Looking back at the history of the Carolina Hurricanes, you’re not going to find an offseason acquisition that had more of an instant impact on the club than Erik Haula.
Acquired in a one-for-one deal for prospect Nicolas Roy with the Vegas Golden Knights, Haula’s proven in the early going of the 2019-20 season that his time off from his brutal knee injury last season hasn’t caused him to lose a step.
Fourteen games, eight goals. Pretty good.
Beyond his goal total, Haula’s overall play rivals any forward on the roster. While Haula is on the ice, the Hurricanes own 61.82% of the high-danger shot attempts, which ranks second among all Carolina skaters behind only Martin Necas - his linemate.
His track record goes back several seasons. His defensive impact is just as noticeable as his offensive impact. While contributing a notable increase of high-danger shot attempts in the slot, he excels at preventing those same chances in his own end of the ice.
Obviously, you know how impactful Haula has been. You don’t need me to provide stats and visual examples to prove that he’s good, but when what you see with your eyes gets backed up in an obvious way via statistics, that means you have a really good player. His numbers have been consistent with that of a quality top-six center for a while, and his increased role with the Golden Knights in their inaugural season gave him the opportunity to convert it to counting stats like goals and points.
Carolina made a very good decision over the summer to acquire the player. Vegas needed cap relief, and the Canes needed more production in their top-nine. It made a lot of sense, even if they were taking a risk on a player coming off of an ugly season-ending injury.
The trade looks like a home run - for now, at least.
Haula is on the final year of a three-year deal at an AAV of $2.75 million. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer, which means that he could very easily walk and test the open market in hopes of securing what will likely be the biggest payday of his NHL career at the age of 29.
Between now and then, the Hurricanes need to discern what they want to do with him and figure out how he fits into what they are building.
So, how does he fit?
Not so surprisingly, he fits very well - with his on-ice production, his fit on the team, and where the future lies with the organization.
While Carolina’s current young wave of forward talent has broken into the league - Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas are leading that movement - there is another wave that will come through the pipeline over the next three or four years.
Ryan Suzuki, Carolina’s first-round pick in 2019, has the upside of a top-nine centerman with high-end vision and puck-moving ability. That’s exciting, but he’s not particularly close to threatening for a roster spot. Meanwhile, in Charlotte, there are a couple of forward who possess the upside of becoming NHL players. That starts with Morgan Geekie, Eetu Luostarinen, Janne Kuokkanen, and Julien Gauthier.
While the Hurricanes would be thrilled to see any of those players develop into the player that Haula is now, that is far from a given and is still years in the making.
There is room for Haula in this Hurricanes lineup over the next few seasons without blocking a young forward from taking the next step.
That, alone, lines up well for a potential contract extension between the two sides, but there’s another big factor - Jordan Staal.
The team’s captain has been playing in a top-six role ever since he arrived in Carolina during the summer of 2012. He is now 31, with three more seasons at $6 million AAV after the 2019-20 campaign. Some decline is understandable from a guy who has never been an offensive powerhouse in a Hurricane uniform, so it’s important to have the center depth that allows him to take a reduced workload.
That’s an area where Haula could be crucial.
In addition to providing the offense, defense, faceoff acumen, and speed through the middle of the ice, Haula’s presence moving forward could extend Staal’s prime years by keeping him away from a dramatically high workload.
Haula plays both special teams very well, in addition to his work at 5-on-5. Keeping Haula does the team, as a whole, a favor as well as Jordan Staal.
A center core comprised of Sebastian Aho, Haula, Necas, Staal and Lucas Wallmark over the next three or four seasons is good enough, in conjunction with Carolina’s high-end blue line, to put you among the legitimate Stanley Cup contenders in the league.
In all likelihood, Haula won’t score 40 goals this season like his early rampage might suggest, but he can flirt with 30 and still provide all the things outlined above. He drives play, creates chances for his teammates, gets his own chances, and is as responsible of a two-way player that the Hurricanes currently have.
But after all, it’s a business, so the dollars and years have to make sense for the Hurricanes to keep Haula in the fold on a mid-term contract. His injury history might give Carolina leverage in negotiations, and again, the Hurricanes would be taking a leap of faith in re-upping a player who has had some concerning injuries in his past, but if he can play 70 games this season and be the consistent player that he has been for years now, that should lessen the concern on Carolina’s end.
He’s still on the right side of 30, so he should be able to give a team (preferably Carolina) a few more years of really good hockey. If the deal goes upwards of four years, I think it still makes sense, given where the Hurricanes are right now with their combination of aging NHL players and still-developing prospects.
Does three or four years at $4-5 million AAV make sense on Carolina’s books? It would line him up to become a UFA a season before, or the summer that, Staal’s contract expires. A new deal also assures the Canes two high-quality middle-six centers through the duration of Aho’s great young years as the first-line center. Then, if guys like Geekie or Suzuki develop quickly enough to earn consideration during that time, you have the option of shifting one of them to the wing to help fill out your top-nine.
Financially, the Canes have to be aware of Andrei Svechnikov and Necas’ second contracts. By that time, though, the $8.333 million of dead cap space taken up by Patrick Marleau and Alex Semin’s buyouts will be off the books, Joel Edmundson and Trevor van Riemsdyk won’t be taking up a combined $5.4 million, James Reimer’s deal worth $3.4 million AAV will be history, and the NHL’s salary cap should continue to rise.
That should give them more than enough money to take care of their two young players, give Dougie Hamilton his raise, and extend Haula.
Obviously, other moves will be made between now and then that will play into this, but mapping out a new deal for Haula right now seems doable, especially with the likes of Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce all under extremely team-friendly deals for what they bring to the table.
All of this is conjecture, but the sentiment here is clear - Erik Haula has been a great fit, and his track record tells us that he’s worth a significant contract. The only worry with him is his health. Can he stay healthy through an NHL season? If he can, there’s no more real questions about it. If not, then that’s going to be a potentially serious road block.
We’ll see how it plays out.