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Nikolaj Ehlers navigated a new city with relative ease, picked up the Winnipeg Jets’ systems without much confusion and even cracked the double-digit mark in goals during his first pro season.
So much to learn as an NHL rookie back in 2015. So much more to soak up in the two seasons that followed.
Most challenging, he now admits, was surrendering to the notion he couldn’t do all the things, all the time, that made him one of the most lethal offensive weapons in Canadian junior hockey.
Slowly, Ehlers began to understand the need to curtail some of the bewitching moves that generated back-to-back 100-point campaigns with the Halifax Mooseheads. He started to let go of the strong inclination to provide all the sophisticated answers on the ice, opting for a more simplistic approach, instead.
The 22-year-old from Aalborg, Denmark said Monday morning it’s still a work in progress but he’s getting there.
“Since I’ve been young, I’ve used my speed. I’ve tried to take that puck and skate down and score every single time I had the chance. Sometimes, I still try to do it here,” he said, grinning. “But you have to play the game we play as Winnipeg Jets.
“The first year I had problems doing that because I was used to doing something else. Now, I’ve learned it. And everybody in here is doing it and that’s why we went so far last year. So, it is a matter of going out and playing a simple game and playing it smart. That isn’t an easy game but you have to do it.”
Ehlers fired 15 goals in his first season, upped the total to 25 during the 2016-17 season to go with a career-high 39 assists, and then registered 29 tallies a year ago.
Just days before the start of the 2017-18 season, the Jets tied him up with a seven-year, US$42-million contract extension (average annual value of US$6 million), a deal that kicked in this fall and expires after the 2024-25 campaign.
Ehlers is paid handsomely to improve and, ultimately, produce. So, he can’t be confined to north-south routes completely. His speed, creativity and blazing shot need to be on display as much as possible, and his lateral moves are what free up space for he and his linemates. The end-to-end dashes that spur fans from their seats will still occur.
He’s got a hungry goal scorer in Patrik Laine to feed, too. That means those cross-ice passes that come with danger potential won’t be totally discouraged by the Jets’ coaching staff.
But offensive chances need to be generated with the lowest grade of risk possible, a concept he now grasps.
In three seasons with Winnipeg, Ehlers’ brilliant moments have far outshone the momentary lapses in judgement, ugly turnovers in his own end or giveaways in the neutral zone that have sent opponents racing the other way. Those are the plays he’s been working to eliminate, replacing them with unexciting but effective chip-outs and dump-ins of the puck.
“Everybody does (like to score). But when I came in my first year, I tried to do too much, tried to do something every shift. And in the NHL that’s not going to happen. You’re not going to create a big chance every single time you’re out there,” said Ehlers. “But there’s other things you can do to help the team. I’ve learned that. I know what I need to do to help this team win. I think I did a pretty good job. Everybody bought into the plan.”
Ehlers hasn’t scored in the last 17 games he’s played, dating back to Winnipeg’s 5-4 overtime victory against the host Montreal Canadiens on April 5. His lack of production in the post-season was well documented, and certainly didn’t help matters during the team’s defeat to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the Western Conference final.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice has him connected with Laine and Bryan Little in training camp, a second line that showed only sporadic success a year ago. On Monday evening, the unit created a couple of good scoring opportunities in the first period but couldn’t solve Minnesota Wild netminder Andrew Hammond.
Midway through the third, Ehlers and Laine combined to set up defenceman Joe Morrow’s game-winner — a shot that banged off both posts but never actually crossed the goal-line, replays showed.
Winnipeg’s bench boss has confidence in the Little trio’s potential.
“I saw them play last year and two of them anyway look a whole lot different than they did at this time last year. (Laine) is moving very well and (Ehlers) looks strong and is shooting it real hard. Chemistry is something that you have to rebuild every year and you have to re-establish. I’m looking forward to seeing them as a group,” said Maurice.
“(Ehlers) scored 29 at a young age, so we’ve got to be a little bit careful of our expectations not being exponential with these kids. There is a normal curve for them. So if you can play better and score a bit more, we’ve got just a fantastic hockey player who is a young guy. He looks more sure on the ice with everything that he does, more power in everything he does, and that comes with age and maturity.
“Less trying to read the game, it just happens for them now. That’s true of all these young guys. They get faster because they don’t have to think as much. They’ve seen everything enough times. I’ve got lots of confidence in him having a great year.”
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).