Omaha Lancers center Erik Haula is one of the best forwards in the USHL in 2009-10. A seventh-round pick of the Minnesota Wild in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Haula was third in USHL scoring as of Thankgsiving, with 10 goals and 18 assists in 18 games, placing him behind only fellow Lancers and linemate Matthew White and Des Moines rookie center T.J. Tynan and ahead of such notables eligible for the 2010 NHL Entry Draft as Tri-City's Jaden Schwartz and Chicago's Sahir Gill.
Oh, what are we talking about? Haula isn't one of the best forwards in the USHL in 2009-10 he is the best forward in the USHL in 2009-10.
Haula's poise with the puck is elite. He does a great job of carrying the puck rather than stickhandling in front of himself, which helps keep him in position to make a play or shoot the puck at nearly all times, and as a heads-up stickhandler he's able to continually assess the play and find open teammates. In fact, even if he gets tripped or checked and falls, he keeps his cool, re-collects the puck, and makes a play as if nothing happened. This puck poise and the fact he makes hard, crisp, accurate passes makes Haula one of the top playmakers in the USHL. He's also dangerous as a shooter, as every shot in his arsenal is hard, he has a smooth and quick release, and he puts himself in a position to score and will do "the hard" to make it happen.
It doesn't hurt that the Finn is also extremely fast. Haula is a smooth skater with a powerful stride, excellent acceleration and separation, and the top speed to beat even the best USHL defensemen wide. If sheer speed can't do the trick, he's also quite agile, displaying it in his ability to weave through traffic while sporting his smooth stickhandling.
But it's not the offensive awareness, skating, and stick skills that truly separate Haula, it's his defensive and physical game. He uses his speed to generate pressure on the forecheck and the backcheck and his lower body and core strength to thrust into his hits and level opponents. He may not be big at just under six-foot and at 175 pounds, but the opponent wouldn't know after getting smashed along the boards or leveled in open ice.
This extremely well-rounded game is why Haula receives ice time in every situation. Other forwards in the USHL do have Haula's speed, or his skating, or his playmaking, or his defensive awareness, and/or his physical game, but none bring it all to the table to the degree Haula does, and he's a rookie in the league.
McKeen's correspondent Kevin Wey had the opportunity to talk with the humble Erik Haula in mid-November and discussed his successful transition to the USHL, his coming to North America from Finland to play for Shattuck St. Mary's in 2008-09, his selection by the Minnesota Wild, his commitment to the college route, a few teammates he's had over the years, and a couple of his favorite players, one of whom is an NHLer he's very similar to.
McKeen's: Well, your team is off to a very good start this season, and you're off to a pretty good start yourself, second in team scoring and among the league leaders in scoring. With that level of performance, what have been the keys to your adjustment to the USHL and doing so well?
Haula: I think the biggest keys are that we have a great team and I'm getting great help from my teammates and the older guys, who are helping me get better every day in practice. I think that's the most important. So, a lot of credit goes to my teammates.
McKeen's: This might be the same answer, but what would you say have been the keys to the team having so much success?
Haula: I think we have a lot of leadership on our team and a lot of veterans on our team, so they kind of step up. We just have guys step up every night. It's great. So, if some line can't score, then some other line is going to score. We have a great team here, and I'm really happy to be here with this team.
McKeen's: You guys definitely have some line depth.
Haula: [Signals agreement]
McKeen's: All you have to do is look at who you had as healthy scratches tonight. It's like, "Whoa." For you, what have been the biggest adjustments to Tier I junior A hockey from prep hockey with Shattuck St. Mary's?
Haula: The game is faster and more physical. Skill-wise, there's not a big difference, but we play faster here. Every night there's going to be a challenge, a great challenge. You can't overlook any teams. So, you just have to go out there and put your best out there every night.
McKeen's: You played for Shattuck, but you're from Finland. Tell me how it was that you came to Shattuck from ?s?Pori in the first place?
Haula: I sat down with my family and my advisor and we decided that I would go overseas to play hockey. We looked at both Canada and USA, and then we decided that I'd get a good school background and go to college and my advisor came up with the name Shattuck St. Mary's, because they had some players that they represent. So, that kind of helped out. I went for my visit and liked it and just went out there.
McKeen's: If I might ask, who is your advisor?
Haula: My advisor is CAA.
McKeen's: Anyone particular who is your contact?
Haula: My contact here in the States, I would say, is Judd Moldaver, and then in Europe, who actually is my head advisor, is Peter Werner.
McKeen's: How did prep hockey at Shattuck compare to the Finnish junior A hockey that you'd played?
Haula: I think coach Ward (pauses), I was really happy with the coaching down at Shattuck and how they developed individual players and give icetime to everybody and put the individual on the next step and the next level. I think that was the biggest difference, was coaching.
