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Joel Eriksson Ek’s next challenge: Seize a spot on the Minnesota Wild

The Swedish center impressed, but still must improve to claim a full-time NHL job.

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Minnesota Wild Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

When is the best time to call up your top prospect?

Is it when they’ve mastered the level of their peers? After they’ve climbed the ranks, succeeding at lesser pro leagues and/or the AHL? When they’re battle-tested, getting top minutes on special teams, and have seen it all?

Or is it when a need arises? After all, a player’s prime in the NHL arrives fairly early. Perhaps the best course of action is letting them work their way up the lineup. Maybe what a player loses in raw minutes, they’ll gain from top-tier coaching and being forced to adjust to the speed of the game from the get-go.

The Minnesota Wild just couldn’t decide what was the best course for Joel Eriksson Ek. Undoubtedly, Eriksson Ek was the best on the Wild’s roster to center their fourth line. Blessed with a big frame, nice vision, and a great shot, one could imagine a parallel universe where Eriksson Ek sticks with the Wild. And not just stick - thrive.

We saw a glimpse of that in Eriksson Ek’s initial 9-game cup of coffee. The 19-year-old Swede impressed right out of the gate with 5 points in his first 4 games. It looked for a while as if there was no way Minnesota’s front office could justify leaving him off the roster.

But with just 10-12 minutes of ice time per night, that production wasn’t going to last. The Wild brass decided that he would be better off in Sweden, despite the team’s continued need for a pivot on their fourth line.

Eriksson Ek continued to do well for himself overseas, dazzling at the World Junior Championships and posting very solid numbers in the SHL for a junior-aged player. But seeing him succeed so wildly elsewhere left some Wild fans (that is, me) wondering if Minnesota pushed him away too soon.

Late in the year, general manager Chuck Fletcher brought Eriksson Ek back to the NHL. Part of this was to spark a slumping team. But another motivating factor had to have been wanting to use the best roster available to him in the playoffs. It didn’t work out (though Eriksson Ek had some very good games against the Blues), but it served to get Eriksson Ek’s feet wet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs- where the toughest competition in the world exists.

That experience will be important going into next year, where Eriksson Ek’s mission is very clear: Secure a Top-9 role on the Wild. He figures to get more opportunities to accomplish this than he did last year. For one, he’ll be another year older. Combining that with his 3 years of pro experience playing for Färjestad, Minnesota ought to feel more confident than Eriksson Ek can stick in the lineup.

But more importantly, no one is currently in his way. Eric Staal and Mikko Koivu will pivot the first and second lines. But past that? Martin Hanzal is likely to leave the team as an unrestricted free agent. Erik Haula is a restricted free agent, and may prove to be too expensive to keep.

That third line spot is wide open. All Eriksson Ek has to do is convince Fletcher and Bruce Boudreau that he’s ready for it.

Some may want him in the AHL to start next season, bemoaning the fact that Eriksson Ek will only get a gradual increase in minutes. Fortunately, that development model suits Eriksson Ek just fine.

His first year in the SHL saw him getting limited minutes. The next season, Färjestad elevated him to a secondary scoring line. And last season, he played top minutes and was one of their most important players. Eriksson Ek is a smart player, and he’s shown himself to be able to learn the game without needing a ton of ice time.

Of course, Eriksson Ek didn’t arrive fully-formed last season. He’ll need to make a few changes to show that he deserves a full-time NHL job. The first thing he needs to do is find a way to get his shot off on a smaller rink with faster players. Eriksson Ek has been a volume shooter in both junior tournaments and in the SHL. As he grows more comfortable, he should show more of a willingness to crash the net.

The next thing he’ll need to do is get his defense to be NHL-ready. Despite Eriksson Ek’s offensive capabilities, Boudreau never trusted him to play more than 12 minutes a night. It’s because the Wild bled shots with Eriksson Ek on the ice. Part of that has to do with the players he was with- it’s hard to ask a 19-year-old center to carry the load on a line with Chris Stewart. But Eriksson Ek also was at fault. Even when placed with better teammates, his lines performed poorly defensively.

Again, that should get better in time. Eriksson Ek was hailed as a future two-way center since he was drafted in 2015. As he improves his skating, strength, and adapts to the speed of the NHL, those traits will likely emerge.

But despite those nitpicks to his game, the State of Hockey ought to be very excited to see what Eriksson Ek has to offer next season. Minnesota hasn’t had a home-grown talent at center like him since Mikael Granlund. And unlike Granlund, Eriksson Ek will almost surely stick at center.

He just needs to seize the opportunity at training camp.