To be crystal clear, there is no deadline after nine games for the Wild to decide whether to keep Joel Eriksson Ek or return him to his professional team, Farjestad in Sweden.
The Wild can make that determination until the Feb. 15 Swedish Elite League roster deadline. And if there comes a point where the Wild feels the 19-year-old rookie needs a breather, it can temporarily assign him to Iowa of the American Hockey League or Sweden’s junior national team, which Eriksson Ek would almost surely captain at the world championships.
The threshold merely means that if Eriksson Ek plays in a 10th game, his three-year contract becomes two. As General Manager Chuck Fletcher showed when he returned defenseman Matt Dumba to his junior team 2013-14 after Dumba played 13 NHL games, he couldn’t care less.
“Burning a year of the contract means very little,” Fletcher said. “I don’t think it hurts the team, and I don’t really think it helps the player, or vice versa. I don’t care about the 10 games. If it takes us 20 or 30 games to figure it out, so be it.”
At 40 games, a year of Eriksson Ek’s seven-year free agency clock ticks away.
“Once you cross that threshold, you have to feel pretty comfortable you’re doing the right thing by keeping him in the NHL,” Fletcher said. “He’s helping our team short-term, especially with our injuries, but we just have to make sure we’re doing the right thing for him long-term. As long as those two are somewhat aligned, what’s the rush?”
Six games into his NHL career, the 20th overall pick in the 2015 draft looks as if he belongs. But his initial success (a goal in his NHL debut, a three-assist game in Boston, a game-winning goal off a scintillating shot in Buffalo) doesn’t mean a final decision has been made about the center sticking with the Wild all season.
“I have no clue what we’ll do because things change daily with injuries, performance, maybe we trade for two great forwards,” Fletcher said. “He’s playing well and he’s getting better every day. But he needs to play, too. That’s the thing we have to be careful about. The league gets a lot harder, and our determination has to be based on if he’s playing and playing a significant role.
“If he’s going to be healthy scratch or not playing a lot, then we have to take a hard look at it. If he’s playing and has a good role, it’s a no-brainer to keep him. But I also don’t want the kid thinking that if he has one bad game or one bad shift that he’s necessarily out of here.”
Said Eriksson Ek: “Of course, here is where you want to play. I’m trying to play my best each day and every day and every game and see what happens.”
After a solid first four road games, Eriksson Ek returned to Minnesota and had two tough home games — no shots, losing 10 of 14 faceoffs, barely visible with the puck.
“Sometimes you hit a little bit of a wall,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “You get so gung-ho and you’re playing above what you are and then you sort of level off. Right now, I think that’s where he is.”
Wild captain Mikko Koivu has gone through it. He was 22 when he debuted in 2005 and had five goals and five assists in his first 19 games before scoring once in a 44-game stretch.
“[Eriksson Ek is] not just surviving out there — he’s helping our team win and getting better as a young player,” Koivu said. “It’s not just the points. It’s the overall game. You can see he’s a smart hockey player. In the long run, that’ll be even more important than having a couple points.
“And as he even gets more comfortable with the game here and gets bigger and stronger the next couple years, that’ll be a scary — in a good way — combination.”
Fletcher also sees a big upside.
“He’s just so competitive, works so hard and defensively, I mean, I don’t know if he’s Patrice Bergeron yet, but he’s elite for a 19-year-old,” Fletcher said. “His understanding for the game, where to go positionally, usually it takes these kids two years to learn how to play away from the puck and work hard every shift.
“He shoots the puck so well. That goal [off the right wing wall over Anders Nilsson’s right shoulder] in Buffalo, I’ve seen him beat junior goalies like that, but not an NHL goalie. That kind of release will beat some good goalies in this league.”
Eriksson Ek is feeling more comfortable in Minnesota. At the team Halloween party, he went as a Ghostbuster with Dumba and Zac Dalpe. Dumba, a Canadian who is almost fluent in Swedish, can talk to Eriksson Ek in his native tongue.
“He doesn’t know actually how much I know, so he thinks it’s funny when I drop some vulgar stuff on him,” Dumba said.
Eriksson Ek’s parents, Anna and Clas, visited Minnesota for the first time last weekend.
“It’s the longest time I’ve been without them,” Eriksson Ek said.
Luckily, Boudreau’s keeping a watchful eye.
“He’s 19 years old. It’s like your teenager at home. Some days they’re great, some days you want to kick them in the head,” Boudreau deadpanned.
Boudreau laughed. “I mean, that’s not how I am with him. Some days he’s going to be better, some days he’s going to be worse, but I’m not planning on kicking him any time soon.”