The Devils have a lot of their future locked into place as it stands with a few other big long-term decisions that need to be made with some of their RFAs this summer. They also have a lot of things to figure out on the margins though, perhaps chief among them deciding which veteran forwards they’d like to keep around and which ones they are willing to let walk this summer. Today we take a look at one of the Devils acquisitions from the past summer who is now heading to unrestricted free agengy: Erik Haula.
Who is Erik Haula?
The shortest description of Erik Haula these days is “journeyman middle-six forward.” Haula recently turned 32 years old and has been bouncing around the league for the past several seasons as he has been good enough to be sought after, but not so good that anyone was willing to take a leap on a long-term contract for him. Haula was originally with the Minnesota Wild organization, which drafted him in the seventh round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Haula, a Finn who came over to North America to play US prep hockey in his draft year, went the NCAA route after being drafted, playing a season in the USHL and then three seasons at the University of Minnesota. He was a standout for the Golden Gophers, leading the team in scoring in his sophomore and junior seasons and helping them to a Frozen Four in his sophomore season. After his junior season, he’d sign his ELC with Minnesota and make his way to the NHL the following season.
Haula didn’t have to travel very far from his college home to the professional one, as the Wild are stationed in the Twin Cities and the Xcel Energy Center is just a short 10-15 minute drive from the place where the University of Minnesota play their home games. Haula would play the next four seasons with the Wild, rounding into a solid, if unspectacular, bottom-six forward for the franchise. His run in the greater Twin Cities area, which stretched pretty much back to his arrival in North America at Shattuck St. Mary’s nine years earlier, would come to a close with the 2017 Vegas expansion draft though.
Haula was moved as part of a trade with Vegas that sent Alex Tuch to Vegas in exchange for the Golden Knights agreeing to select Haula in the expansion draft. After nearly a decade in the upper Midwest, mostly in/around the Twin Cities, Haula headed for the desert. This ended up being one of the more boneheaded moves of that expansion draft. Haula would sign a three-year deal and break out with Vegas to the tune of 55 points (with Tuch also becoming a major contributor as a rookie), and be part of Vegas’s island of misfit toys’ miracle run to the finals in their very first season. Haula’s second season with Vegas would be ended abruptly by a bad leg injury early on and then his life as an NHL nomad would begin. Haula passed through Carolina, where he was traded to Florida in season after a breakdown in contract extension talks. He moved on to Nashville that summer after signing a one-year deal and then go to Boston the following season on a two-year deal. Across all these stops, Haula would check in at about 0.5 points/game as a solid depth piece who plays a sound two-way game. Boston would trade him to New Jersey last summer in exchange for Pavel Zacha, as the Devils sought to move on from the oft-maligned winger and bring in some versatile veteran help in the form of Haula.
What has Haula Done as a Devil?
It’s been just one season with the Devils so far for Haula, but it was certainly an interesting one, both for the veteran forward and the team. In the aggregate, it was a generally solid season for Haula, checking in with 41 points in 80 games, playing a defensively responsible brand of hockey, and offering the Devils the kind of stable veteran depth they needed in the midst of a lot of youth throughout the roster. In the end, the Devils got what they were hoping for out of the trade, which was a player they felt like they could rely on. It wasn’t necessarily smooth sailing the whole year for Haula, though.
Through the first few months of the season, Haula struggled mightily to put the puck in the net. He had just two goals scored by the time New Year’s Day rolled around, despite Haula spending a majority of his time playing with Jack Hughes, and while few people were missing Zacha around these parts, there was much lamentation that Haula was just a new face on a recurring problem the Devils had had for many years with guys failing to finish. The thing was, Haula wasn’t really playing poorly, necessarily, he just could not buy a goal for whatever reason. This would be one thing if Haula was toiling in the bottom six, but it irked people that he was riding shotgun with Hughes and biffing all of his chances to score.
The Hughes line certainly did not suffer with Haula’s presence, as the on-ice goal and xG numbers were stellar, but it made a certain amount of sense that you can’t plant a guy who cannot buy a goal next to your best playmaker (luckily, Jack has no issue finishing his own opportunities these days). The Devils would finally break up the line and start moving Haula around, and eventually, as he had in the season prior, Haula would find his touch and start potting goals regularly. After putting up a grimace-inducing five goals over the season’s first five months, Haula would score nine in March and April, meaning two-thirds of his goals came in the final 18 games of the season. Amazingly, Haula did not score a goal that was assisted by Jack Hughes until game 82 of the regular season. He ended up having a goal assisted by Luke Hughes before he had one assisted by Jack. Hockey is a funny sport sometimes.
