Erik Haula entered this past season amid questions about what position — center or wing? — he would play for the Golden Knights.
As he heads into the offseason, the same questions remain.
“The goal is to get back to 100 percent. That’s all I’m thinking,” Haula said. “I go to (training) camp every year thinking that I’m going to be one of the best players on the team. I set the bar high for myself. I’m not going to stop now.”
Haula, who scored a career-high 29 goals in his first season with the Knights, was shifted to right wing at the start of the season to make room for free-agent signee Paul Stastny.
When Stastny was injured in the third game of the season, Haula moved back to his natural position at center on the second line.
But on Nov. 6 in a game against Toronto, Haula was driven hard into the boards by Maple Leafs forward Patrick Marleau and went down clutching his right knee while screaming in agony.
He was removed from the Scotiabank Arena ice on a stretcher.
“The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘OK, can I move my leg?’ ” Haula recalled. “After that, I settled down a little bit because I went into full panic. That’s where the screaming and all that comes from. You don’t know what happened really.”
The Knights declined to specify Haula’s injury, other than confirming it was not a torn ACL. Haula said the knee specialist in Vail, Colorado, who performed his surgery had done the procedure once previously.
“I never went through something like that, and I think it’s easier if you’ve been injured before,” Haula said. “But it was my first one, and it really was tough on me. I’m lucky to have great people around me who supported me, but it was hard.”
Haula, who posted two goals and seven points in 15 games before being placed on injured reserve, was initially told by his doctor that his season was over.
However, he was cleared to begin skating in March, and general manager George McPhee noted Haula likely would have resumed practicing with the Knights had they advanced to the second round of the NHL playoffs.
“He was probably a week to 10 days away from being able to practice with the team and maybe three weeks away from playing, so he’ll be ready for training camp,” McPhee said. “He’s worked hard at it, and he’s in a good place. That was a big loss for us during the season, but we dealt with it.”
The Knights are expected to return their top six forwards should restricted free-agent center William Karlsson come to terms on a new contract, putting Haula in a difficult position entering next season.
With one year remaining on his contract at $2.75 million, and based on the current depth chart, Haula figures to compete for a role on the crowded third line.
Haula could battle Russian import Nikita Gusev, Alex Tuch and others for a spot at wing. His comeback also may signal a change for Cody Eakin, though Eakin would make an expensive fourth-line center with a $3.85 million cap hit for 2019-20.
“I think we definitely have one of the best teams in the league,” Haula said. “It’s exciting obviously to be part of this group and get back on the ice with them. We’re going to be really good, and that’s exciting. I’m doing everything I can to be a part of it.”