Jets’ Lineup When Ehlers Returns

The Winnipeg Jets’ dynamic Dane, Nikolaj Ehlers, is nearing a return after having missed more than a month with an upper body injury he suffered on Jan. 4 after a collision with Sidney Crosby.

Winnipeg Jets Left Wing Nikolaj Ehlers
Nikolaj Ehlers is practicing with the team and is nearing a return. (Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Having Ehlers back — who has produced 15 goals and 12 assists for 27 points this season — will undoubtedly boost the Jets, but will also cause changes to their line combinations. As Ehlers’ return inches nearer, let’s take a look at how it could impact things.

Should Jets Break up Their Top Line?

Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Blake Wheeler are a lethal line. The trio has excellent chemistry — the product of familiarity — and an innate ability to know where each other are on the ice. This leads to plenty of high-danger chances off the rush and in the offensive zone. For an example of the latter, look no further than their first-period goal in the recent 9-3 evisceration of the Anaheim Ducks, where they hemmed the Ducks in for more than 90 seconds before Wheeler scored.

These fearsome foes are the team’s top three point producers, with Wheeler in the lead, Scheifele hot on his heels, and Connor in third. They’ve been apart more than together this season, but were reunited after Ehlers went down and have played together for the past 15 games, producing a combined 49 points and consistently logging 20-plus minutes per game.

Winnipeg Jets Scheifele Wheeler Connor
The Jets reunited Connor, Scheifele and Wheeler after Ehlers was injured, and they’ve looked dangerous as ever. (James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports)

While those numbers present a strong argument for keeping the line together, an equally strong argument could be made for returning Ehlers to the line, as Ehlers’ game was kickstarted after being put with them.

Ehlers, as you will recall, began the season ice-cold and goalless in his first nine games — and the final 17 combined regular season and playoff games the season prior. However, in the 23 games between the time the three were united on Nov. 16 until Ehlers’ injury on Jan. 4, he produced 11 goals and eight assists for 19 points.

Should Jets Reunite Connor, Little & Laine?

If the Jets do decide to break up the top line and elect to go back to Ehlers-Scheifele-Wheeler, it would push Kyle Connor down to the second line with Bryan Little and Patrik Laine — not necessarily a bad thing.

That line, of course, was together through part of Patrik Laine’s incredible November which saw the sniper notch 18 goals, record three hat tricks in three countries, have a historic five-goal game, and win NHL First Star of the Month honours.

Jets right wing Patrik Laine
The line of Kyle Connor, Bryan Little, and Patrik Laine were electric in November and were instrumental in Patrik Laine’s record-setting month. (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

Head coach Paul Maurice created the line on Nov. 16 during a game against the Buffalo Sabres, and in their first half-dozen games together, they produced 15 goals and 13 assists for 28 points. You can bet the Jets would love to catch that sort of lightning in a bottle again.

Little — who has 34 points this season and has operated at nearly a point-per-game clip since the New Year — has been tied to Laine’s hip for most of the season: on an early-season line rounded out by Ehlers, the trio discussed here, and the current line with Jack Roslovic created in wake of Ehlers’ injury. The veteran has found success feeding the Finn whether Connor, Ehlers, or Roslovic’s been on the left side: he’s assisted 11 of Laine’s 25 goals.

Connor was equally critical to the line’s success, however. He dispelled myths that he could only ride on Scheifele and Wheeler’s coattails by proving he could drive a line and act as a playmaker in addition to a triggerman.

Should Jets Give Laine Top-Line Looks?

Really, being the Jets’ first-line left-winger is like being handed a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory — except instead of getting access to a world of Pure Imagination, it’s getting access to a world of pure opportunities playing with two of the league’s elite.

In case you’re wondering if Patrik Laine could be plugged in there for a while to get him out of the worst dry spell he’s ever experienced in his three-year NHL career — one that could cost him some big bucks come contract time — it won’t happen. Paul Maurice recently threw cold water on the idea.

“The numbers don’t look good when they play together,” Maurice told the Winnipeg Free Press’ Mike McIntyre after the reporter suggested a shake-up.

Mark Scheifele #55, Blake Wheeler #26 and Patrik Laine #29 of the Winnipeg Jets
Here, Patrik Laine (right) discusses power play strategy with Blake Wheeler (middle) and Mark Scheifele. Laine playing with them on a line at five-on-five, however, is not in the cards according to Paul Maurice. (Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)

“Maurice is on record as saying the left-wing spot with Scheifele and Wheeler is the most coveted on the team, one that almost surely produces results and every player would love to occupy,” McIntyre wrote. “It’s working well for Connor, and it helped get Ehlers going earlier this season before he got hurt. Why not Laine then, who has only played a couple of periods all season with that duo?” (from ‘No, pain, no gain,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 02/08/19.)

Maurice’s rationale is he wants Laine to navigate his out of the wilderness himself rather than being given a compass in the form a cushy assignment — “to feel what the pressure’s like when things don’t go well. To develop a tool box,” the bench boss put it.

There’s no doubt Laine — who is playing like someone who’s confidence packed up and left on an extended vacation and has just five points in 2019 — is feeling that pressure, but it won’t be up to Scheifele and Wheeler to help relieve it.

The Sooner Ehlers Returns, the Better

Ehlers’ imminent return comes at a time where the Jets are playing some of their worst hockey all season. They’ve lost three in a row, something they hadn’t done since last March, and have been outscored 13-6 in those contests. They are 2-6-0 in their past eight road games, and have looked listless in the first two games of their current three-game road trip, incapable of matching the speed of the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators.

Phillip Danault, Connor Hellebuyck
Phillip Danault scores on Connor Hellebuyck in the Montreal Canadiens’ 5-2 Thursday rout. The Jets have lost three in a row for the first time this season. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

Thankfully, three poor games don’t represent the Jets’ larger body of work, as they are still 34-18-3. However, it’s clear something is amiss and getting Ehlers back to shake things up a bit certainly couldn’t hurt.

Paul Maurice undoubtedly already has a plan of where to put Ehlers upon his return. For the man who recently celebrated coaching his 1,500th NHL game, it’s not about creating a lineup that will make the playoffs. Rather, it’s about maximizing his players’ effectiveness and putting them in the best roles possible so his team enters the playoffs at a gallop rather than a limp.