We’re getting down to the end of the regular season, and the Minnesota Wild can look back at the tremendous season they’ve had thus far. They’ve broken records left and right, had players emerge as stars, and general manager Bill Guerin has made great moves. Of course, Kirill Kaprizov is the lock for team MVP. The guy’s been a point-scoring machine all season. But who gets the vote for stealth MVP? The one who’s had a great season but often gets overlooked?
My vote goes to Joel Eriksson Ek.
The 2015 NHL draft was one of the most stacked classes in recent years. Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Mat Barzal, and Sebastian Aho were drafted that year. For the Wild, it gave them three of their best forwards this year in Kaprizov, Jordan Greenway, and Eriksson Ek.
Many fans were disappointed when the Wild took Eriksson Ek 20th overall. Burnsville’s Brock Boeser was there for the taking and had immediate success with the Vancouver Canucks. After all the arguments and discussions, it might finally be safe to say that the Wild did the right thing by picking Eriksson Ek over Boeser.
During Sunday’s OT win over the Nashville Predators, Eriksson Ek muscled his way from Colton Sissons and handed a pass to Dmitry Kulikov, who scored the game-winning goal.
Eriksson Ek’s effort against the Predators captures why he’s been the underrated MVP this year. With his usual linemates, Jordan Greenway and Marcus Foligno, out with injury and illness, Eriksson Ek still scored two goals and an assist.
He did the same thing against the Seattle Kraken last Friday as well.
After starting the season centering Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello, he found his way back to Greenway and Foligno, reuniting one of the best lines in the league. Those three are hardly ever on the ice when a goal is scored against them, out-scoring opponents 23-4 at 5-on-5 this year. They also have combined for a whopping 512 hits.
Eriksson Ek has his game down and is finally showing that he can be relied upon in any situation. He’s second on the team with 12 power-play goals, is fifth in hits with 134, and has a career-high 47 points this season. He’s also won 659 faceoffs, which is also first on the team.
Eriksson Ek is known to be one of those guys who is annoying to play against. A few years ago, when he was relatively new to the team, his teammates were already irritated by Eriksson Ek’s style of play. “You just want to slash him across the head,” Matt Dumba said. “He just plays hard. He’s strong, he’s physically imposing, and that just annoys the heck out of you. This guy’s always all over you, I feel. In practice, sometimes it’s like ‘Come on, leave me alone already.’”
That’s what Eriksson Ek does, and he’s obviously very good at it. “I just try to go to the hard areas and try to battle for the puck,” he said. “If I don’t have the puck, I want it back as soon as possible. Be tight to guys, don’t give them a lot of space, and try to be a pain to play against.”
Former teammate Luke Kunin praised Eriksson Ek’s play, saying, “It’s a strength to piss off your opponent, and nobody pisses off their opponent like Ekker.”
Eriksson Ek is like an anti-pest kind of pest, and he uses it to his advantage. The biggest pests in the league are the guys like Brad Marchand and Matthew Tkachuk, who are a different kind of annoying. They’ll chirp guys all game and be physically bothersome.
Eriksson Ek is almost the opposite. He’ll quietly be annoying all game long. Foligno says, “I think the biggest thing too is he doesn’t know how to chirp. He hits the guy and doesn’t really say much after. The guy wants to get in a verbal feud match, and it doesn’t really work out that way because Ekker doesn’t say a thing from the get-go.”
That kind of play works very well for this new and improved roster the Wild are putting out. You have the skill guys like Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala, and then Eriksson Ek and his line, who are brutal to play against. They hem guys in their own zone for the entire shift and are relentless in their puck pursuit. All three guys are strong power forwards, and their play complements each other very well.
Their line is giant, too. Foligno and Eriksson Ek both stand at 6’3’’, and Greenway is 6’6’’. With the way Eriksson Ek plays, he brings out the aggravating nature of the line. “I don’t think guys realize how big he is too, and how strong he is,” Foligno said. “I think that’s the thing, guys go hit him, and they almost get rocked sometimes. They get stood up, and they get pissed off about that sometimes.”
The Wild have signed Eriksson Ek through the 2028-29 season, so he’ll be annoying opponents as a member of the Wild for a long time. He should be known as ‘Mr. Underappreciated' for how much he does that is overlooked. People often forget that he was fourth in Selke voting last season.
As the center of one of the best shutdown lines in the league, Eriksson Ek will always be a pain to play against. He can score and be on the top power play and penalty kill units. Eriksson Ek is like a hockey utility man; he's good anywhere he plays. He might not ever win team MVP, but he’s definitely a huge part of the Wild’s success this year.
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