McKeen's: And the difference between USHL junior hockey and Finnish juniors?
Haula: I would say, when I played in Finland, I played with guys four years older, they were 1987-born. When I look back now, when we went to the championship game, both teams together, I think we'd have three-fourths now playing pro in Finland. So, it was kind of unique, to look back at those times. It was a great experience there, too, but I just felt like it was time for me to go and that that would help me more as a player.
McKeen's: It seems like it is turning out well so far. What areas of your game do you feel improved the most last year with Shattuck?
Haula: At Shattuck, I would just say overall. I wouldn't say just one thing, but overall as a player, the skating, the little things. Now, I think, this year, I've improved my scoring a lot from last year and putting pucks in the net more than I did last year. Like I said, most of the credit goes to my teammates and linemates, Matt White. Mostly Matt White, I would say. We have a great connection. I love to play with that kid.
McKeen's: Matt's definitely (pauses), I'm trying to remember now if this is his third your or possible fourth?
Haula: It's his third year.
McKeen's: ? but he's definitely going to put up some good numbers this year.
Haula: Oh, yeah. It's great to be with him. On the ice and off the ice, he's just an overall great guy.
McKeen's: For those who haven't been able to see you play, what would you say is your style of game and the strengths of your game?
Haula: I would say in the offensive zone and playmaking and scoring. Last year, I was more of a playmaker, and I like to play high-tempo and high-speed. This year, I think I've improved in both and become more of a scorer. I don't actually know, though, I just think. It's going well right now. We're all doing pretty good. I'm just having a lot of fun out there and trying to do my best every night.
McKeen's: Last year, you played with Alexander Fallstrom, who you were just behind in scoring at Shattuck last year and who is a pretty good prospect himself. So, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask what your impressions of him are, or were.
Haula: I know Fallstrom really good, because we were roommates also, at Shattuck. So, we spent, obviously, a lot of time together. On the ice, it was great. We had a great connection, also, like me and "Whitey" do right now. But, it was usually me making the play and him scoring. But, it was a great experience to play with him. I like him a lot, he's a really good friend of mine. I hope he's doing good at Harvard right now.
McKeen's: You guys might run into each other every now and again with the Wild.
Haula: Actually, he got traded?
McKeen's: Oh, that's right!
Haula: ? from the Wild to Boston.
McKeen's: You're right, you're right. I forgot all about that. He was in the Kobasew trade.
Haula: But, we keep in touch here and there, call and chat for a little bit and ask how things are going.
McKeen's: With the draft, you were a seventh-round pick, what were your expectations heading into the draft and what was your reaction to being drafted by the Wild?
Haula: I wasn't (pauses), I don't what I expected from the draft, actually. I went out there, I hoped that I'd get picked earlier than I did. I had to wait longer than most of the guys, but that's life. Stuff happens. I'm glad I got drafted by the Wild. Obviously, it's a great thing, because I'm going to the University of Minnesota, so everything's going to be close. So, I'm happy they picked me and I hope they made the right decision.
McKeen's: It does sort of seem like Minnesota is becoming your home away from home.
Haula: That's what it seems like right now.
McKeen's: As a draft pick of the Wild, you attended their development camp. So, tell me about some of the things they worked with you guys on, on the ice and some of the tips that you found most helpful.
Haula: I think, overall, the camp wasn't physically that tough. I think the point of it was to have fun and just to get to know the guys and get to know the staff and to get to know what it was all about. It was a great experience. I had a lot of fun. Definitely will remember it for a long time.
McKeen's: I've talked with other guys who have been drafted and attended developmental camps and talked with them about the off-ice stuff, so what was some of the off-ice stuff that the Wild had you do? Seminars and different things?
Haula: Well, off ice, I think had a lot of off-ice stuff. We did fighting instruction, we went to a baseball game, we did cooking, like a cook tournament kind of contest. It was just, overall, a lot of fun. Then, off the ice in practice, we had some kind of stretching and physical thing before practice every time. Then, we had, usually, two practices. The first one was only skating and working on your skating, and the second practice was more of a skill practice, drills and stuff like that.
McKeen's: With the cooking tournament, how did they judge that and who ended up winning?
Haula: Basically, they put guys in different teams, then after we were done, we ate food and then we voted who cooked the favorite. Obviously dessert won.
McKeen's: (Laughs) I'm not certain if that's going to help. You guys will end up in the AHL cooking your own meals someday and will cook a mean dessert, meanwhile your profile reflects that you're a little overweight.
Haula: Yeah. The greatest thing about it was that it was different, something different, and having fun with the guys.
