The names of Minnesota Wild forward prospects Alex Tuch and Joel Eriksson Ek seemed to roll off the tongues of coaches and managers during last week’s Development Camp more than any others.
Perhaps it’s not surprising.
Before Luke Kunin was drafted by the Wild last month, both Tuch (2014) and Eriksson Ek (2015) were the organization’s two most recent first-round selections.
Entering the camp, Tuch seemed like the prospect more likely to reach the NHL first. His combination of size and skill, and his newly-signed pro contract, put him in a better position to see his name on Minnesota's depth chart quicker.
Then Eriksson Ek showed up to camp.
In the span of one year, the Swedish-born left-shot teenager has added 15 pounds of muscle to his frame, and after a strong performance in his second Development Camp, has kept his name in the conversation as the calendar draws closer to training camp.
There are still plenty of hurdles for Eriksson Ek to clear, and while a strong Development Camp is far from the only barometer for whether a player is ready to make the NHL jump, it certainly didn’t hurt Eriksson Ek’s chances.
“We don’t totally evaluate it but at the same time, we’re watching,” Wild Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr said. “[Eriksson Ek], he’s made so many strides physically off the ice that he’s going to come into camp and we’re going to see what we can do.
“Are we making decisions right now? No. But are we going to close doors on players? No. That’s probably the fairest thing to say.”
Coaches put Tuch and Eriksson Ek together from the start of on-ice activities, and they were rarely apart. Each flourished all week, with Eriksson Ek scoring a goal in both scrimmages.
“I thought they were really good together out there together,” Wild Director of Player Development Brad Bombardir said. “That’s a nice little combination to be honest with you. It’s fun to watch them play.”
Eriksson Ek said he came to camp this week with reasonable goals in mind. First and foremost, he wanted to start off on the right foot (or skate) with new Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau.
“The first impression is a lasting impression,” Eriksson Ek said. “Give [myself] the best [chance] to improve [my] game and to be a better person.”
While Eriksson Ek has played mostly on the wing in Sweden, he said he feels more comfortable at center, a position in which organizational depth is paramount.
“You’re always trying to find centers; good, high-quality, skilled centers,” Bombardir said. “They’re tough to find.”
In addition to a burgeoning offensive skill set, Eriksson Ek said he also prides himself on playing a solid two-game and being a dependable, 200-foot player.
“I work hard in both ends of the ice and always try to put the team first,” Eriksson Ek said. “Right now, I just need to develop my game and improve myself and get better every day.”
With more experience and a bigger frame (now at 6-foot-2, 198 pounds), Eriksson Ek has also come out of his shell socially. Still working on mastering English, Eriksson Ek seems more comfortable talking about his experiences over the last year.
That comfort has helped increase his confidence both on and off the ice.
“He’s a typical Swede. They are very respectful in that way and they rarely want to ever talk about themselves,” Bombardir said. “That’s what you like about them is they’re just confident; they’re not cocky, they’re confident. Cocky is having to tell people how good you are. Eriksson Ek doesn’t do that, he just shows people how good he is.”
Eriksson Ek’s growth in all areas has also made the Wild more confident that they have a potential game-changer knocking on the door of the Wild's locker room sooner rather than later.
“You can tell, he’s a heck of a hockey player,” Bombardir said. “He’s going to be a special player in the NHL for years to come.”