Erik Haula was close. George McPhee gave the timetable of seven to 10 days before the Vegas Golden Knights center was cleared to practice with the team for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Then Cody Eakin got called for a five-minute major and the rest is history.
So we don’t have a clue how Haula would have looked after five months away from the ice after sustaining a gruesome knee injury — in which the doctor that performed the surgery had done it only one other time — nor how much he would’ve helped the Golden Knights in the playoffs should they have made another run toward the Cup Final.
But what of Haula’s role next season?
Amidst Vegas’ salary cap conundrum and questions surrounding who stays or goes, Haula might be the under-the-radar question mark until things get resolved. He’s in a contract year making $2.75 million. Two seasons ago, that was looking like a bargain, scoring a career-high 29 goals en route to a 55-point season.
But this knee injury, whatever in the actual hell it was, raises some questions; primarily if Haula can replicate his Year 1 success where his likely fit in Year 3 will be as a bottom-six player. That’s all pending on how the summer drama that is William Karlsson’s restricted free agency pans out, but it’s safe to assume that Haula will be a third-line forward in some capacity next season.
There are a couple of caveats to that. First, does Haula accept the fact that he would be a third-line forward next season? Haula said last September, two days after Golden Knights acquired Max Pacioretty in the trade with Montreal, that despite that and the addition of Paul Stastny, Haula saw himself as a top-six forward and nothing less. At the time, there was that logjam between Haula and Alex Tuch for whomever would get that final spot.
This time, it’s different. Could Haula accept such a role knowing who he would be playing with? Tuch is likely going to be on that third line as well, barring anything drastic. Haula centering a line with Tuch and Nikita Gusev next season might not be the worst outcome. Vegas’ third line was their worst last season, no matter how many combinations they could try to compile together. That third line needs scorers across the board, and while Cody Eakin is fresh off a career season in 2019, the Golden Knights would benefit from more scoring punch in that bottom six. Haula would be a beneficiary of that with the possibility of a payday in 2020.
The knee injury is the wild card, though. It’s tough to read what version of Haula will the Golden Knights get next season. Training camp will be the first instance Haula ramps up skating with his teammates since last November. Preseason will be his first game action in 10 months. It’s not the question of can Haula play. Can he be the same player? The Golden Knights are not in the position to be asking questions and be in wait-and-see mode. They have got to know quickly if Haula can be anything close to his 2018 self. If not, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see the Golden Knights move Haula before the season starts. The pitch wouldn’t be that difficult: Vegas feels they have enough depth at center to plug someone on the third line, here’s a 29-goal scorer that’s on an expiring and could be helpful to your team.
“I know I tried everything I could to get back,” Haula said during clean-out day. “It’s been tough being out. I was looking forward to playing this year, and I wish I could’ve played. Now it’s focusing on next year.”
Had Haula triumphantly returned during the playoffs, there’s no denying he would’ve been a gamechanger for Vegas. Not many teams, perhaps with the exception of the newly-crowned champion Blues, could say they would’ve had the depth Vegas possessed going deep into May and June. But since that’s no longer a question, Vegas has pieces to take care of (Karlsson, Gusev, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, etc.) and there are cap casualties that could pop up along the way.
“The goal is to get back to 100 percent,” Haula said. “I go into camp every year thinking that I can try and be one of the best players on the team. I set the bar high for myself. I’m not going to stop now.”
Seeing how this turns out, Haula might be the second-most important name this Golden Knights offseason. General manager Kelly McCrimmon will have tough calls to make this summer, and Haula will be one near the top of the list.