Joel Eriksson Ek at last emerges as a scorer Wild believed he could be

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Joel Eriksson Ek's parents never miss a Wild game.

Puck drop is usually in the middle of the night in Sweden, like 2 or 3 a.m., but Clas and Anna either stay up or catch the action first thing in the morning.

What they have seen this season is Joel at his finest.

"You're proud," Clas Eriksson said. "You're glad that he is doing good."

A first-round draft pick as a defense-first center, Eriksson Ek has transformed into a reliable goal scorer, graduating from supporting cast to headliner while discrediting projections that pigeonholed him into a depth role.

"We wanted to see him take the next step in the offensive part of the game, and he's done that," Wild General Manager Bill Guerin said. "Meanwhile, he hasn't sacrificed his 200-foot game doing so."

Eriksson Ek has introduced a new version of himself, but to a family that's had a front-row seat to his entire career, this isn't an epiphany.

It's a revival.

"He's like the boy he's always been," Clas said.

Education in defenseAlthough he never considered his son following in his footsteps, Clas isn't surprised Joel took up hockey.

Clas played professionally in Sweden and Anna Ek worked with children at the community rink, so Eriksson Ek was always around the game. He and younger brother Olle, now a goalie in the Anaheim Ducks organization, went to the arena after school.

"He loved stepping on the ice," Clas recalled in a telephone interview. "He was so happy. It was like the best thing he could do."

When he was about 5 years old, Eriksson Ek started playing, and early in his education he learned to defend. He practiced being in the correct position and leveraging his stick, concentrating on the details in the sport.

"That's the way it starts in Sweden," Clas said. "You're going to have to start to do the defensive side of the play because otherwise you're not going to play."

This focus didn't neglect offense.

"You have five guys defending," Joel said, "but you also have five guys trying to score."

But it explains why, as he progressed through the ranks, Eriksson Ek was a defensive stalwart.

It's the foundation of his game.

And after that was in place, he revealed the rest of his skill set.

"He's always been able to score all the levels he's been at," Clas said. "But every time it's taking a while before he begins to score because he's always wanted to start from the right side."

Keeping scoreEriksson Ek moved through junior hockey in that manner, scoring seldom and then more regularly. The same thing happened when he finally progressed to Sweden's top division as a teenager. He finished with four goals as a rookie and then got to nine when he returned for his second season, a decent total for the low-scoring league.

His evolution with the Wild is no different.

"In the NHL, it's even tougher," Clas said, "because the players are much better, and it takes even longer."

The Wild drafted Eriksson Ek 20th overall in 2015 because he was the diligent, two-way center he was brought up to be, but the team also felt he had offensive upside.

Eriksson Ek previewed some of that potential when he started with the Wild, scoring three goals and assisting on four others in 15 games in 2016-17.

But his production became sporadic as he settled in with the organization. Eriksson Ek picked up only six goals in 2017-18 and had just seven the season after that. The Wild sent him to the minors to find his game; at other times, he was a healthy scratch.

Still, Eriksson Ek was effective elsewhere. He was clean in his own zone. He killed penalties. And he forechecked like a fiend.

"I hate to play against him when we do the scrimmages in the summer," said Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin, who has the same hometown, Karlstad. "I always try to get on the same team because I just hate to play against him. He's so good with his stick. He works so hard and is all over. I always try to be on the same team as him."

Last season, when he went full-time with the Wild, it looked as if Eriksson Ek had established what kind of player he would be in the NHL: a checker that matched up against the opposition's best and not so much the dual-threat center the team pegged him as when the Wild drafted him.

But then the dynamics around Eriksson Ek changed. The Wild overhauled the roster and, by cutting ties with veteran centers Mikko Koivu and Eric Staal, the team created a void — not just up the middle but on its masthead, too.

And that's when Eriksson Ek seized the spotlight. "It's been pretty exciting to see how he's grown into the player he is now," linemate Marcus Foligno said.

Center of attentionIn his first stint as the undisputed No. 1 center, Eriksson Ek has shattered his previous record for goals in a season, going from eight to 19 with two games to go.

Only St. Louis' Ryan O'Reilly has had a better turnaround in the NHL after playing at least 50 games last season, each scoring 12 more goals.

"I always knew how good he was skating with him in the summers," Brodin said. "It's nice to see him play with confidence and make plays because I always knew he could score."

His output is third on the Wild, trailing dynamic Kirill Kaprizov (27) and Kevin Fiala (20), and Eriksson Ek is tied with Kaprizov for the most goals at even strength (19). He's also been clutch late in games with 11 third-period goals.

But what's been admirable about this rebrand is where Eriksson Ek has scored.

All but two of his goals have been buried from the hash-marks in, or within about 20 feet of the net. He routinely causes dust-ups near the crease with an aggressive style that clearly irritates opponents.

"I like to go there," Eriksson Ek said. "Most of the goals are scored there."

Aside from close-range shots, Eriksson Ek has capitalized on a greasy buffet of deflections, a wraparound and six rebounds, including two off his own shots. His .164 shooting percentage is more than double his efficiency in each of the past three seasons.

Overall, Eriksson Ek has generated the most scoring chances at 5-on-5 for the Wild (96), according to Natural Stat Trick, and the most high-danger chances (62), all while taking the most punishment among forwards, absorbing 64 hits.

"He has the guts to be where the goals are scored," Clas said.

Eriksson Ek is averaging a career-high 17 minutes, 3 seconds, almost a minute and a half more than last season, and he believes the added ice time has helped his confidence. His goals have come without power-play time, but responsibility breeds expectation, and Eriksson Ek recognized that he was being put in a position to deliver.

"Once you get to play a little bit more, I think you almost have to score a little more than I did before," he said.

The surge, however, didn't short-circuit his hardwiring. Eriksson Ek makes among the most defensive-zone starts on the team for forwards and his line faces more top players than anyone else — almost 30% of their ice time, according to PuckIQ.com. And yet the number of goals the Wild gives up per 60 minutes when Eriksson Ek is on the ice is lower than the majority of his teammates.

That's been his trademark, his defense, but Eriksson Ek also wants to be known for his offense.

Succeeding at both like he has this year might merit him Selke Trophy attention as the NHL's best defensive forward.

"I definitely knew who he was, knew the name," said goaltender Cam Talbot, who is in his first season with the Wild. "Did I know he was as good as he is? No. He just does so many of the little things that it takes to be successful in this league. He just does them all right, and he does them with intensity and he does them the right way."

Stepping upA former face of the Wild's future, Eriksson Ek is now prominently presiding over the team's present.

The 24-year-old took a turn as an alternate captain when Zach Parise was sidelined, has a key contract negotiation looming and wields the clout to help decide how far the Wild advances through the playoffs. His line with Foligno and Jordan Greenway has been the Wild's most consistent, their brash style a natural fit for the 6-f3, 208-pound Eriksson Ek.

"We like playing with each other," Eriksson Ek said. "We think pretty much the same."

Eriksson Ek realizes he is relied on to do more, and he enjoys that because it means coach Dean Evason trusts him.

"He's feeling that he is important," Clas said, "and he has a great group around him and great coaches with him."

Clas believes his son can be an even better hockey player, but he doesn't offer up advice despite his credentials. When they talk after games, Clas and Anna just want to know how Eriksson Ek is doing and if he's healthy.

"We are Mom and Dad," Clas said. "We are more concerned about other things than the performance on the ice."

What makes them happy is when they can tell Eriksson Ek is happy.

And he is.

He's happy.

"He has more in him than he's showing now," Clas said, "so I think this is a step. If I know him, and I hope I do, he's going to work to get a couple of steps more."