Wild’s Joel Eriksson Ek looks like he belongs. Now he’s ready to make an impact.
ST. PAUL — Joel Eriksson Ek admitted that this time last year he took more of a “happy to be here” approach to training camp.
Who could blame him?
Eriksson Ek was a wide-eyed teenager vying for a roster spot — a roster spot which he eventually claimed — and was awestruck to be skating with some of the players he grew up watching.
No longer is that the case.
“Now I know how it works around this organization,” Eriksson Ek said. “That has helped me a lot so far.”
While he’s only 20 years old, Eriksson Ek will likely play a major role in how the Wild season plays out. If he’s good, the Wild are suddenly extremely deep up front. If he’s not, the Wild could find themselves shorthanded from time to time.
Eriksson Ek, at least on paper, makes sense as the third-line center for the Wild. He has already spent time in training camp centering the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Marcus Foligno and the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Charlie Coyle to form a behemoth trio up front.
Asked about the that potential third line, coach Bruce Boudreau seemed cautiously optimistic. “Well, they should look good,” he said. “They are only playing against us. The proof will be when they start playing against other teams.”
Eriksson Ek, who was up-and-down in his cup of coffee with the Wild last season, said he’s excited to take on a bigger role this season. He played 15 games with the Wild last season, 26 games with Färjestad BK in his native Sweden, and a handful of more games for Team Sweden at the World Junior Championships.
“I started the season here and then went back to Sweden and then went to World Juniors and then came back here and got some playoff games,” Eriksson Ek said. “It was a great season for me. I saw a lot of different places. I had a big role back in Sweden and played big minutes so I think I’m ready for a big role here.”
Not even a week into training camp, Boudreau said he can already tell last season’s experience is helping Eriksson Ek feel more comfortable.
“He’s carrying himself with more confidence,” Boudreau said. “He looks like he’s skating out there like he thinks he belongs rather than being in awe of what’s going on.”
“He looks a lot more comfortable,” Nino Niederreiter added. “He kind of came in last year and wasn’t exactly sure what he should do all the times. He has come in this year and he knows exactly what he wants to do. He wants to stay here. He wants to be here. That is the attitude we want to see out of him.”
Eriksson Ek feels more confident in part because of his offseason. While he obviously worked on his skills, Eriksson Ek said the biggest emphasis was putting on more muscle.
“I’m still young so I’m still growing into my body,” Eriksson Ek said. “That was probably the biggest thing I was working on.”
Early impressions suggest that Eriksson Ek’s hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Yeah, he’s a solid 6-foot-2, 210 pounds,” Boudreau said last week. “He’s not a boy anymore. I’m sure there’s room to grow as far as getting stronger. He’s definitely a man, though. He plays a man’s game. He’s smart. Those things add up to getting management and coaches excited. … The future looks really bright for him.”
“Not saying he can float around and still make the team,” Boudreau added. “He has to make the team. From what I see, he’s working very hard to (do that).”
Eriksson Ek’s main competition for one of the final roster spots is probably his current roommate Luke Kunin.
That said, Eriksson Ek is trying his best to focus on the process more than the potential end result.
“I’m just going to do my best,” Eriksson Ek said. “I can’t try to do more than I can right now. I’ll take it day by day and we’ll see what happens.”