One year ago, Erik Haula was a breakout player for the Wild and integral part of its playoff lineup. One year later, Haula has been unable to crack the lineup three games into the Wild's first-round series with St. Louis.
There are multiple reasons.
As a center, Haula hasn't been able to unseat veteran Kyle Brodziak, whom coach Mike Yeo said Monday has been a "real solid player for us for quite a long time."
Yeo also has indicated that with the Blues being a hard-nosed team, the matchup is one that doesn't suit Haula. But mostly, Haula had a disappointing sophomore season and Yeo felt others played better during the late-season, so-called auditioning phase for fourth-line spots.
"This is not about beating down Haulzy," Yeo said Monday morning. "I think it's been a trying year for him. Going into the playoffs last year, there was a much different feel to his game. I know there was a lot of reference to what happened in the playoffs last year. I think he was in a different place as well. So that's a big factor in it.
"But again, this is a different team, it's a different matchup and I also think that we have a lot more guys who are playing very well that make those tough decisions."
In Game 3, Yeo reunited his Game 1 fourth line with Sean Bergenheim and Justin Fontaine on either side of Brodziak. In Game 2, Yeo went with Matt Cooke and Jordan Schroeder because Fontaine was ill.
Yeo acknowledged it was hard sitting Cooke, who has played 104 playoff games. But Yeo likes Bergenheim's speed and aggressive style on that left side, and he was solid in the Wild's Game 1 victory.
"Those are tough decisions, but I give everybody credit," Yeo said. "Whether it's a guy like [Cooke] coming out of the lineup or guys that haven't gotten into the lineup, everybody's had a great attitude. The team atmosphere is very good right now. Everybody is all-in for each other and obviously we're hoping to make this a very long run here, which means they'll factor in."
Going into last year's playoffs, Fontaine wasn't in the lineup. He ultimately entered and made an impact. This year, Yeo said he has played well enough to not have to look over his shoulders.
"But you can never get too comfortable or complacent," Fontaine said. "We've got a lot of guys around. Anyone can hop in and be effective, so you've got to be sharp."
In the last year of his contract, Brodziak believes one reason he's been playing well is the stress of the trade deadline passing.
"I was trying not to think about it and just trying to play my game and not worry about it too much," he said. "But it definitely weighs on you a little bit. When it passed and I knew I was going to be here for the rest of the year, it was a chance to reset and refocus and just worry about things you can control."
Leopold stays in
Defenseman Jordan Leopold played a third consecutive game, meaning Nate Prosser has yet to play in the series.
"Been really impressed with his game, probably even exceeded expectations of what we thought we were going to get from him," Yeo said of Leopold. "I wasn't sure where he was going to be at, at this point in his career, but the way that he's going back, retrieving pucks, moving his feet, the defensive side, everything. We've been really pleased with his game."
Be like Zach
Yeo said the biggest evolution with Jason Zucker is how he plays without the puck. Last year on Long Island, Yeo said he met with Zucker and "basically told him there is no reason you can't play the game like Zach [Parise] and that should be sort of a mentor for him in how he approaches the game, his tenacity, his work ethic, his compete level and doing so [you'll] generate a lot more offense because of that."
•During Monday's morning news conference, Yeo gave 10-year-old Fox 9 junior reporter Finn Olson the opportunity to ask the first question. When the boy declined, Yeo deadpanned much to the amusement of the press, "You're my favorite reporter already."