amanda Kessel, Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, the Lamoureux twins, and Nathan MacKinnon. In 53 games in his one season there, he had a total of 84 points, including 26 goals. 

In the 2009 Entry Level Draft, he was selected in the seventh round at 182nd overall by the Minnesota Wild. The concerns with him going into the draft and that have lingered over his NHL career is a lack of size and consistency. Scouts noted that he struggled when matched with bigger opponents, and while he has great speed and versatility, it isn’t always apparent every time he steps onto the ice.

After his draft, he stayed North America-bound, joining the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League (USHL) for a year. He then played for the University of Minnesota for three seasons. In his final season for Minnesota, Haula had 51 points in 37 games and made the conference second all-star team. 

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Haula made his NHL debut in the 2013-14 season. He played 46 games in the NHL that season, scoring six goals and nine assists for 15 total points. 

Breakthrough with Golden Knights

In the three subsequent seasons, Haula played with the Wild, as he played decently but wasn’t exactly impressive. After his debut season, he had 14 points in 72 games, 34 points in 76 games, and 26 points in 72 games. As much as the Finnish-born player had taken to Minnesota over the years of living there, as the seasons went by, it became clear things weren’t quite working out for him there. 

Jason Pominville
Photo: Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers

When thinking back to the Vegas Golden Knights Expansion Draft, there are a few teams that really stand out as “losers” of that draft. The first is the Florida Panthers, but the second has got to be the Wild. In an effort to guarantee that they could protect talent they deemed they couldn’t lose, then-general manager Chuck Fletcher made a deal that sent prospect Alex Tuch and a conditional third-round pick to Vegas for picking Haula.

History has not been kind to this decision as Tuch has turned into a nice, serviceable player for Vegas who scored 37 points in his rookie season and followed it up with a terrific 52 points in 74 games in 2018-19. 

Of course, the real loss for the Wild comes in Haula’s breakthrough in Vegas’ inaugural season. He had 29 goals and 55 points in 76 regular-season games and an additional nine points in 20 playoff games on the run to the Stanley Cup Final that no one saw coming. 

Goal scoring has never been the centerpiece of Haula’s game. He’s a great skater and capable of getting the puck across the ice with ease. He’s a playmaker. But, there was something in the water in Vegas that year, and he nearly doubled his previous career-high of 15 goals in an NHL season. 

Erik Haula #56, Vegas Golden Knights
Erik Haula #56, Vegas Golden Knights, October 13, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In addition to the points, his stats in other categories that season weren’t too shabby either. He had a faceoff win percentage of 50.5, something Bruins fans are going to want to pay attention to, given the current lack of center depth. He averaged 17:22 minutes of ice time a night, had 44 takeaways, and a shooting percentage of 16.6. Again, another stat to notice for fans of the team. Of guys who played more than 10 games for the Bruins’ this year, only Brad Marchand and Taylor Hall had a higher shooting percentage. Now, we don’t know if he’ll be the same player he was four years ago when he takes the ice in the black and gold this October, but it is still interesting to note what he was and could still be if healthy.

Injuries and Recent Struggles

After the high of the 2017-18 season, Haula came crashing back to Earth the following year. After a serious knee injury that required surgery, he only played 15 games for the Golden Knights. He still had two goals and five assists for seven points and a faceoff win percentage of 51.3. 

In the 2019 offseason, he was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes. It seemed like he was going to be a good fit, especially since they shared similarities with Vegas. They were, and still are, to some extent, an underdog team that took everyone by surprise when they made it to the Eastern Conference Final in 2019. They were a young team that played well as a unit without the “superstar” presence of some other teams in the NHL. 

It was ultimately a frustrating stint with Carolina for Haula. He re-aggravated his knee injury and missed games. He was also a healthy scratch, which severely limited his ice time. He played 41 games for the Hurricanes, scoring 12 goals and 22 total points. Given everything that was happening, it wasn’t an awful showing but clearly wasn’t what he or the team were hoping for.

Carolina Hurricanes Erik Haula
Former Carolina Hurricanes left wing Erik Haula (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Since he was in the final year of a three-year contract he signed in 2017, and it was becoming apparent Carolina was not a long-term home for him, Haula was flipped at the trade deadline to the Panthers as part of the Vincent Trocheck deal. Due to the Covid-19 suspension of the season, he only played seven regular-season games for them and had two assists. 

At the start of the 2020-21 season, Haula signed a one-year contract with the Nashville Predators. He played 51 games and had nine goals and 21 points.

What Should Bruins Fans Expect?

The Bruins signed Haula to a two-year deal with an average annual value (AAV) of $2.375 million on July 28, 2021. It’s not a bad deal when trying to address depth scoring, but given the news that came out only two days later that David Krejci has decided to play in the Czech Republic for at least the year, it paints the team’s free agency signings in a new light. There is no bonafide second-line center in any of these signings, leaving lots of question marks at the position.

Head coach Bruce Cassidy recently talked about the center depth situation. At the moment, the plan seems to be to move Charlie Coyle up to Krejci’s spot and slot in Haula at the center on the third line. As the Bruins’ depth down the middle, there are questions with him as well. What player will the team be getting? The guy who scored 29 goals in 2017-18 or the one who played for three teams in the last two seasons had struggled to find his footing?

Health will always be a factor when considering Haula too. At no point in his career has he played a full 82 game season. The Bruins don’t have a lot of options, and if he goes down for an extended period of time, things might get a little dicey. Or, a prospect like Jack Studnicka could come in and take the spot from him. But who knows if he’s ready either. This doesn’t even begin to tackle the question of if Coyle is suited for his expanded role or not. There are truly a lot of question marks when it comes to the center position right now.

But if he could stay healthy, a third line of him, Jake DeBrusk, and Karson Kuhlman may be sneaky good. All three players will have a bit of a chip on their shoulder coming into the season and are in “prove it” periods of their career. They won’t be the biggest or toughest line but play them in the right situations, and they may really make things happen. Both Haula and DeBrusk have gotten close to the 30 goal mark before in their career, and they may be able to reach that again.

Haula has consistently been a good depth piece throughout his NHL career. But now, without Krejci, the Bruins’ don’t just need him to be a depth piece, but to be at least close to the player he was in 2017-18. We’ll just have to wait for October to see what we’re getting.

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