Haula impresses at Wild development camp

Former Gophers player Erik Haula has a good chance to play his first NHL minutes next season for the Minnesota Wild.

Former Gopher forward Eric Haula skates during a development camp scrimmage with the Minnesota Wild on July 11, 2013, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. In April, Haula left the Gophers and signed a two year contract with the Wild.

Emily Dunker

Former Gopher forward Eric Haula skates during a development camp scrimmage with the Minnesota Wild on July 11, 2013, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. In April, Haula left the Gophers and signed a two year contract with the Wild.

Dane Mizutani

Erik Haula has never been the biggest player on the ice, but that has never stopped him.

A three-year forward with the Gophers from 2010-13, Haula has starred at every level of his career despite the occasional size disadvantage.

Now the 5-foot-11-inch, 170-pound forward will test his luck at hockey’s highest level.

Haula demonstrated his leadership skills at the Minnesota Wild Development Camp from July 9-14 at the Xcel Energy Center.

“I think he made a positive impression with the coaches and everybody involved at the camp,” said Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr, “and that’s a good thing for him going forward.”

Haula signed a two-year deal with the Wild in April — less than two weeks after the Gophers’ 2013 season abruptly ended with an upset loss to Yale. 

“I felt like I was ready to move on to the next level,” Haula said. “There was a lot of talk with the coaches and family and other people that help me out, and I feel like the common theme was everyone felt like I was ready for the next level.”

Haula has the skill set to compete in the NHL, but his lack of size will be a greater disadvantage than ever.

“He’s not the biggest body for the NHL, so he’s going to have to learn all the little things to excel in the early stages of his career,” Flahr said. “He’s never going to be 6-foot-4, 230 pounds. He’s aware of that.”

This was Haula’s third year at the camp, but he said he still has a lot to prove. A handful of notable prospects were in attendance, including last year’s first-round pick, Matt Dumba.

“I kind of know the drill, but I know I’m still competing with a lot of these guys for a spot,” Haula said.

The players are on the ice a lot at the camp, he said, but the experience isn’t predicated solely on that. He said off-ice activities include media training, leadership training, nutrition speeches and other training events.

Haula said this training is useful for his development as a player, but his main focus is continuing to improve his strength.

Flahr said he recognizes Haula’s worked to increase his size since his freshman year with the Gophers, and the growth is evident. He said Haula was a clear leader at the camp, and those intangible skills could outweigh his lack of size.

Haula was extremely vocal in the three-on-three scrimmage at the camp July 11 and led his group with a sense of passion reminiscent of last season with the Gophers.

“[Haula] looked like a quality NHL prospect at the camp and was right at the top of the list,” Flahr said. “He came in and worked hard and was a good example for the guys that were coming in for the first time.”

Haula said he knows he has a lot to learn to compete in the NHL, but his short stint with the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League this spring helped his growth.

Haula led the Gophers with 51 points last year, but said the AHL was a different beast.

“I know I have to get better because the jump from college to AHL is somewhat big and the jump to NHL is even bigger” Haula said.

Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher spoke highly of Haula two weeks ago on KFAN and entertained the idea that Haula could be a dark horse to win the second-line center spot on the Wild next season.

Flahr said position battles and roster spots will play themselves out in time but said he’s confident Haula has a future in the NHL.

“He’s coming here to make an impression with the coaches and earn a spot in the lineup,” Flahr said. “We have a number of young players vying for similar spots and similar roles, and he’s right in the mix there.”