As a nine-year NHL veteran, Chris Stewart offered a bit of friendly advice this week to Wild rookie Joel Eriksson Ek. “I told him to start mixing in some smiles when he’s putting the puck in the net,” Stewart said with a chuckle. “He says he’s not much of a celebrator.”
Playing alongside Eriksson Ek at an optional practice Friday, Stewart helped him out by giving him a little shoulder bump and a big grin after they teamed up for a goal. While the 19-year-old still needs some work on that post-scoring routine, everything else is coming along more quickly than anticipated.
Eriksson Ek is expected to play his first NHL home game Saturday against Dallas, one week after he was called up for the first time. In four games with the Wild, the center from Sweden has scored two goals — including the winner in Thursday’s 4-0 shutout of Buffalo — on seven shots. He also has three assists, and his five points put him in a tie for seventh place among the NHL’s rookie scoring leaders.
The four-game road trip helped Eriksson Ek settle in with his teammates, who marveled Friday at his quick integration. The idea of playing at Xcel Energy Center really brought out the smile in the serious and highly focused teen. In addition to making his home-ice debut, his parents, Anna Ek and Clas Eriksson, have traveled from Sweden and will see him play an NHL game in person for the first time.
“They think it’s fun to see how I’m doing and where I am,” said Eriksson Ek, who had breakfast with his mom and dad before Friday’s practice. “I think they’re really excited.
“My first home game, it will be something special. This is the arena you want to play in, with these good fans. It’s going to be really fun.”
When Bruce Boudreau was hired as the Wild’s coach last spring, he didn’t even know who Eriksson Ek was. Before training camp started, though, he got a call that piqued his interest. Eriksson Ek had participated in a world junior championship evaluation camp in Michigan, and a scout phoned Boudreau to tell him the young Swede was the best player on the ice the entire week.
That prompted Boudreau to give Eriksson Ek a long look in camp. After playing one game with the Wild’s AHL affiliate in Iowa, he was recalled last Saturday to fill in for injured third-line center Erik Haula. The 20th overall pick in the 2015 draft, he became the seventh Wild player to score in his NHL debut when he got the Wild’s first goal in a 2-1 overtime loss at New Jersey.
Stewart said he isn’t surprised to see Eriksson Ek assert himself so quickly. The winger noted that at 6-2 and 198 pounds, the rookie “is built for the pro game,” and two seasons with Farjestad BK in Sweden’s top league helped prepare him for NHL competition.
Over the past year, Eriksson Ek has gained bulk and strength, supplementing his strong fundamentals. Learning the game in Sweden, where defense is emphasized, has made him a highly responsible player in his own end. He also has a gift for reading the play and making good passes.
“He’s very focused, and he does all the right things and the little things to be successful,” center Charlie Coyle said. “You can tell he gets it right away, and that’s pretty special from a young guy.
“I came [into the NHL] when I was 20, and I was pretty nervous. But him? It’s just impressive, a guy his age coming in like that. He plays strong and confident, and he doesn’t show a lot of emotion. He scores, then he’s back to the faceoff circle, ready for the next thing. I admire that.”
Eriksson Ek said the Wild has made things easier by clearly stating expectations, and he appreciates the kind treatment he’s received from his teammates. On the road trip, Stewart said, Eriksson Ek became comfortable enough to show a little more of his personality, including his sense of humor.
He isn’t likely to come up with a way to celebrate goals while his parents are in town for the two-game homestand. But Stewart suggested that Eriksson Ek will need to rectify that sooner rather than later.
“He’s been getting better and more confident every game,” Stewart said. “He’s going to be a special player.”
• Boudreau said he expects defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who missed four games because of an upper-body injury, to play Saturday. Spurgeon practiced Friday and said he is healthy and fit. “I was able to skate a couple of days without the team,” he said. “That’s huge, when you’re able to be on the ice and not lose your skating legs.”
• Defenseman Marco Scandella is listed as day-to-day because of a lower-body injury after getting hurt in a scrum during Thursday’s victory at Buffalo. Boudreau said Haula (foot) probably will be ready to play by early next week.
• The Wild put winger Teemu Pulkkinen on waivers.