WINNIPEG – Unless you spent the winter in Las Vegas, it’s hard to see Erik Haula in the shade of William Karlsson.
Karlsson’s sensational breakout season – he scored 43 goals on the Vegas Golden Knights’ first line after managing just six the year before on the Columbus Blue Jackets’ fourth line – perfectly represented the expansion team’s stunning first season.
Karlsson became a big deal around the National Hockey League, every beat writer’s early piece when other teams visited T-Mobile Arena.
But there were a lot of other great breakout stories in Vegas, and the next biggest was Haula’s.
Also a fourth-line player before he was plucked from the Minnesota Wild in the expansion draft last June, Haula quickly became the Knights’ second-line centre. He played mostly between veteran wingers James Neal and David Perron and smashed his NHL personal-bests with 29 goals and 55 points.
Last season in Minnesota, the 27-year-old Finn had 15 goals and 26 points. In four years with the Wild, Haula became a handy depth forward, a fast, tenacious guy who could kill penalties and check, and score a little while playing 12 or 13 minutes a night.
In Vegas, he averaged 17:22 of ice time and became one of the Knights’ go-to guys on offence.
Trailing 1-0 in games to the Winnipeg Jets, the Knights were counting on something more from Haula’s line in Game 2 on Monday night.
“We’ve got to get some more pucks to the net,” Haula said after the morning skate. “Our line had zero shots last game, so that’s not going to cut it. We know that. We’re going to be a lot better tonight.”
Just as the Stanley Cup playoffs, at least until now, haven’t exposed the Knights as the imposters many people thought, neither has Haula turned back into a pumpkin.
With three goals and six points in 10 playoff games, he is scoring at close to the same clip he did during the regular season. He has, however, just one goal in the past six games and his zero shots on net in Saturday’s 4-2 loss to the Jets was Haula’s first shooting shutout in 31 games since Feb. 21.
Linemates Neal and Perron each have seven points in the playoffs, although Perron, who hasn’t yet scored a goal, was absent from the morning skate on Monday.
“I got to know him really well this year,” Neal said of Haula. “I became good friends with him and worked really well with him on the ice. It’s been a fun combination. He’s underrated for how fast he is, his shot and his skill level. He’s a good player.”
Asked if he thinks Haula hasn’t received enough attention for what he has done, Neal said: “I think that’s almost every guy on team, really. How many guys on our team had career years? More than half. Turk (coach Gerard Gallant) gives guys the ability to play their game and do what’s made them successful to get to this point. Guys that got a chance, they ran with it and did the best they could.”
Haula, who went to high school and college in Minnesota, said he always believed he had more offensive ability than what he had the chance to show for the Wild.
“I like to think I’ve worked really hard for what I’ve gotten,” Haula said. “The goal was to get that (offensive) opportunity at some point and see what I could do being a top-six guy. You envision it here and there and everybody likes to think they can be that. But to actually be able to prove it on the ice, that’s a different story. I wanted that opportunity and got it and it’s been fun.”
The Wild made Haula available to the Knights and gave them prospect Alex Tuch for a third-round pick in exchange for Vegas general manager George McPhee keeping his hands off Minnesota defenceman Matt Dumba and centre Erik Staal in the expansion draft. The Wild also chose to protect forward Charlie Coyle.
In his first full NHL season, the 22-year-old Tuch matched Coyle’s 37 points and projects as a top-six scorer.
Only the Florida Panthers, who with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith stocked two-thirds of Vegas’ first line, did more than the Wild to help the Knights.
Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher, fired three weeks ago after the Jets eliminated his team in five first-round playoff games, told Haula after last season that the player could be leaving the Wild.
“I respect that he was honest with me and kind of prepared me for that,” Haula said. “So I had the whole summer to go through that process. Once Vegas picked me, I started thinking that it was a new chapter in my career.
“I think we got the attention of a lot of people. I think it was one of those things like: What’s going on in Vegas? It’s been amazing. We didn’t have expectations going into the season, but the fans there have been amazing, the city’s amazing. I couldn’t have asked for a better place.”
Or a better opportunity.