Swedish prospect Joel Eriksson Ek signed a three-year entry level contract with the Minnesota Wild in July 2015. As recently as in May 2016, however, it was explained that the 19-year-old center would remain with his SHL club, Färjestad BK, for another season to improve and get more experience, before permanently crossing the Pacific Ocean to begin his NHL career.
As the upcoming hockey season of 2016-17 closes in, the initial plan of Joel Eriksson Ek’s future seems to have changed in the eyes of the Minnesota Wild, or at least it isn’t nearly as definitive as it appeared to be in May. He will get an early shot after all.
“I’m going back to the U.S. on (Oct. 12) and then we’ll see what happens, I don’t know much myself really,” Joel Eriksson Ek recently said to SVT.se. “It’s everyone’s dream to get to play in the NHL so when I arrive, I will do my best to show my best.”
This poses the question of whether Eriksson Ek is in too much of a hurry to realize his dream – or if he will be exactly what the Wild needs next season?
Wild Lineup Spot
There’s not doubt at this stage that the Wild have a lot of confidence in Eriksson Ek. The organization witnessed his rapid development over the course of the summer when he showed promising signs of progression, playing in both the Wild development camp and in the Hlinka Memorial Award. In addition to that, Eriksson Ek has proven to take his gym workouts seriously by gaining 15 pounds in muscles over the last year.
Eriksson Ek’s fine form was confirmed by Färjestad head coach Leif Carlsson: “Joel looks fantastic so far, we would benefit enormously by having him on our team next season.”
While the decision from Minnesota has been put on hold, the Swede, together with American prospect Alex Tuch, seems to be closing in on a spot in the opening day roster. Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr said: “Are we making decisions right now? No. But are we going to close doors on players? No.”
A significant evidence that the Wild might actually count on Eriksson Ek to begin the season in the NHL is that there still exists an opening in the lineup for one those two players to eventually grab. GM Chuck Fletcher could have gone and signed a free agent to complete the roster but he didn’t. The reason for that could very well be that the Wild wants Eriksson Ek or Tuch to fill one of those spots by letting them play for it at the beginning of the season.
It wouldn’t be totally surprising to find Eriksson Ek in a fourth line, just to try him out, in effort to integrate him with the Wild and the NHL. It would be even less surprising if he makes an impact that exceeds most expectations.
One of the things about this gambling from the Wild is that it’s gambling without any risks. It doesn’t really matter that much if Eriksson Ek will be suitable for a spot in the Wild this season, in spite of his young age, or if will benefit more from another year back home in Sweden. What matters, and what must be valued the most, is that he gets to optimize his growth so that in the future, he will reach the roof of his own potential.
With that in mind, the Wild don’t have much to lose here and neither does Eriksson Ek. Seeing also that there’s no reasonable probability that he will be sent down to the Iowa Wild in the AHL upcoming season, he will get to play a lot of hockey at a stimulating level. If not in the NHL, then in the SHL where he would get a 20-minutes per-game role, carrying an important part of the team.
Basically, there’s only two concerns when it comes to his next season. The first is that he gets injured, which is always a risk, regardless of where you play. The second is that he wouldn’t get to keep his confidence intact. He needs to score goals, produce and see results from his offensive game, and a rough patch in the NHL could be mentally challenging. On the other hand, someone of his talent level should overcome this occurrence sooner or later.
Because when it comes to Eriksson Ek, the long-term development is everything, even if he introduces himself in the NHL this season. As Wild director of player development Brad Bombardir put it: “You can tell, he’s a heck of a player. He’s going to be a special player in the NHL for years to come.”
Freelance sports journalist settled in Malmo, Sweden. Author on the official site of the Swedish Hockey League. Cover Swedish prospects on their road to the NHL, and Swedish players making it in the NHL.