How Erik Haula is easing Bruins' concerns over No. 2 center spot

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One of the Boston Bruins' biggest needs to address before the March 21 NHL trade deadline was No. 2 center.

Even though Erik Haula had played well in that spot since moving to it full time in early January, there were reasons to believe an upgrade was needed. Haula is not the kind of second-line center you often see on teams that contend for the Stanley Cup. 

Could Haula make linemates Taylor Hall and David Pastrnak productive long term? Would he provide offense on his own? If yes, would he do so consistently? And what about his defense?

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Haula has met every challenge and exceeded expectations, so much so that second-line center is not one of the Bruins' top three concerns with the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs less than a month away.

Let's begin with Haula's own offense. 

It took a while for Haula to get going after signing with the Bruins last summer as a free agent. After tallying an assist in Boston's Opening Night victory over the Dallas Stars, Haula posted just two points over the next 17 games. It was fair to wonder if he was going to be another free agent bust from general manager Don Sweeney.

But once head coach Bruce Cassidy switched up his lines to begin January, most notably moving Pastrnak down to second-line right wing and Haula up to second-line center, the Bruins' offense finally began to click and establish much-needed consistency.

Haula has tallied 11 goals and 19 assists -- or 85 of his total production for the season -- in the last 46 games. The veteran center has been particularly effective of late, tallying 10 points (four goals, six assists) in his last seven games, including two goals in Saturday's win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Haula had proven effective as the team's No. 2 center before the trade deadline, but his excellent play post-deadline could partly be a product of the relief from knowing he can continue in his role without worrying about any major changes.

"I don't know if it gets to me, but I've moved a lot lately," Haula told reporters following Saturday's win. "Maybe there's a little thought in the back of the head, you know, of the past or whatever. You try to work through that. It is nice when you know this is our team. But that's ultimately out of my control, and now I'll just put the foot on the gas and try to do something special here."

Haula is on his fourth team since the start of the 2019-20 campaign, so you can understand why the trade deadline might've been stressful at times.

Not only is Haula creating his own offense, he's done a better-than-expected job of helping elevate the performance of his wingers: Pastrnak and Hall. Pastrnak, in particular, has seen his scoring skyrocket since playing with Haula full time on the second line.

Pastrnak and Hall were bound to see their scoring go up at some point, but there's no question Haula has been an excellent fit between them and has done a tremendous job feeding these wingers the puck in spots where they can do plenty of damage.

"I try to create room for them," Haula said after scoring twice against the Blue Jackets. "I try to get them the puck in areas where they can make plays. If it's coming with speed or whatever it is, I try to put them in spots where they can use that skill and can use that speed. I think that's worked well for me, trying to do that and trying to create space.

"But then also being part of it as well. There's opportunities for me to put up points and score goals from all of that. I'm enjoying playing with them. It's a lot of fun -- two great players. Just trying to do my best and trying to do what really works."

Haula's resurgence and success in the No. 2 center role, along with the third line of Trent Frederic, Charlie Coyle and Craig Smith emerging as a trustworthy trio, has given the Bruins much-needed scoring depth as the playoffs near.

The Bruins haven't had three quality lines producing like this since 2019, when the franchise came up one win short of a championship.

Getting back to the Cup Final will be a very difficult road given the quality teams standing in the Bruins' way in the Eastern Conference. But the Bruins are well-equipped to make a deep playoff run this spring, and Haula becoming a reliable No. 2 center is among the main reasons why.

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