No. 1 center role with Wild hasn't gone to Joel Eriksson Ek's head. Just maybe his hair.

·4 min read

Oct. 16—ANAHEIM, Calif. — Joel Eriksson Ek still doesn't say much around the rink. Though he has become a little more vocal in the locker room compared to his rookie season in 2016-17, coach Dean Evason still has trouble getting many words out of the 24-year-old Swede.

"You can't get (expletive) out of his mouth," Evason said with a laugh. "He just smiles. I joked about his haircut. He smiled and looked at me like I had two heads and then walked away."

That even-keel demeanor has actually served Eriksson Ek well as he has transitioned into his role as the No. 1 center. After forming a dominant line with Jordan Greenway and Marcus Foligno last season, Eriksson Ek is playing between Krill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello this season.

Much different linemates, to say the least. No disrespect to Greenway and Foligno.

That said, Eriksson Ek hasn't changed his game in the slightest. He still plays a physical game predicated on getting his 6-foot-3, 210-pound body to the front of the net. It's not like he suddenly is trying to dangle around opposing players because he's playing with Kaprizov and Zuccarello.

"I have to be me," Eriksson Ek said. "That's the easiest thing. Just be me. Not try to be something I'm not."

That commitment to his own style has impressed the coaching staff.

"We thought at the start of training camp he'd be like, 'Oh, I'm playing with (Kaprizov), I'm playing with (Zuccarello). What's my role?' " Evason said. "He don't care. He's just going to go play. You put him anywhere with anybody and he's going to play the same way."

That line was schedule to be in action for the first time during Friday night's season opener against the Ducks in Anaheim.

"Those guys are really skilled players," Eriksson Ek said. "I'm just trying to do the best I can and hopefully help the team as much as I can."

As for Eriksson Ek's taper fade that Evason joked about, the haircut is very much in style nowadays, contrary what some of his teammates might suggest.

"It's gone to his head," Foligno joked about Eriksson Ek's role as the No. 1 center. "You seen his haircut? Holy smokes."

ROOKIE LAP

Brandon Duhaime, a 24-year-old winger from Florida, was set to make his NHL debut in Friday's opener. He earned the right to do so after beating out top prospects Matt Boldly and Marco Rossi, among others, for the final roster spot.

The news came out a few days ago, and fortunately for Duhaime, the early notice gave his family enough time to book flights to the West Coast. He was expecting his mom, dad, sister and girlfriend to be in the stands at Honda Center for his NHL debut.

"Unbelievable," said Duhaime, who was hoping to get a few minutes with them after the game. "It's going to be really nice to see them. It'll be nice to share that moment with them."

While he admitted he he some butterflies in the hours leading up to the game, he expected that to dissipate as it got closer to puck drop.

"Once I get in that pregame routine that I went through in the exhibition games and stuff, I'm sure it'll go away," Duhaime said. "It'll just be another game."

As for the rookie lap customary for young players to take before their NHL debut, as much as Duhaime was hoping to avoid that, he understood he might not have a choice.

"I'm sure somebody will make me go," he said.

DEFENSIVE CHOICES

After a lengthy position battle that spanned the duration of training camp, Jon Merrill beat out Jordie Benn for the final defensive spot in the starting lineup. He was set to play alongside Dimitry Kulikov on Friday.

Just because Merrill is playing in Game 1 doesn't mean Benn is riding the bench for the foreseeable future. In fact, Evason has reiterated how he plans to play both players quite a bit this season.

"I don't think there's a huge discrepancy," the coach said. "We're excited about having the depth on our defense, and we feel very comfortable playing (both players). It's too bad everybody can't play. But we had to make a decision."

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