Jets’ Ehlers Playing Excellent Hockey Since Returning From Injury

Newsflash: Nikolaj Ehlers is very good and Winnipeg Jets are better when he is in the lineup. He’s been excellent in his first half-dozen games since a long stint on the injured reserve.

Ehlers Has Picked Up Where He Left Off

Since returning from injury on March 4 against the Dallas Stars, the 26-year-old is playing at a point-per-game pace. He has two goals and four assists in six contests, and had his first multi-point performance on Sunday in a 4-3 extra-frame victory against the St. Louis Blues. The right-winger scored the game-tying goal in the second period on a 2-on-0 and assisted Pierre-Luc Dubois’ overtime game winner with a perfect no-look pass.

Ehlers has really just picked up where he left off. In his first 34 games — prior to missing 20 straight after taking a knee-on-knee hit from Dmitry Orlov on Jan. 18 — he had 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists.)

Ehlers’ speed and vision make him extremely dynamic and the plays he can execute at full speed make him tough for opponents’ defenders to handle. He is a terrific playmaker who can make a high-quality scoring chance appear out of nowhere, and has a wicked release. There’s a reason he’s racked up nearly 350 points in his seven-season NHL career.

Nikolaj Ehlers Winnipeg Jets
Nikolaj Ehlers has played well since returning from injury. (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Jets sorely missed Ehlers’ many assets during his absence. They won just seven games while he was out, going 7-9-4. Since he has returned, they are 3-2-1.

Ehlers also shows leadership in the way he acknowledges the Jets’ shortcomings and takes responsibility for his mistakes. For example, he shouldered the blame for Chris Kreider’s third-period goal on March 6 that sunk the Jets against the New York Rangers. About two minutes before the goal, Ehlers attempted a between-the-legs pass that didn’t work out, a play he called “stupid” and “embarrassing.”

That type of accountability and candour is refreshing and much-needed considering captain Blake Wheeler is more likely to give vague excuses about the Jets being young (they aren’t) or to be pointlessly combative to reporters than give a straight answer.

Ehlers Needs to Stay on the Top Six For Good

It’s impressive that Ehlers has been able to record six points in a mainly third-line and has averaged just 15:53 in ice time. On Sunday, however, he was elevated to the top six for most of the game.

Evgeny Svechnikov was reunited with Kyle Connor and Dubois on the second line about three weeks ago and the trio has produced nicely.

Related: Jets Need to Keep Svechnikov on 2nd Line With Connor & Dubois

But Svechnikov took a 10-minute misconduct after a slashing minor in the first period on Sunday, which landed him in interim head coach Dave Lowry’s doghouse. Svechnikov’s indiscretion was Ehlers’ gain as he slid into Svechnikov’s spot.

With Ehlers on it, the line was electric. They hunted the puck ferociously and combined for 15 shots while remaining responsible from a defensive standpoint. Each member of the line ended the night with a goal and combined for seven points.

It’s probably that line will stay intact for Tuesday’s crucial game against the Vegas Golden Knights at Canada Life Centre. The Jets are suddenly just four points back of the struggling Golden Knights for the second Western Conference Wild Card spot.

Jets Should Explore Swapping Wheeler With Ehlers, But Probably Won’t

Knocking Svechnikov down to the third line is the only way Ehlers will stay up. Unfortunately, another solution that could produce even greater results will likely never be explored due to sheer stubbornness.

Dropping Wheeler to the third line and moving Ehlers to first-line right wing with Paul Stastny and Mark Scheifele would put both Ehlers and Wheeler in better spots to succeed. But Dave Lowry — like the departed Paul Maurice before him — believes the 36-year-old Wheeler is still a top-six talent.

Blake Wheeler Winnipeg Jets
One solution could be to swap Wheeler and Ehlers, but the Jets likely won’t explore that. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Digression aside, the Jets need to find a way to keep Ehlers on the top six for the last 22 games. Despite their slim chances of making the playoffs, they don’t consider themselves out of the race or sellers just yet. To keep Ehlers on the bottom six any longer would not jive with the line they want their opponents — and their fans — to believe: that they are still in the hunt.

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