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Wild hoping to 'unlock' Joel Eriksson Ek with move to top line

Minnesota Wild center Joel Eriksson Ek (14) skates against the Dallas Stars during the game at American Airlines Center in Dallas on Sept. 24, 2018. Jerome Miron / USA TODAY Sports

ST. PAUL — Sometimes it's easy to forget that Joel Eriksson Ek is only 21 years old.

After being taken with the No. 20 overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft — three spots ahead of Burnsville, Minn., native and University of North Dakota standout Brock Boeser, who already has developed into a bonafide sniper — the baby-faced Eriksson Ek has become a recognizable name in the Twin Cities the past few seasons. He teased the Wild with his show of skills during a 15-game cup of coffee in 2016-17, then worked his way into the lineup last season.

Now it's time for the 21-year-old center from Sweden to take the next step.

"I think he's a 15- to 20-goal scorer," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "If we can unlock some of that, and he gets some confidence scoring the puck, that's a good thing for us."

Widely recognized for his skills as a two-way player, Eriksson Ek finished last season with 16 points (6 goals, 10 assists). He will need to produce at a much higher rate this season.

In an effort to tapped into some of that potential, Eriksson Ek has been moved up to the top line this week and will play alongside Eric Staal and opposite Jason Zucker in Thursday's home game against the Chicago Blackhawks.

"They are two of the best players on the team, so it's a great chance for me to play with them," Eriksson Ek said. "I'm just going to try to do my best and see what happens."

The key for Eriksson Ek this season will be putting the puck in the net. He went an astounding 50 games without scoring a goal last season, a slump that zapped his confidence.

"There's definitely more there offensively," Staal said. "That comes with confidence. If we can find a way to get that up, then it'll be good for us. He looked really good in training camp, so if he can see some go into the back of the net, it could go a long way for him."

"We're hoping to unlock some of the offensive talent he has," Zucker agreed. "We'll see how that goes. He's a good player and has a lot of talent. We're excited to play with him."

Eriksson Ek entered training camp last month with a swagger, though some of that has worn off after a slow start to the regular season. He didn't make anything happen on the third line alongside Jordan Greenway and opposite Charlie Coyle. But then, neither did anyone else for the Wild, who managed just two goals in two games.

Still, the hope is that elevating Eriksson Ek jolts him to life.

"He has such a good shot and a good release, and he's not afraid to go to the net," Boudreau said. "If he can figure out all of those things, then I think good things can happen for him."

Eriksson Ek says he's not putting too much pressure on himself now that he's on the top line. He knows that wouldn't do him any good.

"I try not to worry too much about where I'm at in the lineup," he said. I try to do my best every day and work as hard as I can. I'm the player that I am and I'm going to just do what I'm good at."