For Nikolaj Ehlers, and for the Winnipeg Jets at large, it has been a season of adjustment. And that’s the nicest thing I can think to say about a season usually described by Jets fans in words unfit for print.
With the word “tank” being thrown around like confetti in Winnipeg these days, everywhere from radio shows to major newspapers like the Winnipeg Free Press, it’s hard to pin down many bright spots in a season that has gone so far south it could be mistaken for a migratory bird. It’s especially bitter given that entering the season expectations were high for the Jets even though they were going to be a young team.
Still, I am nothing if not shamelessly optimistic, so this will mark the beginning of a new series called “On the Bright Side” in which I will examine reasons for Jets faithful to keep living, I mean keep believing in the Jets after a season that has very nearly seen Paul Maurice develop an ulcer before our very eyes (an entirely different article could be written about that).
But we’re not worried about that right now! No sir, everything here is puppies and rainbows. For today, Jets nation is (here at least), in the words of South Park, “One big liberal arts college campus.” Today is about giving Jets fans a reason to come back next year, and to hold out hope for the future now that the present is looking increasingly Auston Matthews-ish. Our first reason to keep the faith for seasons to come appears in the form of Nikolaj Ehlers.
The Dashing Dane
Nikolaj Ehlers has had quite the baptism by fire. The man Craig Button once referred to as the Danish Drouin (but thankfully without the glaring off-ice issue) has come a long way over the course of a single season. He started out hot, hit the rookie wall, and has now surmounted the wall to get back to his old scoring self. Not having Alexander Burmistrov and Chris Thorburn as his linemates has undoubtedly helped, but give Ehlers his due credit: he looks like a completely different player from the one Jets fans saw in December.
With the rookie jitters seemingly out of the way, and with a year’s worth of experience under his belt, Ehlers should be all the deadlier next year. He’s also unlikely to spend huge amounts of time playing what amounts to fourth line minutes, so his production should rise. With talent like his, how high his production could rise is unknown but tantalizing.
After he was drafted, there were some Jets fans who honestly felt Ehlers was the most talented player the team had ever drafted. While Kyle Connor may have a thing or two to say about that in years to come, Ehlers has flashed some sublime skill in his first year here in Winnipeg. It hasn’t been perfect, as his mid-season slump proves, but it has, especially lately, been encouraging.
Speed and Creativity
So what makes Nikolaj Ehlers so deadly? Well, the header there would seem to give it all away in one shot, but that’s just part of the complete offensive package Ehlers can bring to the ice. His shot is deceptive and deadly, his stick handling trumps anyone else on the Jets roster by a mile (unlike Burmistrov, Ehlers makes moves with a purpose) and his passes can be pinpoint. And yes, he is both blazingly fast and impressively creative. With these attributes, Ehlers can make a play where none seems to exist, and he’s starting to learn that.
At the start of the year, after flying out of the gate, Ehlers looked a little tentative for a while, as though the speed of the pro game was making all his junior-level moves useless. He looks lost, and maybe just a bit out of gas, as if the transition to the highest level of hockey was taking a toll on him. Since January, however, he’s been among the Jets most productive and most impressive players. Whatever ailed him in the middle of the season seems to have passed.
It’s likely too late for Ehlers to lead the Jets to the playoffs. They currently sit ten points out a playoff spot, and in the ruthless and python-squeeze-tight Central Division that might as well be a hundred. And while 26 points through 57 games isn’t likely to earn Ehlers any Calder Trophy nominations as some people (guilty) predicted at the start of the year, it is a step forward.
With rookies like Nikolaj Ehlers, you’re looking for progress, for signs of the potential star to be. The signs are all there, and his progression alone should be reason for Jets fans to be excited for the future both immediate and distant.
In our next edition of On the Bright Side, we’ll look at a big, bruising defenseman who could’ve lined his wallet on the open market and chose to stay in Winnipeg (albeit while still lining his wallet) for five more years.