The Minnesota Wild inked Joel Eriksson Ek to an eight-year, $42 million contract after a breakout season where he scored 19 goals in 56 games and made an impact in the playoffs. Most anyone who watched how important he’d become to this team immediately went, “Yeah, good, that contract makes sense.”
Fans still gotta debate about something, though, and it has since coalesced over what Eriksson Ek truly is. Is he a top-six center, or is he a third-line guy on a truly championship-caliber team? Was his goal-scoring barrage sustainable, or will he return to the days of shooting below 7%?
At some point it’s a pointless debate: Ask 12 people what a No. 1 vs. a No. 2 vs. a No. 3 center is, and you’ll get a dozen different answers. Some will think “No. 1 center” means “a superstar.” Others will think it’s the 32 best centers in the league, regardless of quality. Fans might have a point threshold to cross to earn No. 1 designation, or they might not.
Then again, the answer to that arbitrary question will determine whether this deal is a success or not. If Eriksson Ek continues to drive offense, pile up scoring chances, and regularly convert them, it’ll be a smart bargain. If those offensive flashes prove to be a fluke, we’re talking about more of an overpay.
And, of course, if Eriksson Ek hits another level with his game, that contract will be among the NHL’s best.
It might sound weird to think about Eriksson Ek to continue improving. As one of the few constants in the Wild’s recent roster turnover, it feels like he’s been here forever. In fact, if Zach Parise is traded or bought out this summer, Eriksson Ek will become the Wild’s longest-tenured forward.
Despite all that, he’s just 24 years old and only has four full seasons under his belt. While many wrote off his offensive potential some time ago, whether it was after struggling his first two seasons, or even the second he was drafted, it’s not surprising at all that he’d take a jump last year.
And it shouldn’t be surprising if he continues to tear down the barriers of what people thought possible from him. Not every No. 1 center explodes onto the scene right away. Sean Couturier is a perfect example of this.
The Philadelphia Flyers drafted Couturier in the first round in 2011, and he immediately jumped into their lineup. He was seen as a safe pick with potential to be a No. 1 center. Only, it didn’t happen. Sure, Couturier was a strong two-way center — one who even got love in Selke voting — but his offensive numbers were underwhelming. He averaged just 14 goals and 38 points per 82 games through his first six seasons.
Then at age 24, he started averaging 20 minutes a night instead of 18, while getting premium power-play chances. His linemates went from a revolving door of mostly underwhelming wingers to a steady diet of superstar Claude Giroux.
The rest is history. Since then, Couturier has averaged 31 goals and 75 points per 82 games. His play over the past four seasons has been worth 25.2 points in the standings, according to Evolving Hockey. That’s fourth-best in the league, behind only Connor McDavid, Brayden Point, and Mark Stone. Couturier isn’t just a No.1 center, he’s one of the game’s best players.
Not bad for a guy who didn’t fit the mold of a No. 1 center after six seasons, eh?
Now, just because Couturier had a massive breakthrough doesn’t mean that every budding two-way center is going to become an MVP-caliber guy. Couturier is the exception in those cases, not the rule. So what does this have to do with Eriksson Ek?
As it turns out, Eriksson Ek’s last two seasons look nearly identical to Couturier at the same age.
Let’s start out with the raw point production. In their age-22 and -23 seasons, Eriksson Ek had 27 goals and 59 points in 118 games, while Couturier had 25 and 73 in 129 games. Couturier has a slight edge in points per game, averaging 46 per 82 games against Eriksson Ek’s 41 per 82.
This difference is almost entirely because of ice time. Couturier averaged over two more minutes of time on ice than Eriksson Ek. Once we use points per 60 minutes to account for this, we’ll see that their production was virtually identical. Couturier and Eriksson Ek were deadlocked at 1.83 points per hour in all situations. At 5-on-5, Eriksson Ek led by a 1.86 to 1.85 margin.
They both had impacts that went beyond points, strongly controlling the flow of play as well as out-scoring the opposition at 5-on-5 play. In fact, you could argue that both were (or in Eriksson Ek’s case, is) among the 20 best centers in the league.
Over the past two seasons, Eriksson Ek has been worth 6.8 standings points above replacement, which is tied for 14th among centers in that span. At the same age, Couturier’s play was worth 8.7 standings points, tied for the 15th most by a center.
Just like with the points, playing about 400 minutes more than Eriksson Ek skews these raw totals in Couturier’s favor. Adjusting once again to a per 60-minute rate, they’re once again virtually identical, with Couturier being worth .217 standings points every hour to Eriksson Ek’s .212 rate.
Now, we have to say again, just because there are parallels between Couturier and Eriksson Ek doesn’t mean that Eriksson Ek will suddenly become an undisputed No. 1 center. But it does mean that a lot of the signs pointing to Couturier’s breakout are also present with Eriksson Ek.
That breakout isn’t far from reality as it is. His 19 goals in 56 games were already a 27-goal pace over 82 games — a stone’s throw from 30. Minnesota could easily offer him big power-play minutes, and play him with studs like Kevin Fiala, Kirill Kaprizov, or Matt Boldy. If Couturier could take advantage of those kinds of opportunities, why can’t Eriksson Ek?
If he does take a Couturier-esque leap starting next year, the two will have yet another thing in common. Philadelphia signed Couturier to a long-term deal worth $4.33 million (6.1% of the salary cap), which kicked in just before he started destroying the league. Because of this, the Flyers have had five years of a No. 1 center for dirt-cheap. It’s arguably the best contract in the league.
The $5.25 million the Wild are paying Eriksson Ek per year represents 6.4% of the salary cap. If Eriksson Ek keeps improving, the Wild won’t just have the next Couturier, they’re going to have the next Couturier contract. For a team needing both high-end centers and cap flexibility, Eriksson Ek’s contract is a godsend.
Stats courtesy of Evolving Hockey unless stated otherwise.