BRIGHTON, Mass — There wasn’t a great deal of fanfare around the Boston Bruins signing Erik Haula to a free agent contract, but the preseason is showing that the 30-year-old Finnish forward is absolutely going to help the hockey club more than anticipated.
Haula scored and won a face-off that set up another goal in his first preseason appearance for the Bruins against the Washington Capitals, and then again set up a pair of goals in Boston’s 4-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers at TD Garden on Thursday night. The first assist was a dandy as Haula tossed a lead sauce pass that landed right on the stick of Nick Foligno, who corralled the bouncing puck and fed Craig Smith for a one-timer that gave the B’s an early lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
The tic-tac-toe passing came on the power play, of course, but the new-look third line of Jake DeBrusk-Haula-Foligno looked promising as well generating goals and scoring chances as a secondary offense source. Foligno had obviously watched both players from afar before being teamed up with them in Boston, but needless to say he’s discovered some new things since playing with them in training camp.
“They’re fun. Haula is just such a smart player first and foremost. He puts pucks in the right areas and as a winger it’s just a dream to have a center that does that,” said Foligno. “He’s not flashy, but he makes the right plays, he makes skill plays and he makes hard plays. He’s a guy that can lug the puck through the middle of the ice, too, and I think you’re seeing the benefits of that with Jake.
“[DeBrusk] is now able to use his dynamic offensive ability to be put in places to succeed. I think he’s having fun with that and I’m trying to bring that out of him as well. He’s a power forward but has the ability to play both ways. When he puts that idea first, you said what he did [vs. the Flyers] where he dropped the shoulder and went to the front of the net. Not a lot of guys are brave enough to do that and then have the skill to finish. So, I think our line can compliment each other well because we all bring a facet of that kind of game. If we can do that [as a third line], it could be a big boost to the guys that are asked to produce on a nightly basis.”
Mix in a 6-for-10 performance in the faceoff circle and four shots on net, and Haula is showing early in the preseason that he’s going to be a factor on offense at a spot where the B’s need an offensive spark.
“He’s been a good player for us. He’s around the puck a lot, willing to shoot and can make some plays and he’s got great pace through the middle of the ice,” said Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. “I think he knows where he needs to be to be effective and that’s through the middle. He’s in good spots to receive passes. He’s been strong on the draws. It’s a different pace in the middle that we’re used to, and a left stick as well. It looks like he and Jake have played well together, so we’ll be looking to keep that together.”
Truthfully, though Haula, like Foligno, is the kind of versatile hockey player that’s going to help everywhere.
It would be great for the Bruins if he approached the production from 2017-18 with the Vegas Golden Knights when he finished with 29 goals and 55 points in 76 games. But they’ll take occasional offense combined with faceoff potency, solid special teams performances and the speed/skill combo Haula brings to the table with plays like this.
Haula putting that pass on Foligno’s stick is sick https://t.co/9vMvHSHVuO
— Joe Haggerty (@HackswithHaggs) October 1, 2021
“What is there not to like? It’s a great group,” said Haula, of his first few weeks with the Boston Bruins. “There’s a lot of talent and a lot of leadership. It’s a team I wanted to be a part of and a team that has a chance to win every year. The core group is solid and it’s easy to come in and follow their lead, have fun and just try to get better every day.
“We got me, JD and Nick, and we’re just working hard and having fun. It’s nice to get a couple of bounces early and we’ll just keep on building. [Center] is my natural position and I think one of my strengths is being able to play everywhere. We’ll see what works best for the team and whatever it is I’ll do it to help us win.”
Truthfully, there were times last season when it felt like there just weren’t enough NHL-caliber players on Boston’s roster below the top two lines. That’s something Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney addressed on the first day of free agency when they signed Haula, Nick Foligno, Tomas Nosek and Derek Forbort, who are going to flat-out help the Black and Gold win hockey games.
Certainly, the newfangled third line showed a great deal of potential on Thursday night with Foligno and Haula figuring prominently on the second PP unit, and a reborn DeBrusk crashing the net for an insurance marker at the end of the second period. It’s exactly the kind of play that the Bruins have been hoping to see more out of from DeBrusk over the last few seasons, so better late than never.
Good to see Jake DeBrusk rewarded again for driving to the front of the net.
Encouraging signs for a guy looking to bounce back.
Also, another good play along the wall for Haula.
4-1 Bruins. pic.twitter.com/eEKx58fy1e
— Conor Ryan (@ConorRyan_93) October 1, 2021
It’s all to be taken through the perspective that these are veteran NHL players going against rookies, hopefuls and a sprinkling of NHL talent in the preseason, but still a good start is much better than the alternative.
“We’re trying to be an all-around good line, a 200-foot line. We’ve got some skill to put the puck in the net and that’s our goal,” said Haula. “I feel like we’ve got some chemistry and that’s good.”
Perhaps best of all is the way that Haula plays with a fast pace moving the puck up the ice. Patrice Bergeron likes to play a north-bound game and Charlie Coyle generates speed when he gets his big body going, but Haula seems to operate at a quicker, shiftier gear. That’s bringing out the best in DeBrusk, as is some of the veteran influence that Foligno seems to be having on the left winger simply playing fast and taking the puck to the net.
Put it all together and it feels like Haula, and Foligno, are leading a third line renaissance for the Boston Bruins that is very much needed to get the B’s where they want to go. That’s an encouraging first step for a third line that the B’s are desperately going to need when push comes to shove during the Stanley Cup playoffs.