McKeen's: At that camp, who were some of your fellow Minnesota prospects, or Minnesota Wild prospects I guess I should say, that impressed you the most and why?
Haula: I think Fallstrom did really good. There were a lot of older guys on the team. We picked up two really good goalies. Then, the first-round pick, Nick Leddy, I know personally and really well, I'm going to go with him next year to the University. I think he's a great player, and I'm pretty sure he's going to help Minnesota in the future. I don't know, I just went out there and had fun, I wasn't seeing that someone came up that much. We had a scrimmage game, like, the last day, which was also having fun.
McKeen's: What was it like skating with some of the pros, since there were some guys who had skated with Houston?
Haula:Colton Gillies was there, too, and he had 48 games or whatever (with the Wild). It was great to see him, because he had a lot of games in the NHL. And then, for the scrimmage, we had two coaches, Cal Clutterbuck and Brent Burns, so that was kind of unique, too. So it was overall, a great experience.
McKeen's: Cal's a cool player. I was able to watch him in the AHL, and he was fun to watch. I knew it was only a matter of time before he was, at least, an energy-line player in the NHL.
Haula: Oh yeah. He's a great guy, too, off the ice.
McKeen's: After the camp, what did the Wild tell you, both positive things and also some things they wanted you to focus on improving?
Haula: They didn't give you that much of anything, it was just, "Have fun" and stuff. But, we had, like, these tests, jumping and stretching and stuff, and they said my groin was a little too tight, so work with that a bit. But, they didn't really say too much about your game and things like that.
McKeen's: Interesting. That would be the kind of thing that the professionals the Wild have working with them could easily detect, though. We've touched on this a bit, how Minnesota has become your home away from home, committing to the Gophers. At what time did you decide that the college route was the way you wanted to go?
Haula: It was, basically, when I sat down with my family and we were thinking about it really deeply. I think my dad and my mom think it's really important to get a really good school education in case something happens to you, which you never know. But, I think I made the right decision. I think it's a great life decision to go to college and go to school and stuff. I think I made the right decision.
McKeen's: At what point did colleges start talking to you?
Haula: Right away when I kind of put the word out that I was going to go to Shattuck, that's when they decided to send e-mails and stuff.
McKeen's: That's how it goes with the top prospects who come from overseas. Once the word is out there, the schools are on you quick, especially if you've already played for Team Finland. Speaking of the Finnish national team, last year you guys won the bronze at the World Under-18 Championship, and you skated with Toni Rajala and Mikael Granlund. Tell me a bit about those two guys.
Haula: Great guys off the ice, great players. I know Toni really well. He's one of my really good friends. Granlund's doing really good in Finland right now, he's putting up some points in the pro league, and I'm really happy for him. I just hope he keeps it up. He's a really talented player. I wish him the best of luck. Hopefully he can stand out.
McKeen's: Yep, it's the ol' draft year for him.
Haula: Yeah. It's nothing you should think about too much.
McKeen's: No, that's right.
Haula: Just go out there and play?
McKeen's: ? and it'll take care of itself.
Haula: Yeah, absolutely.
McKeen's: Going back to your youth, when did you first start playing hockey and how did you get that start?
Haula: I started playing hockey when I was, like, three years old. My mom was a figure skater and a speed skater. So, she taught me how to skate, mostly. But, my dad has a lot of stuff to do with sports and he loves sports. A big "thank you" goes to my parents, because they were the ones putting me out there and started a great sport for me. So, I'm very grateful to them for that.
McKeen's: Being taught by a speed skater that gives you a bit of an edge, because nowadays there are some NHL teams bringing in speed skaters as skating coaches to help make sure that people's strides aren't so choppy, that they have better extension, and just a lot more efficient. Lastly, who were some of your favorite players growing up and why, and maybe who are some players you'd like to equate to today?
Haula: I would say Teemu Selanne was my favorite player when I was really young. Obviously, he scored a lot of goals in the NHL, so, when I was a little kid, that was cool. But, now that I understand a little bit more about the game, I would say Valtteri Filppula is a player that I think I play a little bit like. Zetterberg has always been a player that I admire.
McKeen's: It is interesting to hear you say Valtteri Filpulla. I was able to see him play in Grand Rapids before he played for Detroit and the first time I saw him I was, "Man, this guy is good."
McKeen's: I loved his skating stride and his two-way game. If I remember right, right now, he's injured, unfortunately.
McKeen's: He's a very good guy to model one's self after. He's your prototypical Finnish player. You guys always play strong two-way hockey, are skilled, just solid all-around hockey players.
Haula: I think he's a player you can put in every role?
McKeen's: Yep (signaling complete agreement)
Haula: ? and he does his job really well. So, I like him, personally.