Joel Eriksson Ek‘s story is not one of redemption or tragedy. It’s not a story of quick success and riding the wave. He didn’t rocket to the top of the roster depth chart by wowing coaches and fans with dazzling skill. The former 20th overall pick by the Wild in 2015 wasn’t applauded when his name was called by Chuck Fletcher. Fans had wished for local boy Brock Boeser, or scoring winger Travis Konecny, who had fallen from a top-15 projection.
When he was named as captain of Team Sweden for the 2017 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships, it was a footnote to other Wild prospects named as captain of their respective national teams that year. Luke Kunin was named captain of Team USA and joined fellow prospect Jordan Greenway in leading them to a Gold Medal. And the star of the show was young Kirill Kaprizov captaining Team Russia to a third-place finish and leading the tournament with 12 points. Never mind that Eriksson Ek scored nine points (six goals, three assists) during the seven-game tournament.
The groans continued when comparisons to Mikko Koivu trickled out after the pick. It’s not that Koivu wasn’t beloved by the fanbase and the organization. Instead, fans were looking for something new. He fit the mold of the Fletcher archetype: A heady, two-way forward without a ton of offensive upside, but defensive discipline was his calling card. Koivu would sacrifice his offensive output and was risk-averse in order to play Selke-caliber defense for his career. The Wild didn’t need to pick an exact replacement for him. They needed offense in the worst way.
There was no foreshadowing of what Eriksson Ek was able to accomplish offensively this season. The offense just had never shown itself in any of the seasons prior. Between 2016 and the end of the 2019 season, he tallied just 37 points in 148 games. But the defense was worthy of the Koivu comparison. He continually got better during those three years. He proved he could be a serviceable third or fourth-line guy by showing that he can shut down the opposition. Expected goals against per hour stayed below two in each of those seasons, while his ability to drive play was evident with improving numbers in xGF%, CF%, and Shots For per 60.
However, Eriksson Ek was undoubtedly a player who could have been expansion fodder as recently as last year. He still had a lot to prove. The depressed offensive numbers were not close to what was acceptable for former first-round picks. Not to mention, he’d have to prove that he can continue to play elite defensively without both Eric Staal and Koivu on the roster driving play.
Even after signing an 8-year, $42 million deal last Friday, he still has to prove his worth. Not only did his play warrant a move up in the lineup as the team’s best center on the roster, it requires a complete overhaul on what we all think he’s going to be in the future. His 19 goals, at this point, are an outlier statistic. Though his goal outbreak wasn’t a fluke, he’s going to have to prove that his drive-the-net mentality is here for good. The Wild didn’t spend a max deal on a one-dimensional player who’s only good for defense.
He proved that he can be a play-driving center, capable of keeping the opponents of the board. He proved with his scoring touch both in the regular season and playoffs that he is so much more than the third line center the Wild pegged him to be early on in his career. With a new max deal contract paying him more than $5.25 million per season, he’s certainly not paid like a third-line center anymore. And like Koivu, he’s still playing Selke-caliber defense after just missing the top three.
Even after putting pen to paper Friday, he still has doubters to prove wrong. Some don’t think he has the talent to play alongside the most talented forwards on the team. The sample size of Eriksson Ek with either Kaprizov or Kevin Fiala is incredibly small. However, we’ve seen that when Eriksson Ek is with one of those scoring forwards, or both, they absolutely tilt the ice in their favor. That’s what the Chicago Blackhawks got in Jonathan Toews for those Stanley Cup years. That’s what Patrice Bergeron is able to do every single year. Those guys are first-line centers.
Is Eriksson Ek a top-line center? Before this season, it would have been difficult to ask that question without soliciting a chuckle. It’s been a slow process to get there. Even after he showed himself worthy of taking over the top scoring line, the coaching staff was reluctant to move him up. Instead, the team just said that his line with Greenway and Marcus Foligno was the first line in order to stop taking questions on the matter.
Armed with a new contract, Eriksson Ek will hopefully get the opportunity to shine with the top scorers of the Wild. At this point, there’s no reason to believe that Eriksson Ek can’t do exactly that. His story to this point has one in which he excels in one thing — proving doubters wrong.