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  • Joel Eriksson Ek Is Just Getting Started


    Image courtesy of Matt Blewett-USA Today Sports
    Tony Abbott

    Is there a luckier player in the NHL than Joel Eriksson Ek? It seems like every line he settles into is suddenly a contender for the title of The Best Line In Hockey. Minnesota Wild fans first saw this over the past several years with Eriksson Ek skating alongside Marcus Foligno and Jordan Greenway. From 2019-20 to 2021-22, they out-scored opponents 52-16 while owning 64.5% of the expected goal share at 5-on-5.

    Put another way: They controlled the ice in a way only the best of the best lines in hockey do. Think the Patrice Bergeron-Brad Marchand-David Pastrnak line, or Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner-Michael Bunting. But instead of having multiple superstars, it was three bottom-six forwards. Their chemistry was so great, though, that they had the secret sauce to dominate together that couldn't be replicated with anyone else.

    Or so we thought. 

    Last year saw that line falter, and the Wild broke it up permanently. They traded Greenway to the Buffalo Sabres, then split up Eriksson Ek and Foligno, primarily pairing Eriksson Ek with Matt Boldy. With new linemates playing a much more skilled style, you'd think Eriksson Ek might have trouble adjusting to a new role, let alone coming close to matching his grind-line successes of old.

    Nah. Instead of floundering without The Best Line In HockeyThe Best Line In Hockey just happened to appear whenever Eriksson Ek and Boldy took the ice.

    For 376 glorious minutes, Eriksson Ek and Boldy absolutely devoured the rest of the league as if they were Joey Chestnut with a 12-pack of Hebrew Nationals. They out-scored opponents by a 21-6 margin. That's not only similar to what Eriksson Ek accomplished on his previous line, it was at the very top of the league.

    There were 293 pairs of forwards who played 300 or more minutes together at 5-on-5 last year. Eriksson Ek and Boldy's 77.9% take of the goals share was first among those 293. Is that some kind of fluke?

    To some extent, yes. Wild goaltenders had a .966 save percentage with those two on the ice. Both Eriksson Ek and Boldy are great defenders, but still, there's definitely some luck there. But in a big-picture sense, no. Their underlying numbers were nearly as sterling as their goal differential.

    Their expected goal share -- which focuses only on the quality of chances they create, not whether they score or get scored on -- was 60.7% when they were on the ice together. Going back to those 293 forward pairings, and they rank 23rd in the NHL. They got lucky, but earned those fortunate breaks with incredible play.

    Dean Evason's rigid adherence to sticking to lines once they've shown that they work can be frustrating, but there's a fortunate flip side in this case. At least we can be confident that we'll see Eriksson Ek and Boldy together again next year. For the first time, Eriksson Ek is in line to be a top-six center, playing with top-six talent. What can he do with that opportunity?

    To look at what he can do next, we have to look at what's happened so far. He had a breakout season at age-24 and then built on that over the next two seasons. His first breakout season saw him score 30 points in 56 games (44 over an 82-game pace). The following year, he scored a career-high 26 goals and 49 points, following that up by racking up 61 points last season. 

    Let's say that Boldy and Eriksson Ek wind up playing together as often as Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello have been for the past couple of years. That works out to about 85% of their 5-on-5 minutes. If they both play 1100 5-on-5 minutes next year, we're looking at 935 minutes together. 

    Eriksson Ek and Boldy both had 14 5-on-5 points in their time together last season, working out to 2.23 points per hour. Over 935 minutes, we're talking about 35 5-on-5 points for the both of them. Assuming Eriksson Ek hits about 1.75 points per hour over his remaining time (his three-year average, sans Boldy), we're up to 40 points at 5-on-5 alone. 

    That level of 5-on-5 scoring wouldn't just be a career-high for Eriksson Ek, it'd put him on the fringes of the NHL's top-50 forwards. Trevor Zegras (41 5-on-5 points), Joe Pavelski (40), Matty Beniers (40), and Mika Zibanejad (40) were some centers who got that level of scoring last season.

    Add that to the fact that Eriksson Ek is still the undisputed net-front presence on a power play that is bringing back Kaprizov, Boldy, Zuccarello, and Calen Addison. That very same role brought Eriksson Ek 12 goals in each of the past two seasons, and 23 points last year. With how good the power play was last season, he should have little trouble repeating that success. Add that to 40 points at 5-on-5 alongside Boldy, and we're up to a career-high 63 points for Eriksson Ek.

    That's all good, but now let's ask: What if he can do that, and isn't plagued by bad shooting luck next year?

    Last season might not stick out as an unlucky year for Eriksson Ek, as he shot 9.3% against a career 9.8%. But given the quality of his shots, Eriksson Ek left a lot on the table. In all situations, he posted 23 goals despite ranking 20th in the NHL with 34.9 expected goals. As great as his third breakout year was, he "should" have been rocking a 35-goal, 72-point season.

    Now, there are players who typically put up much higher expected goal totals than their actual goal totals. Someone like Brady Tkachuk, for example, gets a lot of shots from in close, but he doesn't have the finishing talent to convert all of those chances into goals. It might be easy to think of Eriksson Ek being that, given how poor he was at shooting early in his career. Looking at his full career should dispel that notion, though. 

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    Once Eriksson Ek's game started maturing, he became a player whose actual and expected goals more or less matched each other. It'd seem that last year was a pretty substantial outlier, and a bounce-back in that department would easily push him over the 30-goal mark, and perhaps even higher.

    Especially on a Best Line In Hockey contender, which we know is where Eriksson Ek is going to be. That will be partly due to Boldy's presence, but also because we can guarantee that Eriksson Ek will be on that line. History shows that Eriksson Ek's presence on a line is going to propel it to that status. Now, with a top-tier offensive talent riding shotgun alongside him, we should get to fully see what Eriksson Ek is capable of.

