LAS VEGAS — For as long as Wild center Joel Eriksson Ek has been in the NHL, he has been endlessly compared to Vancouver Canucks winger Brock Boeser. That’s what happens when the hometown team passes on the hometown kid.
The players have been intertwined since the 2015 NHL Draft at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla. Never mind that Eriksson Ek and Boeser are completely different players. The comparisons were unavoidable as soon as former Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher selected Eriksson Ek with the No. 20 overall pick despite the fact that Boeser was still on the board.
There was a long list of reasons for the decision.
Most important, Eriksson Ek played a position of need, and with former captain Mikko Koivu starting to get up there in age, he seemed like a natural fit to replace him down the road. Add in the fact that Eriksson Ek played a style that appeared to be built for the playoffs, and Fletcher and right-hand man Brent Flahr felt comfortable with their decision.
They stayed true to their big board on June 25, 2015, and sent in the pick shortly after the Wild were on the clock. It’s clear now that Fletcher and Flahr made the right choice. It just took a while to get to this point.
The most recent evidence came on Sunday afternoon at T-Mobile Arena. Already having a breakout season, Eriksson Ek scored the game-winner in overtime to lift the Wild to a 1-0 win over the Vegas Golden Knights. He played hero in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series after excelling in a shutdown role for more than 60 minutes of play.
That’s pretty much Eriksson Ek in a nutshell. He might be the best two-way player in the league that nobody has ever heard of. He’s flown under the radar for most of his career so far because of his unassuming demeanor. He’s not the flashiest player by any means and he’ll likely never be a 40-goal scorer in the league.
That said, Eriksson Ek does all the little things it takes to win at a high level. He’s capable of vaporizing the other team’s best player on any given night with his unmatched commitment in the defensive end. That’s long been his calling card and his ability in the offensive end has finally started to catch up this season. His game-winner on Sunday afternoon helped him reach the 20-goal mark.
“It’s taken some different learning experiences and going through it and recognizing that he can be that guy,” Wild coach Dean Evason said. “It doesn’t happen all of a sudden. It’s a process that every pro goes through to figure out, ‘Jeez. Maybe I can score at this level.’ He hasn’t changed his game. His game stayed the exact same. He’s just probably got a little more confident and knows that he can score.”
That lack of finishing touch was low-hanging fruit for the Eriksson Ek haters early in his career. Especially with Boeser proving to be a dynamic offensive player as soon as he got to the league. In his first full season in the league, the Burnsville native scored 29 goals and tallied 26 assists in 62 games.
As time has progressed, though, Eriksson Ek has steadily improved in all aspects of his game. He’s taken on a much larger role offensively this season while still serving as a force defensively whenever he’s on the ice. You can pretty much guarantee that at some point Eriksson Ek is going to win a Selke Trophy, which is awarded annually to the forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game.
That’s something linemates Jordan Greenway and Marcus Foligno can say with full confidence, too, after getting to play with Eriksson Ek night in and night out.
“I find myself talking about the good things that Ekker does a lot,” Greenway said. “I say often that a lot of the things that he does, it goes unrecognized, but when when we play on his line, it’s very noticeable. It’s nice now to see that he’s getting the credit that he deserves.”
He’s earned that credit by stepping up in big moments like he did in Game 1.
“It’s nice to see him get rewarded,” Foligno said. “He’s a huge part of our team and up the middle makes us a lot stronger as a center man. He comes to work every night. You don’t have to question him so it’s nice to have that stability on our team. He’s a huge reason why we’ve had the season we’ve had.”
Needless to say, nobody is questioning the Wild for taking Eriksson Ek over Boeser once upon a time. He’s proven to be the exact player Fletcher and Flahr thought he could be.