In a different era Nikolaj Ehlers might be one of the emerging faces of the NHL. Generally speaking, 21-year-old snipers coming off 64 point seasons don’t come around too often.
Unfortunately for the Danish winger, hockey is just bursting with dominant young talent as players like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews continue to excel. Even on his own team, Ehlers has a goal-scorer two years his junior grabbing headlines in the form of Patrik Laine.
Other obstacles separating Ehlers from the spotlight include – but are not limited to – the fact he plays in a small market, his team is heavy on exciting offensive players like linemates Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, and being Danish makes memorable medal-winning international performances unlikely.
All of that said, the Winnipeg Jets certainly appreciate Ehlers and showed their confidence in the young forward by signing him to a seven-year deal worth $42 million prior to the season. In recent days, he’s shown precisely why they did that with a massive week where he posted five goals and seven points, earning the NHL first star of the week in the process.
Putting together three good games in a row doesn’t necessarily indicate a breakout, but during the hot streak Ehlers demonstrated some of the skills that makes him special. Foremost among them is his shot.
So far his career high in goals is 25, but this year it’s easy to imagine him topping that, especially because he’s shooting more, with 4.20 shots on net per game as opposed to a career average of 2.47. In his hat trick against the Edmonton Oilers Monday he showed off both the accuracy and velocity required to fill the net.
On the Jets Laine is always going to get the ink for the one-timers – and rightly so – but Ehlers is no slouch. The young winger’s third goal of the night came on the kind of laser simply too quick for Cam Talbot to react.
His game-winner against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday was more about precision. Watch how Ehlers is able to pick the top left corner while moving to his right, while contending with a goaltender and screening defenceman.
Ehlers also excels when it comes to his strength on the puck. Listed at 6’0″ 172 lbs, Ehlers is able block off defenders with his body like a bigger winger in order to maintain possession.
For example, that goal against the Hurricanes would not have been possible without his work immediately prior.
He used the same skill – combined with a nifty little acceleration – to earn an assist against the Oilers, creating time and space for a Dmitry Kulikov shot that found twine.
When you package those skills with the kind of speed Ehlers possesses you’ve got a heck of an offensive weapon. The smart bet is still on Laine being the top-dog sniper in Winnipeg, but the Dane might not end up as far behind as some imagine.
If he continues to get pucks on net like he’s done thus far, Ehlers has a chance to take his goal scoring to the next level. His wheels give him the chance to make room for his shot and he’s got talented linemates who are likely to put him in good positions more often than not.
As an overshadowed player on an under-covered team, Nikolaj Ehlers seems like the kind of guy domed to be under-appreciated. For one week, though, he forced the NHL to take notice. It might not be the last time this year he does.
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