Bruce Boudreau never doubted that Joel Eriksson Ek would develop into a good NHL player. Based on the pace of the young forward’s progress, though, the Wild coach expected he would have to be patient.
That’s why Boudreau is a little surprised — and very much delighted — at what he’s seen over the past month. Since Eriksson Ek returned Feb. 6 from a stint with the Wild’s AHL affiliate in Iowa, he’s stepped up his play, with four goals and two assists in 11 games. He’s also been solid defensively, helping the Wild fill the void left by injured captain Mikko Koivu.
Eriksson Ek’s most recent goal gave the Wild a huge lift, securing a 3-2 victory at Winnipeg on Tuesday. That extended its win streak to four games going into one of the more challenging stretches of the season. The Wild plays Saturday at Calgary, the top team in the Western Conference, before facing Central Division leader Nashville twice and going on the road to play NHL points leader Tampa Bay.
During the Wild’s February slump, Boudreau often singled out his young forwards for praise. They’re now playing important roles in reviving the team’s playoff push, with Eriksson Ek’s acceleration providing a welcome boost.
“He’s developing, and now he’s developing at a faster rate than even we thought he would,’’ Boudreau said of the 22-year-old center, who has six goals and seven assists in 47 games this season. “I thought it would be this time next year when he’d be a real big impact player. But it’s come at the right time.’’
The six goals equal the number Eriksson Ek scored in 75 games as a rookie last season, and his 13 points are just short of last season’s 16. He’s also third on the Wild with 88 hits, including 29 in his past 11 games.
Eriksson Ek said he hasn’t changed how he plays, nor has he had any kind of epiphany. But he is getting more minutes — often with more skilled linemates — and the additional ice time has helped him feel more comfortable and confident.
“I got to play a lot down in Iowa, and when I came back here, I’ve been playing more than I did before,’’ Eriksson Ek said. “I think that fits me a little better.
“This is a good league, and it’s different, with a lot of travel and a lot of games. I’m still learning every day. But I knew if I kept pushing myself and trying to do my best every day, I would play more. And things feel pretty good right now.’’
The Wild has long held high expectations for Eriksson Ek, chosen with the 20th overall pick in the 2015 NHL draft. But an upper-body injury in the third game of the season sidelined him for two weeks and stalled his progress.
Eriksson Ek managed only one goal and three assists in his first 27 games. Though Boudreau liked his work ethic and defensive play, he made him a healthy scratch in three games to serve notice that the team needed more. In late December, Eriksson Ek was sent to Iowa in the hope he could rediscover his scoring touch.
He did, with four goals and two assists in five games. Following another stint in Iowa so he could keep playing during the Wild’s NHL-mandated eight-day break, Eriksson Ek returned for good.
“Confidence has a lot to do with it,’’ Boudreau said. “A more important role has a lot to do with it. Instead of 10 or 11 minutes [per game], he’s playing 15-plus minutes. And maturity has a lot to do with it, too.’’
The expansion of Eriksson Ek’s role and playing time coincided with Koivu’s season-ending knee injury. With his team in need of someone to take on more responsibility at center, Eriksson Ek answered the call, giving the Wild a consistent two-way presence.
He has provided some physical edge, delivering a career-high six hits in a victory against the New York Rangers. Eriksson Ek’s size and strength also is an asset on offense; against the Jets, he stood his ground at the edge of the goalmouth, jabbing at the puck until he scored the winner with 61 seconds remaining.
“I’ve always known what kind of player he is, and I think everyone in this room has known it,’’ said forward Luke Kunin, an occasional linemate of Eriksson Ek. “He’s very skilled, but also very good defensively. It’s just starting to click for him. What he’s doing is a big part of the success we’re having right now.’’
Eriksson Ek said he is thinking less about his individual game and more about how he can be an effective piece of the group. He feels stronger, which is helping him maintain puck possession, make plays, generate momentum and defend tirelessly. The objective is to be the kind of player the Wild hoped he would be, and to get there sooner rather than later.
“You grow with experience,’’ Eriksson Ek said. “Every day, you can be learning and getting better, which is what I want to do.’’