It has taken a couple years of development and trust being built steadily, but the Minnesota Wild finally have a player in Joel Eriksson Ek.
Once seen as the safest pick among safe picks during the historic 2015 NHL Draft—a player that could no doubt appear in a team’s lineup, but to what effect was still uncertain—Eriksson Ek has been gathering more minutes through his five years in the league. Increasing his average time-on-ice just slightly every season, his coaches just turning the dial up extremely slowly to see how much he could handle.
Well head coach Dean Evason has handed over the most responsibility he has had in his career and Eriksson Ek is sprinting with it to more points and recognition. Maybe it’s simply because the rest of the Wild centers are a heaping pile of rotten potential that makes the 23-year-old look so dominant, but he has been able to keep this shutdown reputation for a while.
Among any forward that has played at least 1000 minutes of 5-on-5 through the last three seasons combined, Eriksson Ek has the third-lowest expected goals against rate. Only teammate Marcus Foligno and Pittsburgh Penguins defensive wunderkind Zach Aston-Reese have a lower rate of expectation. This is what a shutdown center looks like in the modern NHL and now the offense is showing up.
Through the seven games played this season—all against the Californian trio of teams—the defensive stalwart has scored four goals and six points. He just needs to earn 24 more points through the remaining 49 matches to beat his career-high 29 points he scored during the 2019-20 season. And, like, he can easily do it if he keeps on scoring goals like this one:
.@ErikssonEk gives the @mnwild a third period lead. pic.twitter.com/Dx8PrgWpYd— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) January 21, 2021
In the whimpering cries to promote Eriksson Ek up the lineup, Evason handed the center over 19 minutes of ice-time in the following game against the San Jose Sharks, after he scored this beautiful masterpiece rocket. Of course, he then scored two more points and dragged the corpse of the Wild’s forward depth to a 4-1 win.
Even just last night against the Los Angeles Kings, Eriksson Ek practically forced this puck into the net with a wraparound attempt and some sneaky swift play behind the Kings’ net.
Joel Eriksson Ek with a wraparound and is able to jam the puck in past Peterson. #mnwild pic.twitter.com/KYuaWcV8zi— Giles Ferrell (@gilesferrell) January 27, 2021
I am more than positive that the never-ending desperation coming from Wild fans to see Eriksson Ek on the top line with some more offensively-minded talent beside him is not going to stop this season. While Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala are wasting away beside the likes of Nick Bjugstad and Nick Bonino, the young dude that actually has a future on this team is busy shutting down virtually every opponent he faces with Foligno and Jordan Greenway.
“They’re big. They’re strong. They’re committed to get pucks there, and they’re committed to get bodies there and they’re certainly not a perimeter group,” Evason told media earlier this week. “They’re getting rewarded for it. They have a lot of confidence playing with each other. We’ve chatted about flipping them around to help some other lines and/or situations.
“But every time we talk about it, we keep going back to they’re likely our best line from every game.”
That third line has been excellent, don’t get me wrong, but with a limited scale and affinity to keep personnel together that are working well, it might hinder some of the potential prospects of goals. If Eriksson Ek is feeling the offensive side of his game for really the first time over his 200 NHL games played, then maybe some boost in that direction could benefit the entire team. A little balance never hurt anyone, we don’t need to absolutely kill the opposing offense all the time.
Maybe we’ll see his promotion later in the year, but right now, Joel is coming alive on the ice and we’re all witnesses to potentially the next great two-way center in this league.