One name not often included in conversations surrounding the NHL’s next generation of young stars is that of Minnesota Wild rookie Joel Eriksson Ek. The 19-year-old has played in five of his club’s first nine games and has looked right at home when competing against the world’s best.
The versatile forward has registered two goals and three assists so far and appears to be getting more comfortable in an NHL uniform every day. The question for Wild management, however, is whether or not Eriksson Ek should stay in Minnesota.
— Minnesota Wild (@mnwild) October 23, 2016
Ten Game Rule
Being subject to the “slide” rule, Eriksson Ek is able to suit up for nine NHL games with Minnesota before his entry-level contract kicks in and a year before he hits unrestricted free agency is burned. This controversial rule applies to all NHL-contracted players with junior eligibility or, more specifically, players who are in their 18 and 19-year-old seasons.
While fellow rookies Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, and Denis Malgin are all scheduled to play in their 10th games on Nov. 1, the Wild have a bit more time to make their decision on Eriksson Ek. The native-Swede, from Karlstad, missed the first portion of the season while waiting for his work visa to be approved and then played his first North American professional game in the American Hockey League with the Iowa Wild in order to get some game experience.
Eriksson Ek scored a goal in his only AHL appearance on Oct. 18, was recalled to Minnesota, and promptly scored the Wild’s only goal in his NHL debut on Oct. 22.
— Iowa Wild (@IAWild) October 22, 2016
If the rookie dresses for the Wild’s next four games, which appears to be a likely scenario at this point, then the team will have up until its date with the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 13 to decide whether or not the youngster will stick with the big club or play out the rest of his season elsewhere.
Back to Sweden?
The “NHL or back to Junior” rule does not apply to Eriksson Ek because he was not drafted out of the Canadian Hockey League. In fact, the Wild don’t even have the option of sending the young center to any of the Canadian Junior leagues as he was never selected in the CHL’s import draft either. No WHL, OHL, or QMJHL team currently holds his playing rights.
In this case, you would think that the Wild would have the advantage of sending their prized 19-year-old to the AHL where he would be available for recall should the need or desire materialize. While Minnesota does technically have this option available to them, the player has made it clear that his preference is to play in the NHL or be sent back to Sweden where he would resume playing for the Swedish Hockey League’s Farjestad BK.
— Champions Hockey League (@championshockey) September 4, 2016
A loan to the SHL would mean that Eriksson Ek would be ineligible to return to Minnesota or to Iowa until the conclusion of Farjestad’s season. This situation is not unheard of and happened with the Toronto Maple Leafs a season ago when Andreas Johnson was under contract with the Leafs, loaned back to the SHL, and then reassigned to the AHL after his team in Frolunda won the SHL championship.
Perhaps a Not So Tough Decision
Reassigning Eriksson Ek to the SHL would mean losing him for the majority of the season rather than having him available via recall from the AHL at a moment’s notice. That, combined with his stellar play throughout the month of October, would make it very difficult to decide against keeping him on the NHL roster for the duration of the 2016-17 campaign.
Already possessing a responsible two-way game due to his experience playing against men in his native country, the lanky pivot has unexpectedly been a consistent offensive contributor out of the gate. The centerman has scored at a point per game pace to kickstart his NHL career and has shown that he has the ability to put up points in a variety of ways.
The Swede can score in tight by cleaning up the garbage and can also use his impressive shot to beat goalies from a distance. His NHL-level release was on full display on Oct. 27 when he scored a highlight reel goal by picking the top corner from inside the circle against Anders Nilsson of the Buffalo Sabres.
Measuring in at 6-foot-2 and weighing close to 200 pounds, Eriksson Ek has the size to battle opposing defenders and force his way to the net, although he would benefit from adding a few more pounds to fill out his frame.
While the scoring numbers are impressive, coach Bruce Boudreau has eased his team’s youngest player into the lineup. Eriksson Ek only averages 10:41 of ice time per game but skated a career-high 12:03 versus the Dallas Stars most recently. The limited ice time is due to change, however, as the Wild have been hit with a sudden rash of injuries including one to top-line winger Zach Parise. Someone will need to step up and fill Parise’s shoes and while Minnesota has several candidates to log the extra minutes, perhaps nobody deserves them more than Eriksson Ek based on his play to date.
In fact, when asked about the rookie, Boudreau recently stated, “One of these days I’m going to put him on the power play. He’s done everything and more that we’ve asked of him.”
High praise from a veteran coach. I’m not so sure the question is still whether or not the Wild will choose to keep Eriksson Ek on the team. Maybe the more appropriate question is when will they officially announce that he’s here to stay?
Mark Bowie covers the Edmonton Oilers and the QMJHL for THW.