May 9, 2014; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota Wild forward Justin Fontaine (14) celebrates his goal with forward Erik Haula (56) during the first period against the Chicago Blackhawks in game four of the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Who Will Be This Year's Haula?

Last season was exciting on many levels. We saw lines work well together at the end of the season that were vital to the Wild making the postseason for the second year in a row. Injuries are a reason why we saw coach Mike Yeo shuffle the lines so often. Injuries for most teams can severely effect a team’s chances of making the postseason. Yeo, however, used injuries as an opportunity to bring up players from the Iowa Wild who were waiting at the heels to take the opportunity and run with it.

Erik Haula made his NHL debut on November 29th, 2013, and played well throughout the regular season and shined in the playoffs. Justin Fontaine was also an important piece during the regular season that not many saw coming when the season started. He netted 13 goals and 8 assists, including a hat trick against Phoenix on January 9th; the first Wild hat trick of the season.

The development of Haula during the regular season shaped him for a strong run in the playoffs where we saw a new dimension of his game shine. Haula is now one of the players I am most excited to see this next season. He became a favorite across all media, including Jeremy Roenick who shouted “Haula!” every opportunity he got!

Who will be this year’s dark horse? Mathew Dumba and Christian Folin are easy candidates, but it seems as though both will see a lot of playing time early in the season as they battle for one of the final spots on defense. Defenseman Guillaume Gelinas is a name that jumps out as a favorite to be a new impact player this season.  Gelinas, signed by the Wild on July 1st, played four years in the QMJHL and recorded 23 goals and 69 assists last season and was also awarded Emile Bouchard Trophy as the league’s best defenseman. Look for him to excel in Iowa and sneak into the roster later in the season.

Also look for Michael Keranen to make some noise this year. Signed on June 5th, Keranen recently played for Finland’s SM-Liiga. Keranen is fast on his skates and has the ability to create his own shot. In 52 games last season, Keranen posted 17 goals and 35 assists and was considered one of the league’s top players. Keranen could potentially make the Wild roster at the beginning of the season, if he doesn’t, look for him later in the season; Keranen has a very high ceiling.

Whoever gets tagged as the dark horse, expect them to play a vital role for the remainder of the season, and hopefully, deep into the playoffs.

Other names I think can contend as dark horse candidates include Kurtis Gabriel, Gustav Oloffson, Zack Phillips, or Dylan Labbe. Who do you think will be the surprise player of the year?

Tags: Erik Haula Justin Fontaine Minnesota Wild

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