Nikolaj Ehlers wasn’t happy with how last season played out, which included a career-low points total and being held without a goal for a second straight playoffs.
And so the streaky Winnipeg Jets winger set out on a summer-long fact-finding mission, hoping to bring more consistency to his game. Every night before bed, Ehlers would pull out his tablet and re-watch every shift of the previous campaign, one game at a time.
It was an idea his hockey coach father gave him.
“I hope I learned something. I went through every single game and looked at what I did a lot, good and bad things. Try to change it now on the ice, try to do it better. And the things I do well, try to keep doing that and work on that as well,” Ehlers said Saturday as his teammates hit the ice for the first on-ice sessions of training camp at Bell MTS Iceplex.
“I’ve learned a lot from my dad, especially since we talk about hockey every single day. It was fun. You learn every year, and this was something new I wanted to try and do.”
Ehlers hopes his homework pays off, his importance to the Jets perhaps greater than ever right now. With restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor still without contracts, Winnipeg could start the season missing 64 goals from last year’s lineup. Throw in defenceman Dustin Byfuglien currently on a personal leave of absence, with no return date set, and that’s a lot of production that is sidelined.
A strong start by Ehlers would be most welcome. The 23-year-old from Denmark had the lowest offensive output of his four-year NHL career last season, with just 37 points (21 goals and 16 assists) in 62 regular-season games, then nothing in six playoff contests.
“I think I’ve had really good preparation to do my best at camp and put myself in a good position. I feel really good right now and just have to keep working,” Ehlers said.
A pair of young Winnipeg prospects were shaken but otherwise unscathed after getting in minor a car accident on Friday.
Forward Kristian Vesalainen and defenceman Sami Niku were together in the same vehicle, which was clipped by another.
“Got in a little bit of a fender bender,” is how coach Maurice described it. No other details were provided. As a precaution, the two Finnish skaters were held out of the main group skates on Saturday,
“They came in a little bit sore in the morning,” Maurice said.
Vesalainen and Niku skated on their own in a brief side session, along with Jets forward Andrew Copp (minor groin injury) and Manitoba Moose forward Skyler McKenzie, who is still working his way back from off-season surgery. Maurice said all four players could join the main groups as early as today.
With plenty of jobs at stake, it didn’t take long for the intensity to ramp up.
There were a number of spirited battle drills and physical contact, including Adam Lowry absolutely crushing 18-year-old rookie defenceman Ville Heinola along the boards early in the morning session on Saturday. The Finnish teen defenceman absorbed it well and got right back up.
“Welcome to the league, man,” said Maurice, who singled Heinola out for praise.
“That was a good opportunity for him to get out there. He moves really well. Does it all with his head up. That’s welcome to the national league, there’s a lot different sizes these guys are used to. There’s some big men that move and some little guys you can’t catch. I liked his day today,” he said.
There was another moment later in the skate, where captain Blake Wheeler beat Heinola in a one-on-one battle drill, then gave the kid a friendly, supportive tap and pulled him to the side, spending a couple minutes going over the last play and what could have been done different.
“(Wheeler) has always been able to do that, reach out to those guys and have a little bit of fun with it, too. When you’re 18 years old and you show up to your first NHL camp and you’re trying to figure out what door to walk in the building, let alone every drill is brand new for you, none of the players you know, especially the defencemen,” Maurice said.
“You can’t judge anyone, you don’t know their speed or their skill. There’s so much going on. Every time one of those veteran guys stops by and slaps those kids on the pads, it makes them a little bit more relaxed and that’s what your first pro camp is all about: getting to everybody and getting a little more comfortable.”
Heinola is an intriguing skater, for sure, especially with Winnipeg’s blue line in a rather depleted state. As a European skater, he could be assigned to the AHL to play pro right off the hop, assuming he doesn’t start the season with the Jets. The other option will be to return home to play in Finland.
Expect to see a rather young and inexperienced squad suit up in Winnipeg’s first pre-season game Monday night in Edmonton.
Eric Comrie and Mikhail Berdin will share the goaltending duties, meaning Connor Hellebuyck and Laurent Brossoit won’t see action until later in the week at Bell MTS Place.
Several other Jets regulars will also be given a pass for the initial dress rehearsal against the Oilers.
Maurice expects Hellebuyck to play three of the remaining six pre-season games, with Brossoit getting two. Comrie would likely get another start along the way.
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.
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