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Nikolaj Ehlers made no attempt to sugar-coat things when asked to assess his training camp so far.
“Not good,” the 22-year-old Winnipeg Jets winger said Monday. “I feel good, physically I’m there. But things haven’t really been going the way I’ve wanted it to. I haven’t skated the way I’ve wanted to, and that’s my game. I gotta get back to that, I gotta skate and work for every single puck. It’s an easy thing to say, but play the simple game. Get the puck, pass it, skate. It’s what I’ve got to get back to.”
Ehlers began September pencilled in on the second line with Patrik Laine and Bryan Little, only to be pulled from there midway through his second pre-season game when things just weren’t clicking. He was a press box spectator Sunday night when Laine and Little took the ice against the Edmonton Oilers, now with veteran Mathieu Perreault in his place.
Ehlers returned to action Monday night in Calgary on a new-look unit with Jack Roslovic and Brendan Lemieux. Coach Paul Maurice admits he’s trying to find a spark for Ehlers, who had 29 goals and 31 assists in 82 regular-season games last season.
“We’re looking for him to shoot the puck a little bit, get his mind back to being a driver of a line,” said Maurice. “I would say that if you looked at our last two games, we’ve had six even-strength shots through two periods in both. There are certain guys we have that came in as shooters and Nikky’s a shooter. Patrik Laine’s a shooter. I’m not concerned about it, I’m real confident we can get that right and our style of game as a shoot-first mentality. So we’re going to put Nikky in a position to get real focused on that.”
Ehlers said he’s identified the problem in his game, but just has to find a way to fix it. And fast.
“I make things too hard. I slow the game down and I look for that extra pass. If you see a game where I really skated and you see a game where I don’t skate, there’s a huge difference. And my game, the way I play, is all speed. I just gotta get back to moving my legs,” he said. “I think when I’m on my game, I’m really skating, I’m figuring out ways to fake that I’m slowing down and then speeding up again, and then looking at where the D is going. But when I slow down my game, it’s easy for them to do whatever they do best. That’s why I gotta get back to skating.”
Maurice was excited to see Ehlers and Roslovic together and offered up an interesting potential comparable for the duo.
“It’s maybe a version of the Scheifele-Wheeler idea. Mark Scheifele can play this game a bunch of different ways. He can be a passer, he works in the holes, he can be effective at a slower pace. But Blake is going to prefer, for Blake to play his game, he drives. So that makes Mark speed up, which Mark can do. I look at Roslovic and see a lot of the same things. He can slow the game and play in holes and sort passes and is a really smart guy. But if we get Nikky going there it’ll force him to play at a faster pace and we think he can do that as well,” said Maurice.
With the Scheifele-Wheeler-Kyle Connor and Adam Lowry-Brandon Tanev-Andrew Copp lines seemingly set in stone, the other two trios remain a work in progress in this final week of camp. Little, Laine, Perreault and Ehlers will be in there somewhere, with players such as Roslovic, Lemieux, Kristian Vesalainen, Marko Dano and Nic Petan still jostling for position.
“It’s fun to move up and down the ice with him,” the speedy Roslovic said Monday of being on the same line as Ehlers. “We match pretty well in that sense. He makes the right reads. He’s been in the league for a little bit, now. He’s matured, and you can really tell. Playing with a guy like that can definitely just add to my game.”
As he prepares to enter his fourth pro season, Ehlers said he’s better prepared than ever to handle the typical ups and downs of life in the NHL.
“My first year I would have gone out there, I would have kept playing, I would have tried even more. And just see how it goes. Now I know I need to put some thought into it, I need to go out there and not change my game, but get back to playing fast and just working hard and playing the simple game. I’ve definitely grown mentally as well,” he said.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.