Joel Eriksson Ek's confidence level grew throughout the 2020-21 NHL season. And for good reason.
The 24-year-old centerman set career highs in almost every offensive category. The line of Jordan Greenway, Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno was the most consistent line for the Wild during the season, with all three player's physical play setting the tone for the rest of the team, while also filling up the stat sheet.
Eriksson Ek's incredible season was only heightened as the Wild faced the Vegas Golden Knights in the playoffs. He recorded two goals and one assist in the seven-game series while also adding two more goals that were eventually called back after Vegas challenges.
His complete 200-foot game was tailor-made for the playoffs and he garnered more national attention after scoring the game's lone goal in overtime in Game 1.
Video: MIN@VGK, Gm1: Eriksson Ek buries OT winner in Game 1
After injuring his knee in the third period of Game 6, it was clear that he was not playing at 100 percent, but Eriksson Ek played through it all, epitomizing the type of toughness and grittiness he has played with in a Wild sweater.
"I had a knee that got banged up a little bit," Eriksson Ek said. "That's how it is in playoffs. Everybody plays hard. Everybody gets something."
The first round loss stung, but the centerman is ready to make a deeper run next year.
"I think you always want to get better and better," he said. "You want to get better to win. That's what I want to do. We want to win. We have been playing pretty good in the regular season. Just take these games and learn from them and get better."
Eriksson Ek will be a restricted free agent when the new league year begins on July 28 and Bill Guerin has made it extremely clear that the priority this offseason is to retain the team's restricted free agents.
"The biggest priority is signing Kaprizov, signing Ek and signing Fiala," Guerin proclaimed without hesitation.
Video: Season Wrap Up: Bill Guerin
Guerin brought up Eriksson Ek many times during his press conference on Thursday, consistently praising the young forward. When talking about the type of centers he is looking to have on the roster next season, he said he wants more like Eriksson Ek. Centers who can make an impact all over the ice and create offense in their own way. He also applauded the level of professionalism and the improvement of some of the team's younger players, citing Eriksson Ek and Greenway.
"We talk every day about our culture, our culture has improved," Guerin said. "The level of professionalism, the improvement from some of our young players like Jordan Greenway and Eriksson Ek and guys like that, yeah, it's going in the right direction.
It takes two sides to make a deal and Eriksson Ek has also made it known he wants to remain with the organization.
"Of course I want to be here." Eriksson Ek said. "I think it's pretty clear I like it. I've been here for four years now, four and a half almost, and it's been nothing but great. The fans, the city, and everybody on the team is amazing.
"I love it here. We are a great team. I really feel like we can win. I felt that before every game. Just take this as a learning experience and keep getting better."
Video: Season Wrap Up: Joel Eriksson Ek
Eriksson Ek recorded a career-high 19 goals this season, easily surpassing his previous high of eight. He also added 11 third-period goals, tied for the seventh-most in the League. He always seemed to end up in the right spot at the right time in big moments.
The forward also had career bests in points, plus-minus and faceoff percentage. His +16 point differential was the fourth-highest on the team, and second amongst forwards, trailing just Marcus Foligno.
With his contract status, it was the perfect time for Eriksson Ek to take the next step forward in his career, and it was an opportunity he came into the season very prepared for.
"I think starting last year, I felt more confident." Eriksson Ek said. "You feel like you get to play a little bit extra. You believe a little bit more in yourself. Just building up to this season I really felt I had a good summer and came here and played as good as I can. I've been playing with Moose and Greener mostly this year and it's been really good. We liked playing with each other. Just thinking the same way. They helped me a lot. Just being around those guys has been good for me.
"It was a big step for me this year. I feel I got better. It builds confidence too. Never get satisfied. Like I said earlier I want to get better to win. We have to get better to win. And that's what I want to do."
Eriksson Ek has been a cog on the team's penalty kill since becoming a regular in the team's lineup in 2017. He leads all Wild forwards in ice time on the penalty kill since 2017 and helped the unit finish 12th in the League shorthanded. He also ranked second on the team amongst all forwards in hits and blocks.
His emergence this season has made him one of the top up-and-coming two-way centers in the League, but he was not named as a finalist for the Selke Trophy, an award given to a forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game. But the individual accolades are not the accolades that Eriksson Ek has on the forefront of his mind.
"I would rather win something with my team," he said. "The individual part comes secondary. It's fun. I haven't really thought too much about it. It's been so much with games and stuff you're just trying to stay focused."