Everything seems so much more familiar now. Xcel Energy Center feels like home to Joel Eriksson Ek, and the daily grind of NHL life has become second nature.
Knowing what to expect has allowed the young Wild forward to think only about the business at hand: showing he is ready to make a significant leap forward in his development. So far, so good. Even with one fresh wrinkle in training camp — moving from center to wing, at least temporarily — Eriksson Ek is clicking on a line with Charlie Coyle and Jordan Greenway, validating coach Bruce Boudreau’s excitement about his second full NHL season.
Boudreau said in August he thinks Eriksson Ek is “ready to take a real big-sized jump to be a major part of our team.’’ Eriksson Ek feels ready, too, to expand on the wealth of experience gained through 75 regular-season games in 2017-18.
“Camp has been good so far,’’ Eriksson Ek said Monday, before the Wild’s 5-3 loss at Dallas in which he scored a goal. “It’s helpful to know everyone around the team.
“I learned a lot last year. I’m still learning every day. This season, I want to be good every night and every day, and keep working as hard as I can.’’
The Wild’s first-round pick in the 2015 NHL draft, the 21-year-old finished last season with six goals and 10 assists. Playing on the third or fourth lines, he endured a long goal-scoring drought but gave the Wild a physical presence with 134 hits. He was particularly effective late in the season as the fourth-line center, flanked by Marcus Foligno and Daniel Winnik.
In his first full NHL season, he had to adapt to a schedule that included nearly twice as many games as he played in his native Sweden. As the season progressed, he became more comfortable, winning Boudreau’s praise for his effort, attentiveness and willingness to learn.
“He’s one of those guys that when you’re talking in the room to them, he’s following you, then he goes out and does what you asked,’’ Boudreau said. “He works so hard. He’s a dynamic forechecker, and he’s really good at being responsible when he doesn’t have the puck.’’
That responsibility made an impression on the Wild’s players, too, who found it a promising sign for such a young player. While Coyle appreciated Eriksson Ek’s performance in a checking role last season, he believes he could contribute more scoring with the right linemates.
Through most of camp, Eriksson Ek has been playing left wing on the third line with Coyle on the right, as Boudreau gives Greenway a tryout at center. As part of a trio with size, skill and tenacity, Eriksson Ek has two assists and nine shots on goal in three preseason games.
“When he’s put in a situation where he can play with guys who can make plays and create scoring opportunities, you’ll start to see his point totals go up and up,’’ Coyle said. “He’s such a smart player. He works hard, and he’s got the body to be a big-time NHL forward now. I think it’s all going to come together for him.’’
Coyle said Eriksson Ek is “a beast in the gym’’ and has added strength to his 6-1, 208-pound frame. The added familiarity, though, might be the biggest difference.
“Those first games last year, you’re just trying to take everything in,’’ Eriksson Ek said. “It’s a new country, a new rink, everything. Then you see you can play here. Now I just have to keep working and trying to get better.’’