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Through the first five games of the season, heading into Tuesday night’s matchup with the Edmonton Oilers, Nikolaj Ehlers has had a bit of a nightmarish start — at least on the surface.
He had zero points and only nine shots on goal, a pace that’s just under 64 per cent of his shot rate from last season. After struggling to fill the net in last year’s playoff run, Ehlers’ struggles appear to be more extensive than just a five-game slump offensively. But is he actually playing poorly?
As you can see just from a quick glance, Ehlers is playing at about the same effectiveness in the offensive zone at even-strength as he was last year, putting up nearly identical scoring-chance numbers, while getting a higher percentage of his shot attempts from the slot on net, and a higher proportion of them are off the rush.
Ehlers is one of the premier attackers in the entire NHL off the rush and that hasn’t changed this season, as the Jets have attempted to attack off the rush a bit more often. Part of what makes Ehlers so dangerous off the rush is that he can break in alone and create a scoring chance himself, or he can find teammates with better lanes, to create a scoring chance for them.
The versatility Ehlers has at max speed forces opponents to make a decision or hesitate, and more often than not, he wins either way.
He prefers to shoot from the high slot instead of the inner slot or high-danger area, which is common both for high-end skilled players and for those who attack off the rush often. Unless you’re on a breakaway or odd-man rush, it’s fairly uncommon for a rush chance to come from that close to the net, though they are the most dangerous type of scoring chances, because goaltenders are rarely able to set themselves for the shot.
While Ehlers is producing slightly fewer passes to the slot than last season, the Jets as a team are doing the same, so there’s likely some team play effects at work there. Moving the puck east-west though, has never been a problem for Ehlers, as he once again leads the Jets in that category, making him an ideal linemate for Patrik Laine.
On the surface, Ehlers is creating fewer scoring chances for his teammates than last season, but really the Jets haven’t been as efficient in that area this year, and only Mark Scheifele has created more.
Part of the reason Ehlers hasn’t put up points is that the Jets are a little snakebit compared to last season overall. At 5-on-5 they’re scoring on just 5.04 per cent of their shots on goal, the second-lowest mark in the league after Arizona, whereas last year they were the fifth-most efficient team, scoring on 8.53 per cent of their shots.
A key example would be Ehlers’ linemate Patrik Laine, who has scored twice on 17 shots, but hasn’t hit the twine at even-strength so far despite receiving a team-high 3.11 passes in the slot per 20 minutes, and firing off 2.8 scoring chances per 20 minutes as well.
Another reason I’m not worried about Ehlers’ lack of production is something I touched on when looking at Brandon Tanev; his dominance in gaining the zone.
Ehlers is among the NHL’s elite players at gaining controlled entries, and that previously mentioned multiple-pronged attacking style off the rush makes him one of the most dangerous players once the puck crosses the blue line. He’s also not too shabby at creating offence off dump-ins; just look at him, compared to the best scoring-chance producers off entries in the league.
So far this season, no one except Taylor Hall has been able to create chances off entries as often as Ehlers has. Looking at the elite company he’s in here, it’s a reminder of just how special a player the 22-year-old Dane is.
He may be in a surprisingly long cold streak at the moment, but try not to lose patience, because he’s doing all the right things to create goals for the Jets, and he’s performing nearly identically to last season, when he nearly scored 30 goals and hit 60 points for the second-straight season.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data driven analysis of the game. He started writing for the Montreal Canadiens blog Eyes on the Prize in 2010 before taking over managing the site in 2012, turning it into SB Nation’s largest hockey community before he left in 2015 to become an independent contractor using SPORTLOGiQ data. Since then he has written weekly for Sportsnet and RDS, using SPORTLOGiQ’s unique tracking data, while also freelancing for Vice Sports and The Sporting News, contributing to The Point Hockey and hosting his podcast.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.