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So long as he's not the one banished to the box, Joel Eriksson Ek is always on the ice when the Wild start a penalty kill.

Every single time.

But Eriksson Ek continues to look to coach Dean Evason to get the green light to jump into action.

"He's still sitting on the bench," Evason said, "and the refs are coming over and asking, 'Who's up?'"

Eriksson Ek is one of the best players on the Wild, and he might not know it.

Kirill Kaprizov scores the most goals and no one has more setups than Mats Zuccarello, but Eriksson Ek is the Wild's go-to: on the power play, penalty kill, last minute, overtime, you name it.

He plays offense and defense, and he's the first call when the Wild are down a leader.

There's nothing a la carte about Eriksson Ek's game.

He brings everything to the table, so his return from a crushing injury automatically upgrades the Wild as they start their season Thursday vs. Florida at Xcel Energy Center.

"He is who the Minnesota Wild are," Evason said. "That's who the Minnesota Wild are."

Patient process

Eriksson Ek didn't always have this profile.

A first-round pick in 2015, he didn't stick in the NHL his first season. He actually went back to his native Sweden to play after appearing in a bunch of games with the Wild. When he returned for good, Eriksson Ek had stints in the minors for two seasons, was sometimes a healthy scratch and usually maxed out in the low teens for ice time while regularly skating in the bottom-six.

His goal output? That was a single digit.

"He always wanted more," assistant coach Darby Hendrickson said. "When we would meet with him and say, 'You have to be patient and continue to work at this,' he was very respectful. But you could tell he was like, 'I can give you more.'"

That chance to take on a bigger role arrived after the Wild didn't re-sign longtime captain Mikko Koivu and traded Eric Staal, two veteran centers ahead of Eriksson Ek on the depth chart.

Suddenly, he was at the forefront up the middle and Eriksson Ek went from supporting cast to a main character.

"Some subtraction from our team has allowed him to blossom as a leader, as a teammate," Evason said. "He's not the quiet guy in the corner anymore. You can look to him for leadership and direction."

Eriksson Ek's breakout performance came in 2020-2021 when he shined as a two-way specialist: his 19 goals were more than double what he'd netted in any previous season and combined with his trademark stinginess, he vaulted to fourth in voting for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward.

He was rewarded with an eight-year, $42 million contract.

"He's a huge part of our team," Jonas Brodin said. "He's a great human, too, outside hockey. Just down to earth, works hard, really good teammate. For him, you wish the best. He's such a good guy."

What did Eriksson Ek have up his sleeve next?

Try a career-high 26 goals while centering one of the most effective shutdown lines in the league.

Eriksson Ek is one of the best players on the Wild, and he has the stats to prove it.

"He just took off when he got the opportunity," Marcus Foligno said. "It wasn't like, 'Wow, where did you come from?' It was just like, 'OK, it's your time now.'"

Another step forward

Not including then-rookie Matt Boldy, nearly half the Wild's lineup had a career year in 2021-22. Only one repeated the feat last season.

Eriksson Ek's production jumped by 12 points, to 61, and he also registered a personal-best 38 assists while turning in another 20-goal campaign; 12 of those 23 tallies came on the power play where he typically stands as a screen in front of the goaltender.

Of the total goals scored while he was on the ice at 5-on-5, almost 56% belonged to the Wild (Evolving-Hockey).

Aside from exceeding 200 career points and being at his sharpest to date on faceoffs (49%), Eriksson Ek recorded 15 multipoint games to trail only Kaprizov and Boldy (18 apiece) while averaging 19 minutes.

Defensively, he was also a model skater.

When Eriksson Ek was on the ice at 5-on-5, the Wild's goals-against per 60 minutes were less than the expected rate and they outscored the opposition. Among forwards who started the season with the Wild, nobody spent more of their ice time (30%) against elite competition than him (PuckIQ) and his 55 shot blocks led all forwards on the team.

As for the penalty kill, Eriksson Ek averaged 2:04 of shorthanded time per game for a unit that went from bottom-third to top-10; the Wild's goal differential on the PK with him on the ice improved by 11 goals from the past season.

Eriksson Ek is one of the best players on the Wild, and he plays like it.

"It's pretty impressive the fact that he's playing from our net all the way down to the other net and producing pretty regularly," Boldy said. "I don't think he's had too many low points to the season where things haven't been going great for him. Look at that consistency and, yeah, he's definitely one of our best players."

Late-season adversity

This dependability was amplified late last season.

That's when Eriksson Ek's line with Boldy and trade pickup Marcus Johansson buoyed the offense while Kaprizov dealt with a leg injury, with Boldy the clutch goal scorer off passes from Eriksson Ek and Johansson.

From March 15 through April 3 while picking up 12 points in 10 games, Eriksson Ek was in action for nine more goals at 5-on-5 than the Wild gave up (Natural Stat Trick). The Wild also were tagged for one less goal than expected during his shifts.

"You just feel so comfortable when he's on the ice in crucial situations," Foligno said. "You're always going to get the job done."

Getting the job done is exactly what Eriksson Ek was doing when the 26-year-old was knocked out of commission during the first game after the Wild clinched a playoff berth.

During a penalty kill on April 6 at Pittsburgh, Eriksson Ek was hit with an Evgeni Malkin wind-up, the shot block dropping Eriksson Ek to the ice before he hobbled off. An X-ray confirmed his initial thought: his left leg was broken.

This was the first time all season he'd been sidelined, and Eriksson Ek didn't believe he was finished.

He received treatment on his leg, with the hope that the bone would become sticky enough to keep itself together. Eriksson Ek skated four to five times on it and felt he could move like he wanted.

When the Wild returned home from Dallas with a 1-1 split in their best-of-seven playoff series, Eriksson Ek was penciled in the Game 3 lineup barely two weeks after getting hurt.

But while skating a crossover, his leg didn't hold up.

He left after one 19-second shift.

The Wild won that game but not again, losing three in a row to get eliminated.

Eriksson Ek is one of the best players on the Wild, and the Wild know it.

"In my mind, I think we would have won [with him]," Foligno said. "It would have been a really tough go for them and gave us a little more leeway with our weapons.

"Ekker's one of the best if not the best player on our team many, many nights."

Back to business

Surgery and time healed Eriksson Ek's leg.

His emotions recalibrated, too.

"You get angry that you can't be out there with your teammates, and you have to watch from the stands," Eriksson Ek said. "It's hard to describe the feeling, something you work so hard for, and then when it really counts, you can't be out there with the team and try to help."

Now, he's hopeful at the dawning of a new season. Eriksson Ek, who will be an alternate captain while captain Jared Spurgeon recovers from injury, wants to improve in all facets.

"Faceoffs, in front of the net, just defensive zone, offensive zone," he said.

In other words, his expectation for himself is "to be trusted all over the ice."

He checked that box a long time ago.

Eriksson Ek is one of the best players on the Wild, period.

"No," he said. "I don't even think about that. I'm just trying to do my best. Everybody knows that Kirill is the most important player. As a team — that's where we have to be strong. If you're not playing like a team, it doesn't really matter how good the players on the team are."

Well, this team is better when Eriksson Ek plays.

That makes him one of the best players on the Wild, even if he doesn't believe it.

"I'm just trying to be that guy that really is reliable at both ends of the ice and just trying to work as hard as I can," Eriksson Ek said, "and set the standard for how hard we need to work to win."