The thing was, even during the scoring drought, Haula was doing a lot of the things the Devils wanted from him, including providing defensive support, winning faceoffs, and playing big minutes on the PK. He was also chipping in with a decent amount of primary assists, so that he wasn’t completely absent from the offense. Devils fans grumbles a lot but most seemed to understand that he was mostly just snakebitten. As he heated up to close the season, all of the other good that he was doing helped burnish his profile as a guy who could actually play a critical role.
As the postseason arrived, he’d play a critical role indeed. Haula was red hot, coming off a five-goal March and four goals in the handful of game in April. He would carry that form right into the Devils opening-round series against the Rangers, where he would lead the entire team in goals and points. Haula helped buoy a team that looked out of sorts to start the series and had a huge three-point game five in a pivotal spot for the team. Haula would add a late dagger goal to make it 3-0 in game seven to cap off a signature series for the veteran Finn.
The heater was not destined to last, though—for Haula or the Devils—as they would exit to the Hurricanes in five-games with Haula putting up zero points in that second-round tilt. Despite some bad blood seeming to exist with his former team in Raleigh, Haula ended up being a non-factor in the series and getting pounded in on-ice goals 0-7 (0-6 at 5v5). Erik Haula is a land of contrasts, it turns out.
What Will Haula Do Going Forward?
Haula is now 32 years old, so he probably doesn’t have a deep well of untapped potential to speak of at this point, but he is clearly a capable forward at both ends of the ice, even if the offense comes a bit inconsistently. Besides his big knee injury in his second season in Vegas, Haula has a pretty decent track record when it comes to staying healthy, so even moving into his thirties, he seems good to play at least 90% of the games on the schedule most of the time. With 78 and 80 games played the past couple of years, he looks like a reliable option.
As far as his general quality of play, I don’t know that there were many pronounced signs of decline this year that would raise red flags. Haula isn’t necessarily going to wow with flashy skating but he can move well. Despite his near-comical inability to finish feeds from Jack Hughes over the first 81 games of the season, it’s not like Haula ever seemed incapable of keeping up. And given that this ended up being one of Haula’s worst shooting seasons, even with the late hot streak (8.5% shooting against a career average of almost 12%), I think we could reasonably even expect a minor uptick in goals. I have my doubts he’s ever getting to the 29 he scored his first year in Vegas again, but if he gets some better puck luck I don’t think 20 goals is outlandish, given the general quality of his play this past season. A guy who can pot 15-20 while doing a bunch of the other things you need is a good guy to have around.
Who are Haula’s Comparables and What is His Value?
This is always the million dollar question for an NHLer moving toward their mid-thirties. Lots of bad money has been thrown after players in this spot and it’s important for teams to be cautious with their offers, particularly when it comes to years. Teams have seemingly gotten wise to not overcommitting on term just to save a few short term cap dollars in this position and I don’t think Tom Fitzgerald is likely to fall into a trap like that here. Given how Haula has been rattling around the league for six years, I get the sense that he wants to stay put somewhere for longer than 10 months, so he’ll probably be angling for multiple years in a deal.
Teams, save for whatever the hell the Flyers were doing with that Nick Deslauriers contract last summer and Lou Lamoriello’s with the Islanders’ fourth liners, have been pretty limited in the kind of term they are handing out to guys in their early thirties. Some decent comparables for Haula might be Nick Bonino, who had a little less scoring punch, but got 2 years and around $2M AAV as a depth center in 2021, and Craig Smith, who had roughly the same career output as Haula and signed for 3 years, $3.1M AAV in 2020. Haula’s contract from two years ago with Boston (2 years, $2.375M AAV) is honestly a pretty good comparable still. Even with Haula two years older, he’s coming off of two better years than he was at that time. Realistically, I think somewhere in the 2-year $2.5-3M AAV range I think is what makes the most sense.
What Would I Do With Haula and What Do I Think the Devils Will Do?
I think Haula is a good guy to keep around, especially at the price tag he’s likely to command. Even if he’s looking for a modest raise up toward the $3M range, I don’t know that I would necessarily balk at it, provided the term is maxed out at two years. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the page that Tom Fitzgerald is on as well. Haula is probably desperately hoping to not move all of his crap again for the seventh time in seven years, and his postseason interviews gave the impression that he really wants to stick around, so I don’t think he’ll be playing too much hardball, other than at least probably wanting a second year on the deal. In the end, I think Haula is back in black and red next fall with a two-year deal with an AAV around $2.9M.
I think of all the UFAs heading into the summer in New Jersey, Haula might be the one I give the highest odds of being back here, come the fall. The way he came on at the end of the season erased some of the scoring worries, and the style of play he brings is something the Fitzgerald-run Devils definitely look for. Anything is possible and negotiations can always feature some curveballs but this one seems like it might be an easy one to keep everyone happy on.