Alex Tuch and Joel Eriksson Ek can feel the eyes above scrutinizing their every move.
Fans, media and especially the Wild’s front office and coaches are examining every move of the 2014 and 2015 first-round draft picks, from the way they play to their effort in the gym to the way they conduct themselves away from the rink.
Both are working hard to potentially make the Wild out of camp.
After playing in Monday’s exhibition opener against his favorite team as a kid, the Buffalo Sabres, Tuch played his second preseason game in as many nights Tuesday in the Wild’s exhibition home opener against Colorado.
Eriksson Ek made his NHL preseason debut.
“I’m trying to go out there and play hard, physical and battle really hard and show them I want to compete and play at the next level,” said Tuch, 20, a native of Syracuse, N.Y. “I don’t want to get that meeting where they’re telling me they’re sending me down to Iowa. I want to make the team. If they do send me down, I know they have a real good coaching staff there that will help my hockey development.”
Eriksson Ek, 19, played professionally last season in Sweden. Playing against men, his nine goals in 41 games were the most of anybody in his age group. For Tuch, it’s historically a big leap to go from college to the NHL. He scored 18 goals in 40 games as a Boston College sophomore last season after scoring 14 as a freshman. He represented the United States at the 2015 world junior tournament but wasn’t chosen at the most recent one.
“He’s going to make our team in the near future, whether that’s out of training camp, whether it’s midseason, whether it’s next October,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “He’s a real good prospect.”
The Wild has to make the correct decision with Eriksson Ek. If he doesn’t make the team, it sounds as if he’ll return to Sweden to play this season for Farjestad rather than play for Iowa of the AHL.
“If he’s not ready, I don’t think there’s any harm of him going back,” Fletcher said. “If he’s very close or able to make our team, it’s a different story.”
Added assistant GM Brent Flahr, “His mind-set is to make the team and so far his play this summer and in camp, he’s put himself in position to get a chance. But [if he’s not ready], going back to Sweden is probably best for a 19-year-old. He’ll have a huge role there and play world juniors. If he was a year older, it’d be a no-brainer [to assign him to Iowa].”
If it’s close, the Wild could extend Eriksson Ek’s opportunity by playing him up to nine games without burning the first year of his three-year contract. Farjestad’s season already has begun, but Eriksson Ek has no problem being late or perhaps not returning at all.
“Here’s where I want to play,” Eriksson Ek said. “The dream of any kid playing hockey in Sweden is to someday be an NHL player. But if I can’t make it, Sweden’s not a bad option. It’s a good league and you can develop a lot in it.”
Eriksson Ek, who gets the Ek part of his last name from his mother, Anna, is a smooth center. He’s smart, skates well and, in Monday’s practice, even stunned veteran Ryan Suter by dipsy-doodling around him.
Tuch is a pure power winger. The 6-4 Tuch was drafted at 205 pounds. He’s now a well-conditioned 220. The 6-2 Eriksson Ek was drafted at 180 pounds. He now weighs 198.
Eriksson Ek’s father, Clas Eriksson, a longtime Swedish Elite League player, is Farjestad’s strength coach and has worked with his son on leg strength.
“Smart,” coach Bruce Boudreau said of Eriksson Ek. “He doesn’t look to offense first. He’s a typical Swede that looks to defend. He knows where to go positionally. He’s a guy a coach is going to trust.
“That Tuch is a big boy,” Boudreau added. “He can be a bull in a china shop. By the time it’s all over and done with, you’ll have a real power forward here.”