The Winnipeg Jets’ 2021-22 season was a disappointment, as they came into the season considered a Stanley Cup contender but drastically underperformed, finishing sixth in the Central Division and well out of the playoff picture.
In this series, we’ll take a look back on the season, player by player, and grade their individual performances with an eye toward their future with the team.
Amidst the uncertainty that is currently the Winnipeg Jets, fans can count on one constant this upcoming season: Nikolaj Ehlers is going to be one of your favourite players. Not because he’s fast or creative, but because he’s dependable, and right now, that quality is lacking on this squad.
If you look solely at his stats from last season, you’re not properly assessing Ehlers’ season. He is more valuable to the Jets than a stats line, and don’t forget he spent a considerable amount of time on the injured reserve list.
Ehlers’ Offensive Output Was Strong
Before stepping on the ice in Winnipeg for training camp last fall, Ehlers had already made a name for himself in the hockey world. Scoring nine points in three qualifying games, he led his native Denmark to their first ever Olympic berth and became a national hockey hero. Sadly, the NHL did not participate in the Beijing Olympics, so Ehlers was not able to attend, but that did set the tone for a productive season with the Jets.
Consistency from Ehlers came in the form of his sixth consecutive 20-goal season. His 28 goals combined with 27 assists totaled 55 points in just 62 games. With a contract of $6 million per season, he definitely earned his keep in a year that was consistently inconsistent, as Jets fans were able to count on him to show the same level of effort and production night in and night out.
The one disappointing offensive note was that he only managed four goals and nine assists on the power play last season. While it’s reassuring he can score at even strength, the Jets will be looking to get more from him with the man advantage in the upcoming campaign.
In January of 2021, Sportlogiq wrote of Ehlers’ dependable play, noting his high-level scoring skills and found a very obscure but interesting fact that showed what an incredibly efficient scorer he is. “In the last 20 years, 61 players have averaged 1.25 points per game or more in a season. None have done it averaging less than 18 minutes of ice-time, per-game. That’s what Winnipeg Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers is doing right now.”
Ehlers Injury Hampered his Production
On Jan. 18, Ehlers was involved in a knee-on-knee collision with Washington Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov. It turned out to be a sprained MCL that sidelined him for 19 games. He returned to the lineup on March 4, which translated to an absence of 45 days. Upon his return, he scored 11 points in his first 10 games, and only once was he scoreless in that stretch.
Before the injury, Ehlers had 25 points in 34 games, which is about a point in three out of every four matches. Following the injury and his seven-week absence, he accumulated 30 points in 28 games. His production improved significantly. Upon his return in March, Ken Wiebe of Sportsnet eloquently wrote that “Ehlers is a penalty-drawing machine, a zone entry maestro, and his explosiveness adds another dynamic to the Jets offensive attack.”
Could the increase in his post-injury offensive production have had anything to do with a change at head coach? In the six games prior to his injury while under interim head coach Dave Lowry, Ehlers had two goals and five assists in six games. When he returned in March, he continued his hot play, as mentioned earlier. Perhaps Lowry gave him more opportunities to create than did Paul Maurice, and he will certainly have more flexibility and latitude this coming season.
Under new head coach Rick Bowness, Ehlers can look to get more than 18 minutes of ice-time per game. You can be sure he will get the freedom to take advantage of his speed and creativity with whomever he’s playing alongside. He will be counted on, along with Kyle Connor, to carry the bulk of the teams’ scoring this season, and this is where his consistency will play a major factor. I am certain by this time next year, barring injury, Ehlers will be in the upper echelon of NHL scorers for the 2022-23 season.
Yes, Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Blake Wheeler are solid offensive attributes, but the difference right now is Ehlers is solely focused on training camp and his role. The other three have priorities that go beyond on-ice production right now, which need to be taken care of before the start of camp. Ehlers is under contract and currently carrying no extra baggage, so he should be well prepared for the start of the season.
Ehlers Is a Fully Rounded Player
Ehlers is a defensively responsible forward, unlike some pure scorers who have the mindset of “offense first and defense if I must.” On a team that lacked defensive structure last season, Ehlers led the Jets in the plus/minus category with a plus-18 rating. It was the second year in a row he led the team in that particular stat and has never had a negative plus/minus in the entirety of his NHL career.
The thing about Ehlers this past season that made him stand out from his peers was his ability to adapt to many different situations and roles within the course of the year. He played on the top line with Wheeler and Scheifele. He played on a line with Dubois and Connor. He spent time on the third line with Adam Lowry and Paul Stastny. And in each situation, he flourished, to the point some would argue he made his linemates better… whoever they might have been that night.
Ehlers had a very solid campaign despite his 45-day absence and played a dependable role for the Jets. His power-play numbers were below expectations, but in a disappointing season for the team as a whole, he was one player that played to the level of his contract daily. The Jets will be looking for that same consistent play this season. With a new system and emphasis on defensive play, I think his offensive numbers will continue to increase in a very productive season.
Overall Grade: A-
Keith Forsyth is a freelance writer and sports junkie from rural Manitoba who is covering the Winnipeg Jets for The Hockey Writers. Keith loves all sports and is a huge fan of the NFL (Skol Vikings… if you know, you know) and the Montreal Expos (they’re coming back… you watch!). He recently retired from the education world teaching high school, where his greatest passion was coaching young athletes. He brings that same logical, behind the bench type of approach to you as he delivers an insightful look into the NHL and specifically the Jets. For interview requests or content info, follow Keith on Twitter or his social media accounts. They appear under his photo on articles like this one.