Eriksson Ek becomes Wild’s first-line center after handsome payday

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Joel Eriksson Ek didn't reward himself with a lavish purchase after re-signing with the Wild in the summer.

He had dinner with his family.

"I didn't really do much more than that," Eriksson Ek said.

But he certainly could have.

After his best NHL season that included a career-high 19 goals, Eriksson Ek secured an eight-year contract from the Wild worth $42 million to make him the longest-signed player on the team.

His profile grew even more when he reported to training camp and learned on the first day of practice that he'd been elevated to the team's top line next to Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello, a trio that will debut Friday when the season opens at Anaheim.

A raise and promotion, however, haven't changed Eriksson Ek.

"He's even keel all the time, that guy," winger Marcus Foligno said.

And that could help Eriksson Ek transfer the momentum from his breakout performance to his new assignment.

"I feel like I'm the same guy," Eriksson Ek said. "I'm just happy to get to play, and it's what you dream of as a kid. Just getting the opportunity to play with those two guys is, of course, fun. Those two are super-skilled players.

"I just try to [make] the best out of it. I think if I try to be something I'm not, I'm not going to be as good as I can."

Although he skated with Kaprizov and Zuccarello only sparingly last season, Eriksson Ek was already playing like a No. 1 center.

The 24-year-old anchored the Wild's most consistent line, a two-way wrecking ball with Foligno and Jordan Greenway. Not only were they adept at defending the other team's best players, but they also supplied offense, as evidenced by Eriksson Ek's 19 goals. Only Kaprizov (27) and Kevin Fiala (20) had more on the Wild.

This was a massive spike in production for the 6-3, 207-pound Eriksson Ek, whose season high during the previous four campaigns was eight after the team drafted him out of Sweden in the first round, 20th overall, in 2015. And what these finishes had in common was Eriksson Ek's positioning in front of the net.

"There's a lot of goals scored from that way," said Eriksson Ek, who buried all but two of his 19 tallies from inside the hash marks. "There are tips, rebounds, and there is not a lot of beating a goalie from outside the dots anymore."

That's the style the Wild has identified as a complement to Kaprizov and Zuccarello.

"They're so smart and so good with the puck," Eriksson Ek said. "Their passing and how they carry the puck is really good. I'm just trying to fill in for maybe what they don't do as much. Just try to go to the front of the net, take one or two guys with me to go there and … I think that can hopefully help them play with a little bit more space."

This strategy worked in the preseason, particularly against Colorado on Oct. 4; Eriksson Ek had two players near him when he crashed the crease, leaving a wide-open lane for captain Jared Spurgeon to skate into and bury a Kaprizov pass.

Later, Eriksson Ek was again by the front of the net when Kaprizov dumped a give-and-go with Zuccarello into the back of the net. And he was a screen on a Jonas Brodin goal set up by Kaprizov.

"That's his spot," coach Dean Evason said. "That's where he's comfortable. That's where he's happy. That's where we're happy he is."

What will make Eriksson Ek even happier is if the Wild succeeds.

Players hung out quite a bit last season, and Eriksson Ek sensed the group grow closer. He also felt the results on the ice — a 35-16-5 record and competitive first-round playoff loss to Vegas — were just the beginning of "something really good."

Eriksson Ek wanted to be here and in July, he and the Wild finalized his new contract after three days. A 10-team, no-trade list kicks in for the second half of the deal, which is a substantial hike from the $2.975 million Eriksson Ek earned over the previous two seasons.

"We didn't want to force that [term] on him, so we kind of came in with fewer years," General Manager Bill Guerin said. "But then they said, 'What about eight years?' And we said, 'Great.'"

Not only is that plenty of games for Eriksson Ek to make an impact for the Wild, but he'll also have more time to treat himself.

Maybe a Stanley Cup will do.

"That would be great," Eriksson Ek said. "That would be my ultimate goal."

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