Eriksson Ek Finishes Whirlwind Season at World Championships
Four international tournaments plus seasons in Sweden and Minnesota highlight busy campaign for Wild prospectby Brian Hedger / Special to Wild.com
COLOGNE, Germany -- It's easy to get caught up in Joel Eriksson Ek's physical talents.
The Wild rookie forward is a smooth skater, and he's got a shot that makes people take notice whenever he unfurls it. He's got size (6-foot-2, 197-pounds), scans the ice with a keen eye for creating plays and is quick on the draw in the faceoff circle.
What might get overshadowed about him is something that's less tangible and can't be measured statistically. Coaches know it when they see it, though, and Sweden's Rikard Gronberg has seen it out of Eriksson Ek in this 2017 IIHF World Championship.
"The really big thing that sticks out with him is his competitiveness," Gronberg said of Eriksson Ek, a first-round pick by the Wild (20th overall) in the 2015 NHL Draft. "He's so competitive in everything, and that really sticks out. All the 50/50 pucks in the corners and things like that, he competes in every aspect of the game."
The Wild got a taste of it this season.
Eriksson Ek was impressive in two NHL stints, including the final six games of the regular season and three games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He didn't get on the scoresheet in the playoffs, but finished the regular season with three goals and four assists in 15 games.
It was a glimpse at a big part of the Wild's future, which his teammates on the Swedish national team have also seen.
The 20-year-old forward has a goal and two assists in nine games, and helped "Tre Kronor" advance to the gold medal game Sunday against Canada (1:45 p.m., NHL Network).
Eriksson Ek's intense competitive drive has also made him a great fit with Chicago Blackhawks center Marcus Kruger and Joel Lundqvist on the fourth line - a unit that's becoming a shutdown group.
"He's a really good player and a versatile player," said Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who's been impressed by Eriksson Ek in this tournament. "He's got a long, bright future in Minny, and it'll be tough playing against him for years to come."
Eriksson Ek will make sure of it, mainly because of his need to win.
He's the kind of person who just has to win at whatever he does, whether it's a championship game in hockey, a pickup game of soccer with friends in Farjestad, Sweden or a game of table tennis. No matter the stakes, you can bet Eriksson Ek isn't smiling if he isn't winning.
"It's a lot more fun to win than lose, so that's just how I am," he said, minutes after helping Sweden defeat Finland 4-1 in a semifinal game at LANXESS Arena. "It probably comes from my mom and dad, pretty much. I just try to keep away from playing soccer with friends. It just gets me upset sometimes, so I just try to stay away from it."
What he doesn't avoid, apparently, are hockey rinks and long trips.
Eriksson Ek should have accrued plenty of airline points during a busy season. He spent time with the Wild, Farjestad BK of the Swedish Hockey League and has played for Sweden in four tournaments - including the Euro Hockey Tour, the Champions Hockey League, the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship and now the men's world championship.
He even played on game with the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League.
"It was a pretty amazing year for me," he said, thinking back at all the different stops. "It's been a busy year, but I've learned a lot. It feels like I have tried more systems and learned a lot from it."
The next step is getting into the weight room to pack on some muscle, which should help him progress even more.
After earning the role of fourth-line center for the Wild this season, the potential is there for more. Eriksson Ek just needs to use that inner fire to play his way up through Wild coach Bruce Boudreau's lineup.
"I think that [work ethic] is going to take him really far in his career, because right now, he's really only a junior player," Gronberg said. "Hopefully he gets a spot on the Minnesota team next year, where he's going to be a guy who can step up and be on the top three, if not the top two, lines."