There was a stretch last season when it seemed as though no matter what Nikolaj Ehlers tried, he couldn’t light the lamp. He was getting stopped on breakaways, stymied on one-timers, shut down by keepers and pinging pucks off the post. The result was a 15-game goal drought, one that spanned from mid-November until early December and saw Ehlers stick-smashingly frustrated.
Of course, as these things often go for players who are far too talented to stay out of the goal column for that long, things started to snowball for Ehlers once he finally lit the lamp again. From Dec. 10 onwards, Ehlers tied for 22nd in the league with 21 tallies and his 41 points put him into a tie for 50th among all skaters over the four-month span. The result was a career-best finish in both goals, 25, and points, 64, totals that were good enough for fourth- and third-best finishes, respectively, among his Winnipeg Jets teammates. And Ehlers, who’s fresh off of signing a seven-year, $42-million extension, had a plan to make sure he kept that going and didn’t have to endure another similar slowdown this time around.
“I definitely worked on (my shot) this summer,” Ehlers said. “Right now, I wouldn’t say it’s luck, but it’s going my way. The shots are going in.”
For those who haven’t been paying attention, it may come as a surprise that Ehlers, not Patrik Laine or Mark Scheifele or Blake Wheeler, is leading Winnipeg in scoring through the early part of the season with six goals and eight points. And much of that came during the second week of the NHL campaign when Ehlers, on the strength of a hat trick, the second of his career, and a three-game scoring streak helped propel the Jets to three straight wins.
A dissection of Ehlers’ numbers through the Jets’ first handful of games seems to suggest that his scoring pace is going to have to slow at some point, though. One would have to assume that simply by virtue of his bloated 23.1-percent shooting percentage, which is almost double his rate from last season. But even if — or, more likely, when — Ehlers’ shooting percentage dips back down, chances are he’s still going to be in line to set another career high in goals. Not merely because of the hot start, mind you, but because Ehlers has made a point of shooting more this season.
That’s not to say Ehlers has been a Joe Thornton-esque pass-first type, but he’s certainly been more deferential in the past. Take his rookie campaign, when he scored 15 goals. That season, Ehlers was 109th in the league with 2.32 shots on goal per game. As a sophomore, Ehlers bumped that up to 2.49 shots per game, good for 83rd in the league. This time around, though, he’s at 3.71 shots per outing, putting Ehlers in the same territory as Laine, Nikita Kucherov and Vladimir Tarasenko. If he maintains that rate, Ehlers would be on pace 300 shots, and if his shooting percentage dips to last season’s percentage, he’s looking at the first 30-goal campaign of his career.
Ehlers’ focus isn’t solely on becoming an even greater offensive threat, however. He wants to become a complete player, a player the Jets can rely on in all situations. “That’s what I want. That’s what I’m working for,” Ehlers said. “I’ve been taking some big steps the past couple of years.”
It hasn’t gone unnoticed, either. During training camp, Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said he was surprised by Ehlers’ development from last season to the start of this campaign, adding it was the most impressive among the Jets’ forwards. “It’s not the goals and the assists, it’s the ability to put him on the ice and not have him be somebody the center has to take care of out there,” Maurice said in September. “It changes what we can do.”
Getting to this point has been a process for Ehlers, though, and improving further means leaning on teammates and learning how to take that next step from veteran players. Playing with Scheifele and Wheeler, Ehlers said, has helped him take steps in the right direction, and skating alongside Bryan Little in the early part of this campaign has given Ehlers the opportunity to learn from someone who “knows how to play every single game.”
You won’t find Ehlers sitting back and enjoying the fruits of his labor through the early season, however. He knows there’s more room to grow, he wants more out of his own game. And Ehlers knows how to get there.
“It’s going back to working every single day, working on everything,” Ehlers said. “Not just your speed or your stickhandling or your shot, it’s about working on every single thing every single day to become a better player. That’s what I’m doing.”
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