Wild

It's Time for Joel Eriksson Ek to Center the Top Line

Photo Credit: Neville E. Guard (USA TODAY Sports)

You never know who’s going to be centering the Minnesota Wild’s top line these days. General manager Bill Guerin shipped out Eric Staal, taking the team down from one top-6 center to zero.

In case you’re new to hockey, you’d ideally like to have at least two of those.

With that lack of depth, the first two games have been a revolving door of coach Dean Evason trying to find someone, anyone, who can skate with the likes of Kirill Kaprizov. Nick Bjugstad took on the gig throughout training camp. 40 minutes into the season, he was replaced by Victor Rask, who was replaced by Marcus Johansson in Game 2.

The Wild aren’t done shuffling, either. Nick Bonino has yet to receive a look, and Minnesota experimented with moving Jordan Greenway to the middle last year. They could re-visit that.

At this point, the only confident guess you can make as to who’ll be the top-line center on a given night is that it won’t be Joel Eriksson Ek. Anyone who paid close attention to Eriksson Ek over the past few years know that he’s become Minnesota’s defensive ace.

That dynamic remains the same this year, as Eriksson Ek’s third-line has been incredible in the first two games. He controlled 78% of the expected goals at 5-on-5 against the Los Angeles Kings, and his line scored two goals instrumental to the Wild’s pair of third-period comebacks.

Eriksson Ek isn’t starting the season looking like the Wild’s best defensive center. He’s looking like the best center on the team, period. And where does the best center on the team belong?

That’s right, the top line.

Here’s why Eriksson Ek — and he alone — can solve Minnesota’s center woes.

Mr. January

Eriksson Ek is legendary in the Wild locker room for lapping the field in pre-season conditioning tests. It’s led to him getting the nickname “Mr. September.” Since the season started late this year, he’s temporarily been dubbed “Mr. January.”

Turns out, that nickname was dead-on.

Kaprizov has stolen the show in the first two games with four points, including two in overtime. Even so, there’s a case to be made that Eriksson Ek has been the best player on the team.

You’re probably expecting to read a lot about his defensive metrics, but we’re not doing that today. Trust us, they’re good, and they’re always good. Instead, what we’ve seen so far this season is Eriksson Ek becoming a true two-way center.

If you noticed Minnesota struggling to create offense until his line hit the ice, your eyes aren’t fooling you. They generated 3.71 expected goals in 80 minutes of 5-on-5 play. 1.68 of those came with Eriksson Ek on the ice, making a whopping 45% of their offense.

Eriksson Ek isn’t a passenger hanging back to play defense while his teammates do the offensive stuff, either. Most of that offense has come off his stick. He already has six 5-on-5 shots that add up to 0.96 of those expected goals, or 57% of the offense when he’s on the ice.

Is there a reason for this change? Yes, at least so far. Eriksson Ek has four shots off the rebound so far, according to Natural Stat Trick. Rebounds are much likelier to become goals than normal shots, welcome news for a career 7% shooter like Eriksson Ek. If he’s adding some Zach Parise-esque elements to his game, a breakout could soon follow.

An Ek-cellent Option

It’s been hard for the State of Hockey to see any offensive potential in Eriksson Ek. In his first two NHL seasons, he scored just 13 goals and 30 points in 133 games. It’s understandable how Evason, fans and media could watch that and be unable to imagine him as anything else.

Look past those early struggles though, and you’ll see a much different player. He set career highs with eight goals and 29 points in 62 games, but this sells him a bit short. NST has Eriksson Ek ranked 157th among NHL forwards in 5-on-5 ice time per game last year, with virtually no power play minutes.

So let’s level the playing field and see where his points per hour at 5-on-5 since the beginning of the 2019-20 season. Of the 339 forwards with 500-plus minutes in that span, Eriksson Ek ranks 88th with 1.97 points per hour at 5-on-5. That compares very favorably to elite two-way centers like Ryan O’Reilly (2.07), Anthony Cirelli (2.05) and Patrice Bergeron (1.98).

Eriksson Ek probably isn’t as skilled as that trio, but he’s showing that he can keep up with them. Not to mention, he’s done this with Marcus Foligno and Greenway, who aren’t exactly top-6 scorers. Does Eriksson Ek have another level he can get to as, say, Kaprizov’s net-crashing, defensive safety blanket partner?

It’s a formula that’s worked in Minnesota before. In 2016-17, Mikko Koivu was placed between Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker to provide defensive support to skilled, fast wingers. That became arguably the best line in hockey that year.

Minnesota drafted Eriksson Ek in the first round in 2015 hoping he could be the successor to Koivu. Now he looks ready to fill those skates, so why hold him back?

Time to Break Up What Works?

There’s no denying that Eriksson Ek is incredible on the Wild’s current third line. Alongside Foligno and Greenway, that line has been dominant defensively, taking 74% of the expected goals at 5-on-5 in 163 minutes since the start of 2019-20. It’s easy to see a line working that well, and wanting to keep things going.

Minnesota can’t afford that luxury, not with their top lines unable to drive play. Bjugstad and Bonino are barely breaking even alongside Kaprizov and Fiala, respectively. Rask and Kaprizov have just 21% of the expected goals so far. Those lines simply aren’t getting anything going right now and 2020 first-rounder Marco Rossi isn’t healthy yet.

Will Eriksson Ek become a Number One Center? No. But there’s still upside to letting him fill that role until Rossi takes that role full-time. If Eriksson Ek can provide what he’s giving on the third line in a top-6 role, then he’s easily a Number Two Center. With Rossi and Eriksson Ek, Minnesota has a chance to solve their center issues in-house and avoid spending assets on a major trade.

There’s no downside to such a move, either. Foligno and Greenway are terrific defensively, and the Wild have plenty of players like Bonino and Nico Sturm to put between them. And if 15 games of Eriksson Ek on the top line fails, he can always move back down in the lineup.

There are plenty of good reasons to play Eriksson Ek up in the lineup. We just laid out a statistical case that he could thrive in an elevated role. We could also argue that the Wild should see what they’ve got before the Seattle expansion, or that he’s earned an opportunity by being a good, coachable, responsible player.

But the best argument is much simpler. Eriksson Ek deserves to be the Wild’s top-line center right now because he’s currently the Wild’s best center. Give him his shot.

All data is from Evolving Hockey unless otherwise noted.

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