Wild General Manager Bill Guerin has a number of offseason priorities this summer. The most important include re-signing young cornerstones Kirill Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek.
A month into the offseason, one of those priorities has been checked off the list.
Eriksson Ek became the first of the Wild's three restricted free agents to extend his stay in Minnesota last week when he inked the first eight-year contract of Guerin's tenure, agreeing to a deal that will pay the emerging centerman $42 million over the lifetime of the deal, one that will keep him in the State of Hockey through the 2028-29 season.
"We like the player, obviously, we like the person. And when they show a willingness to sign long term, I think it's even better," Guerin said. "We didn't know where it was going to land when we first started talking, and to be honest with you, this took three days. It just shows how much Joel wants to be here and his commitment to the team.
"When you have the team that likes the player and the player wants to show that kind of commitment, that's the way it works."
Video: VGK@MIN, Gm3: Eriksson Ek beats Fleury at doorstep
Drafted by the Wild 20th overall in 2015, Eriksson Ek has gotten better every year he's been in the NHL. He debuted in 2016-17 and scored three goals and seven points in 15 games before seeing his first full-time action in the League the following season, tallying six goals and 16 points in 76 games.
He's seen his offensive numbers jump in each of the past two seasons, scoring eight goals and 29 points in 62 games in 2019-20 before scoring a career-best 19 goals and 30 points in 56 games this past season, to go with a plus-16.
In addition to his offense, Eriksson Ek has developed into one of the premier two-way centermen in the NHL, finishing fourth in voting for the Selke Trophy this season, awarded "to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game."
"I think that's the term that you hear a lot, a 200-foot player," Guerin said. "To me, you need your centers to be that. They have to play a 200-foot game and he does it and does it very well. He gets the toughest matchups all year, he gets a lot of the PK responsibility and he's going to start getting more power play. He's a very complete player, and at 24 years old, there's still a lot of room to grow. You're not done developing yet and we're looking for him to take some big steps in the years to come too."
While scouts and general managers have insisted for years that Eriksson Ek had more offense to his game - the kind of offense that appeared for the Wild this season - there's never been any question about his ability to control the game from the defensive end.
And it's an area Eriksson Ek takes a tremendous amount of pride in.
Video: MIN@VGK, Gm1: Eriksson Ek buries OT winner in Game 1
"I just try and be as honest as I can as a player," Eriksson Ek said. "Just taking my responsibilities and in whatever situation I'm put in, trying my hardest and trying my best."
Eriksson Ek's best went to a new level last season, as Guerin said he saw a different player.
"I think you could see his confidence grow this year," Guerin said. "He just kept getting better and better and asserting himself more and more. And I think he wants even more. I think he wants more responsibility and I think he wants to show us that he's capable of even more. Joel also has great leadership qualities and we want him to continue to ... express those and show those.
"He's just a good young player for us and we think with an eight-year deal, we're getting his best years."
Eriksson Ek is just the latest long-term extension Guerin has agreed to over the past year, joining defensemen Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin on deals that will keep those three around for years to come.
"Those two guys, they're leaders on this team," Eriksson Ek said. "Seeing those guys every day and how professional they are, and the people they are too, that's something I want to be a part of."
Both Spurgeon and Brodin inked seven-year extensions with one year remaining on their previous deals ... so while they kept the blueliners locked into Minnesota for eight seasons, Eriksson Ek's eight-year contract is the first max-term contract Guerin has agreed to.
And with good reason.
Not only does Eriksson Ek play a premium position, one where you can never have too many impactful players, but he also plays that position in the exact way Guerin wants each of the men at that spot to play.
During his pre-offseason press conference last month, Guerin said as much.
"It's not 1986 where wingers go up and down the wall and centers pass them the puck," Guerin said at the time. "We need centers to play a 200-foot game like Ek does and create offense in his own way. There's a lot of different ways to skin that cat."
Bjugstad signs on for an additional year
Eriksson Ek wasn't the only Wild forward to extend his stay over the holiday weekend, as Nick Bjugstad re-signed for one season at $900,000.
The pending unrestricted free agent, acquired in a trade last offseason from the Pittsburgh Penguins, was a useful piece for the Wild last season, skating in 44 games and scoring six goals and 17 points. Half of those tallies were game winners, a total which was tied for second on the team with Kaprizov, Zach Parise and Marcus Johansson.
Video: VGK@MIN, Gm6: Bjugstad skates in and nets backhander
A native of Blaine and former University of Minnesota standout, Bjugstad's plus-7 was the best of his career.
While he played mostly wing down the stretch, Bjugstad has the ability to play center in a pinch and brings much needed versatility, along with size and skill to the Wild's bottom-six forward group.
A first-round selection of Florida (19th overall) in the 2010 NHL Draft, Bjugstad has skated in 483 career games, scoring 103 goals and 224 points. He's also scored three goals and five points in 15 career postseason contests, including one goal in six games for Minnesota against Vegas.