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    Is JEE shaping up to have a better career than Mr. Minnesota Center himself, Mikko Koivu?

    I wonder if JEE gets more top 6 minutes and opportunities like Mikko if he could be as good as Koivu. Koivu still dominates in face-offs though.

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    "Is JEE shaping up to have a better career than Mr. Minnesota Center himself, Mikko Koivu?

    I wonder if JEE gets more top 6 minutes and opportunities like Mikko if he could be as good as Koivu. Koivu still dominates in face-offs though."

     

    At this point, yes. As long as he can stay healthy and stay with the team for the long haul, I'd say he eclipses Koivu in points. Faceoffs might be a different story, but there have been many centers that improve over time in that regard.

    Edited by CoolHandL
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    When I look back at the Wild and the beginning of what is now, Ek is simply amazing.

    He was a #1 draft pick and was caught in the comparison game right away from draft night.

    Undeterred, he kept fighting to put his stamp on this team. I remember him being buried with limited minutes and opportunities. He remained dedicated.

    It seems like overnight he has blossomed into a core piece of this team with little "fan" fare. He was second guessed, but stayed committed to his trade. I'm so happy he did.

    Ek is the "Wild Glue". He's that annoying little brother that you love to hate if he's not on your team. Ek is blue collar, unassuming, gritty, in your face on the ice, modest off and always well spoken and showing maturity. He's respected amongst his peers and leads by example as an informal leader of this team. He's always willing to answer the tough questions, admit his short comings, but stay focused. He's got Assistant Captain written all over his style of play.

    I couldn't be happier for this young man who has sold out everything to give us a game. He's not perfect, improving every year. Who knows where that will take us

    He's obviously loves Minnesota, the fans and has given more to this team than taken at 5 million a year, because that's a steal. He cares about this team and shows us the money is not his top priority. Who tries to play hockey with a broken fibula, not many.

    Ek is the guy we need on this team.  His character sets the example and his talent is growing and I believe is unmeasurable at this point in his career. His line may be #2 in name, but I have a feeling this year with Boldy n JoJo they will really be #1, no disrespect to KK.

    I want to see his jersey hanging next to Mikko's some day. It's gonna be a fun ride!

     

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    Great stuff, Tony. JEEK has succeeded every time they’ve increased his role. 

     

    It just came out today so too late for this article but The Athletic ranked the top NHL contracts. Boldy was 5th and JEEK was HR, so top 15. 

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    Ek's got more skill than people give him credit for. He works on the things he's weak at, and usually comes back from summer much better. I'd expect him to be better at faceoffs again next season.

    I also think we got another guy similar to this makeup in Stramel. Having 2 big centers like that should pay a lot of dividends for this club. I wouldn't mind having 4 Ek's as our centers, I think he's that well rounded and will make every line he's on better. 

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    4 hours ago, mnfaninnc said:

    I'd expect him to be better at faceoffs again next season.

    It is impressive that's he's improved his faceoff percentage every season. Most nights on home ice in the last few years, he was also frequently going out to faceoff against the #1 line of the opposition. Given the talent he was often up against, slightly below 50% may not be a sign of below-average skill.

    If you face off against the best most nights, coming out just a little below 50% rather than down at 40% could be seen as an accomplishment. Of course, I'm sure he's working to get over that 50% hump in the next few years JEE is one of the most complete players they Wild have and he's just entered the prime years for most professional athletes.

    His injury just before the playoffs was a crushing blow to the Wild's chances. I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do in his return to the ice, and it would be great if the Wild could enter the playoffs healthy this season.

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    I would like the Wild to put JEE at center on the first line. Rossi could get a hard long look on the second line with top 6 talent. Hartman would center the third, with Foligno and Gaudreau.

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    2 hours ago, Killer Coastie said:

    I would like the Wild to put JEE at center on the first line. Rossi could get a hard long look on the second line with top 6 talent. Hartman would center the third, with Foligno and Gaudreau.

    I fully agree.  Boldy and Rossi were a great duo during the (admittedly short) time they were both in Iowa.  Let JEE turn Kaprizov and Zucc into his latest sidekicks on The Best Line in Hockey...

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    Guerin has locked in the key guys. Top defense, and core players like Ek, Boldy, and #97. 

    It's pretty much gonna be the same exact team for the next two years with minor changes. Dumba now, Fleury, Foligno, and Zuccarello next season, but the core guys are all gonna be there.

    I'm impressed with what Guerin has done in his time so far. There are very few weaknesses. Some challenges but nothing they can't overcome with the expected gains from prospects. The Wild should be a playoff team for years if they can stay healthy. Get Ek an extra inch or two of shin-pad before 23-24.

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    3 hours ago, Killer Coastie said:

    I would like the Wild to put JEE at center on the first line. Rossi could get a hard long look on the second line with top 6 talent. Hartman would center the third, with Foligno and Gaudreau.

    This would be fine. I agree hard look is what makes sense until it doesn't. Last year 1 point in 20 games was too few. If he were playing with Boldy in the top six, what would you guys think is the benchmark to stay in that role? I would think it would have a couple few requirements. Eye-test and team wins. Beneath that would be points and compete against top centers. 

    I would like to see Rossi get 5-6 points in the first 10 games to stay in the 2nd line role. Zero or 2pts in wouldn't be okay if other team's centers were also bullying him or the line in general wasn't clicking. At that point, falling back to Gaudreau or Hartman would be easy but it probably doesn't qualify as a hard look. 5-6 points in 20 games then perhaps???

     

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