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Updated: July 13th, 2013 7:17pm
In his post-Gophers career, Erik Haula trying to find role with Wild

In his post-Gophers career, Erik Haula trying to find role with Wild

by Jess Myers
1500ESPN.com
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In some ways, little has changed for Erik Haula since the stunningly abrupt end to the Gophers' hockey season back in March, at a nearly empty rink in western Michigan.

The toothy smile and slightly spiky hair are still there, and he still lives near the "U" campus with several other members of the 2012-13 Gophers. But the slanted maroon 'M' on his shirt is gone, and paychecks have replaced textbooks in Haula's life.

On Thursday, after a three-on-three scrimmage at Xcel Energy Center, Haula wore the logo of a now-defunct minor league hockey team -- the Houston Aeros, for whom he played six games in the spring. He flashed that familiar grin as he talked about fitting in and trying to make an impression on his new bosses, the coaches of the Minnesota Wild.

Coming to Dinkytown from Finland, Halua made an immediate impression with Don Lucia's program. He was the top-scoring freshman his first year, and led the Gophers offensively as both a sophomore and junior. Drafted by the Wild way back in 2009, Haula could have held out and become a free agent.

Instead he decided to forgo his final year of college eligibility but stay in the State of Hockey. Haula signed with the Wild shortly after the Gophers season ended, with a 3-2 overtime loss to eventual national champion Yale on March 29 in the opener of the NCAA tourney in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"I'd say that it was an easy decision but it was really hard to leave," said Haula, who turned 22 a week before his college career ended.

He inked a two-year deal with the Wild worth $3.5 million in salary and incentives if he plays at the NHL level. While his only exposure to pro hockey so far has been in the Triple-A level of the NHL minors, Haula has watched recent collegians like Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle make the rapid and successful transition to the NHL game with the Wild, and he's cautiously got his sights set on having a locker in St. Paul this winter.

Caution is a key, as Haula has also watched his Finnish friend Mikael Granlund try to make the transition to the NHL over the past year. He has seen the struggles a world-class talent like Granlund has had adjusting to the bigger, faster opponents and an ice sheet that's significantly smaller than what Scandinavians are used to in international hockey, or Gophers may be used to after playing on at Mariucci Arena.

"I want to be ready when I do play," Haula said, eying the first week of September, when Wild players and prospects will again gather in St. Paul to sort out who is staying and who will start the season in Des Moines, with the new top farm club, the Iowa Wild. "Going into training camp, we'll see how far I am and see how ready I am."

Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr is a former college hockey player as well, having skated for four years at Princeton, and having watched Haula skate for the Gophers plenty over the last few winters, knows the challenge that lies ahead.

"Playing in Houston at the end (of last season) was huge for his development," Flahr said. "He's well aware of what he needs to work on, and he's come here with the right attitude. There are certain things you can get away with on the big (ice) sheet. Getting out of your own end, you have a lot more space to work with. Here the game's quicker, you make quicker decisions in smaller areas, but that's part of his strength too."

Haula envisions himself playing a "pass first" role with the Wild -- either in Minnesota or Iowa -- and his stats from the past college season back up that idea. Haula's 16 goals were second on the team behind the 21 notched by his friend and roommate Nick Bjugstad, who ended last season in the NHL with the Florida Panthers.

But Haula was far and away the Gophers assists leader with 35, and may be valued in a set-up role on the professional stage. The Wild place value in those skills, but stress the need for Haula to become more of a two-way player.

"He's a smart player with good hands and a quality shot," Flahr said. "Realistically though I think initially he's going to have to work on his overall game to establish himself in this league. Whether that's on the third or fourth line or whatever that may be, in doing that he's going to have to learn the defensive side of the game, which he's capable of doing."

For now Haula is in a somewhat familiar routine. He's living in Minneapolis with Bjugstad and two other ex-Gophers who signed contracts and left the program early at season's end, Nate Schmidt (Washington Captials) and Zach Budish (Nashville Predators), as well as Kyle Rau, who will be Lucia's top returning scorer next season as a junior.

"Everyone is in (development) camps right now, but being around guys in the same situation and being able to push each other is huge," Haula said.

The house, the roommates and the love of the game are the same for Haula. But in other important ways, everything has changed.

Jess Myers covers the Wild and college hockey for 1500ESPN.com. He is a member of the editorial advisory board for USA Hockey Magazine.
Email Jess | @JessRMyers
In this story: Mikael Granlund
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