With rookie Joel Eriksson Ek getting fourth-line minutes and staring at a potential second consecutive healthy scratch Tuesday night, the Wild has a significant decision to make regarding its prized 19-year-old.
Eriksson Ek has logged the least ice time of any regular Wild forward at 10 minutes, 7 seconds per game. If that’s to continue, General Manager Chuck Fletcher said Monday the best thing for his long-term development would be to return to his pro club in Sweden, not play full-time in Iowa of the American Hockey League.
But with the Wild in a busy portion of its schedule, Fletcher is balancing whether he should make that permanent decision now or delay it just in case the Wild suffers an injury to a top forward.
“This experience has really helped him,” Fletcher said from Toronto, where he was attending Monday’s Hall of Fame induction and Tuesday’s GM’s meeting. “The thing we have to be careful of is when do we need to make sure he’s in a stable environment where he can play consistently big minutes? That’s what we’re weighing because we also want to make sure we protect our hockey club in the short term.”
If Eriksson Ek is scratched against Calgary because Zach Parise returns from his foot injury, Fletcher said he’ll meet with coach Bruce Boudreau and maybe Eriksson Ek on Wednesday.
“Ideally, if the minutes are where they are now, the best thing would be for him to go back to Sweden, but we have so many games in such a short period of time, you also want to be careful that you maybe let things sort out a little bit here, too,” Fletcher said. “I don’t know when the date is that we’ll make a decision, but for right now, he didn’t play [Monday] night. If he doesn’t play [Tuesday], that’s not a big deal, but obviously that pattern can’t continue.
“We’ll have to do what’s right for him pretty soon. So we’ll just see how [Tuesday] goes. If Zach can indeed play, we’ll see how the game goes and then we can sit down Wednesday and make a determination.”
If Eriksson Ek was a year older, he likely would play in Iowa full-time. But the AHL is not a league for teenagers, in large part because teenagers with Canadian Hockey League rights must either play in the NHL or return to Canadian juniors.
Eriksson Ek is permitted to play in the AHL because he’s coming from Europe, but Fletcher believes he’d develop better in Sweden.
“I don’t have any issues with him going to Iowa short-term for a game or two here or there to get some minutes and play and stay sharp, but long-term, I think if he isn’t going to play in the NHL, I think the best place for him will be to be back in Sweden with Farjestad and playing in world juniors.”
Asked why he could develop better in Sweden rather than the chief minor league team the Wild runs, Fletcher said, “Having stability and not being on a yo-yo might be good for a 19-year-old kid. He’s still just 19. We can’t forget that. He’s really developed physically the last year, but I think having stability and going back to an environment where he’ll play consistently and know the environment well, I think that will benefit him.
“I think playing on the big ice will also benefit him. It might allow him to continue his skill development. What’s remarkable about Joel is his small ice game is already so good. Usually with Europeans, a lot of them have to acclimate to the smaller ice and have to learn how to be effective playing on the smaller ice. Joel’s already a very good small ice player. If anything, going back and playing on the bigger ice and handling the puck and making plays would enhance his long-term development.”
If Eriksson Ek, who has no points in his past five games after two goals and three assists his first four, plays a 10th NHL game, the first year of his three-year deal would kick in, but more importantly, he’d count as the 49th Wild contract. Teams can only have a maximum 50, so that could affect the Wild later this season if it wants to make a trade or claim a player off waivers.
“The question is what’s best for Eriksson Ek,” Boudreau said. “Whatever’s best for him will be the decision made.”