You can forgive Wild center Joel Eriksson Ek if he’s looking to his left and right throughout training camp wondering how the heck the puck is on his tape. He hasn’t played with playmakers like this during his five-year NHL career.
After forming a shutdown line with the hulking Jordan Greenway and Marcus Foligno last season, Eriksson Ek, a 24-year-old Swede, has graduated to the top line a few days into the Wild training camp. Yes, he’s finally getting his chance to play between the dynamic Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello.
“He was with playmakers with (us) last season,” Foligno joked. “No, I’m super excited. It’s good for them to play together. If they can spark right away, it’s going to be huge for our team.”
While it must have been difficult for coach Dean Evason to break up the Greenway-Eriksson Ek-Foligno combination — they were hands down the most consistent line on the team last season — it could give the Wild a higher ceiling in the long run.
As instantaneous as the chemistry between Kaprizov and Zuccarello was last season, it’s reasonable to think Eriksson Ek could help increase their production. He is extremely skilled and isn’t afraid to put his 6-foot-3, 210-pound to good use. That in and of itself could give Kaprizov and Zuccarello more space to create.
Add in the fact that Eriksson Ek started to come into his own as a scorer last season with career-high 19 goals, and the decision to put him with Kaprizov and Zuccarello makes too much sense not to at least try.
“His game has grown every year, right?” Evason said of Eriksson Ek. “No question he’s got more to give. What doesn’t he give? He gives everything every night. We expect and anticipate that his offense will continue to get better and better.”
Will he have to change his game skating alongside a pair of playmakers like Kaprizov and Zuccarello?
“Umm, I don’t think I should change very much my own game,” Eriksson Ek said. “Just trying to play my game and see where it fits and, I guess, go from there.”
Asked about Eriksson Ek earlier this week, Zuccarello raved about his skill set, saying, “I think he’s got all the tools and skills to play in the top line.”
“He works so hard and is strong in the puck,” Zuccarello added. “I’m real excited to be with him right now. We will see what happens in the future. It’s the first practice of the camp, so a lot of things can change. But I’m excited about him. He’s a hell of a player. He can go, go, go.”
As for Eriksson Ek, he downplayed his position on the top line. Not surprising considering he’s always been a guy who puts the team above himself.
“I just play wherever they put me, and I’m happy with that,” Eriksson Ek said. “It doesn’t matter who we play with as long as it’s somebody on the Minnesota Wild.”
That cliche from Eriksson Ek is a page right out of Evason’s book. Meanwhile, Evason doubled down with a cliche of his own, perhaps trying to take some pressure off Eriksson Ek.
“We talked a lot about the center-ice position by committee and all that stuff,” Evason said. “We will try different looks. Our thought process here for the start is to have (Eriksson Ek) there, and we will see how it plays out.”