The Winnipeg Jets were dealt a big blow Monday morning as it was announced that Nikolaj Ehlers is out for the remainder of the regular season with a separated shoulder. He sustained the injury during a collision with Toronto Maple Leafs’ defenseman Jake Muzzin on Saturday night.
It was terrible news for an already-struggling squad that — after a embarrassing, breakdown-filled Monday evening blowout loss — has dropped four straight and is in utter free fall. Ehlers is one of the team’s hardest workers and has given his opponents fits all season with his blazing speed and creativity, firing 21 goals and adding 25 assists for 46 points through 47 games.
Ehlers’ absence leaves a huge hole on the Jets’ top six that cannot be truly filled. However, there are a few players in their deep group of forwards who — if they step up over the Jets’ final eight games — can help turn the tide and ensure the team doesn’t limp into the playoffs.
Appleton has been given a big opportunity due to Ehlers’ absence, being promoted to the first line. He skated with Andrew Copp and Mark Scheifele on Monday and fired a team-high seven shots on net in 21:07 of ice time.
The 25-year-old has developed quietly but nicely as he’s recorded career highs in goals (nine,) assists (13,) and points (22) already this season and has also been strong without the puck while playing on the third line. A few good performances in his new top-line assignment down the stretch would be a feather in his cap and a further testament to his evolution into a legitimate NHL scoring threat.
Dubois has been a feisty firebrand in recent contests, but he’s not having much impact on the scoresheet.
The 22-year-old has been inconsistent since being acquired in a blockbuster trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets back in January. He’s shown flashes of his immense, play-driving skill, but on many other nights, he’s been invisible. He has eight goals and 12 assists for in 20 points 33 games, but those 20 points have come in just 13 games. In the other 20, he’s been held pointless.
Dubois is capable of more than he’s shown: just look at his 61-point 2018-19 season and his monstrous performance against the Toronto Maple Leafs in last summer’s playoffs. The Jets need that Dubois down the stretch, and given his deployment in many different spots throughout the lineup and his growing familiarity with his teammates, Dubois might just pop off soon.
Head coach Paul Maurice certainly thinks he’s got a gamer.
“Don’t say it too loudly, it’s gonna come back to haunt you…” he said recently of Dubois detractors. “I think he’s had a highly unusual year and there’s still an awful lot of good things. So when I go through his game, there’s not a lot of positioning issues, so he’s got an intelligence, and that you cannot teach a player. That I know is there.
“He’s going to get bigger, stronger, faster, define his game. He’s going to become a dominant power forward as a centreman in this league. If you bought a sweater with his name on the back, hang onto it. It’s gonna be good.”
The captain has been awful at five-on-five this season, partly due to a nagging injury early on in the campaign and partly because he’s consistently deployed with Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele despite that trio being extremely defensively deficient.
Wheeler recently claimed he’s 100 per cent healthy for the first time all season. There’s no excuses: it’s time for the Jets’ highest earner to earn his keep and play like it.
Wheeler’s played three games since returning from a concussion caused by a Brady Tkachuk elbow to the head and has a respectable 34 points in 42 games. However, he’s a team-worst minus 21 — no other Jet is even worse than minus 9 — and nearly half his points have come on the power play.
Wheeler simply needs to find his way back to respectability at 5-on-5 to compensate for the loss of Ehlers, who is the Jets’ best player at even strength at team-high plus 15.
Ehlers’ Injury Comes With a Few Silver Linings
The first is that it didn’t occur earlier. Despite falling further down the North Division standings due to their losing skid, the Jets are fairly secure when it comes to a playoff berth and will likely finish third barring a big surge from the Montreal Canadiens or Calgary Flames.
The second is that Ehlers is will be back in time for the playoffs in mid-May, at least according to Maurice. Of course, it remains to be seen if that’s the case or how effective the dynamic Dane will be after almost a month off.
A playoff series without Ehlers is something the Jets don’t want to imagine. However, the rest of the regular season without him is a reality. It’s time for Appleton, Dubois, Wheeler, and the rest of the Jets to step up in his stead.
Declan Schroeder is a 26-year-old communications specialist and freelance journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a diploma in Creative Communications with a major in journalism from Red River College and a bachelors in Rhetoric and Communications from the University of Winnipeg.
Deeply rooted in the city’s hockey culture, the original Jets skipped town when he was two and the 2.0 version came onto the scene when he was 17.