You’ll find plenty of Winnipeg Jets represented on both the NHL’s list of top 20 wingers and The Hockey News’s newly released list of top 50 players. What you won’t find on either of those lists is Nikolaj Ehlers.
Perhaps this is not surprising. After all, Ehlers is just 22 years old and is often lost in the shuffle of stars in Winnipeg. Yet even on The Hockey News’s top 200 fantasy players list, you have to scroll all the way down to 67 to find him.
Argue amongst yourselves whether Ehlers deserves a spot on the top 50 players or the top 20 wingers list. His career high in goals is 29, and his career high in points is 64, so it’s hard to say who he should unseat on either list.
Yet Ehlers constantly seems to fly under the radar. It’s a function no doubt of playing with one of the NHL’s best emerging snipers in Patrik Laine, a do-it-all superstar winger in Blake Wheeler and a prototypical first line center in Mark Scheifele among others.
Ehlers skills, however, deserve more recognition than he’s getting. Offensively speaking, there is nothing Ehlers does not do well. His shot, speed, acceleration, hands, and creativity are all among the league’s best. Only a handful of players make plays at speed like he does.
Only a handful of players make plays at speed like he does. His shot, while never garnering the attention of Laine’s, is one of the deadliest in the NHL and one of the most versatile.
So why does Ehlers lack the recognition of his peers? And, a more important question for Jets fans, is this even a bad thing?
Ehlers and Laine
Ehlers and Laine have often been referred to as a two-headed monster in Winnipeg. From their obvious chemistry on the ice to their increasingly famous friendship off of it, the two of them are practically inseparable.
This close association with Laine may be causing Ehlers to live somewhat in his shadow. It’s not hard to wrap one’s head around when you consider Laine is setting teenage scoring records in the NHL and promises to be a 50-goal scorer in the near future.
There are ways in which Ehlers is offensively superior, however. As mentioned, there are virtually zero flaws in his game with the puck. His ability to move laterally and cut back into shooting position is perhaps the best in the league.
For most players, trying to keep up with Ehlers is an exercise in futility. They can’t match his straight line speed, they can’t move with him east-west, and his shot is too sneaky to be consistently blocked. If cornered, Ehlers’ exceptional hands and creativity can bail him out.
Ehlers is at times his own worst enemy on this one, however. He has a tendency, perhaps an understandable one, to defer to Laine. Actually, the entire Jets team is guilty of this at times. Ehlers sometimes underestimates his own shot.
He also doesn’t get the same power play time as his good buddy, but that’s just a function of playing on such a deep team. At the end of the day, that’s the main reason for most of Ehlers’s lack of media attention, and that may be a good thing.
Ehlers Thrives Without Spotlight
Some players simply do better when they’re part of an equation rather than a one-man band. We’ve seen it before with Jack Roslovic, and Ehlers may be the same way.
Playing on many if not most other teams in the league, Ehlers would be a marquee star. His hands and creativity at times see him pulling off ridiculous moves that drop jaws and pull fans out of their seat. His shot and skating are electric like few other players.
Playing further down the depth chart in Winnipeg, however, has kept him out of the gun sights of the NHL’s top checkers, and allowed him to thrive. He had no problem being “the guy” in Halifax, but in the pros, he’s been better as part of a unit.
All of this is not to say Ehlers could not succeed as a number-one guy or that in another market he would not be doing so. His sublime talents would allow him to do both. All we know for sure is that he works darn well as a supplementary scorer.
Still, one likes to see credit given where credit is due. Ehlers’s 29 goals were just one shy of making him the Jets third 30-goal scorer in 2017-18. He’s steadily improved every year.
Ehlers is still chasing consistency in his young career, and that’s to be expected, but the talent to be a Patrick Kane-type of player is there. The hands, the speed, the shiftiness, and the uncanny ability to draw penalties are all apparent.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) November 26, 2017
So is this the year Ehlers gets the praise he deserves from around the NHL? Maybe, maybe not. If he scores thirty goals and helps lead the Jets to a Stanley Cup, one doubts he’ll care if his name appears in any headlines.
Jets fans and players appreciate Ehlers, no doubt about that. If the rest of the NHL overlooks him among Winnipeg’s burgeoning arsenal of weaponry, they do so at their own expense.