Nikolaj Ehlers skates down a freshly scraped strip of ice, taking Denmark’s first shot in a round robin match against Switzerland at the 2015 world junior tournament. As he cuts across the front of the net, he lifts his right skate off the ice slightly as if he’s going to fire a shot. Instead, Ehlers holds onto the puck and watches as the Swiss goalie drops to the ice, then sends it flying into the top corner of the net. A pad save by his team’s goalie, Georg Sorensen, secures the win, Denmark’s first ever in the top tier tournament. The Winnipeg Jets prospect flies off the bench and is the first to greet Sorensen with a congratulatory hug as the team jubilantly streams off the bench and piles onto the ice. The Danish coaching staff jump up and down, hugging on the bench.
“I still look at pictures and videos from the tournament, it was amazing. Winning that game against Switzerland was huge for us,” says Ehlers, who plays for the Halifax Mooseheads in the QMJHL. “I think all those young kids who watched, it’s an inspiration for them. We were role models for them, showing them that Denmark can do something like that.”
Ehlers, who is from Aalborg, Denmark, says his role models growing up were members of his own family who also played for the national team. His father, Heinz Ehlers, played for the Danish national team, was a ninth-round pick by the New York Rangers in 1984, and currently coaches Lausanne HC in the top Swiss league. His older brother, Sebastian Ehlers, has represented Denmark on the international stage and currently plays for Aalborg in the Danish league. His two uncles played for the Danish national team and his cousin Alexander True, a forward with the Seattle Thunderbirds, was Nikolaj’s teammate at world juniors this year.
“My dad was always the one who really inspired me. He helped me through the tough times and the good times,” says Ehlers.
Before going on hiatus from the QMJHL for a month in early December (in addition to world juniors, Ehlers represented Denmark at the World Junior A Challenge in Kindersley, Sask., where the Danish side came away with the silver medal), Ehlers was on a 14-game point streak. Since returning, Ehlers hasn't missed a beat, extending his streak to a franchise record of 30 games. On Feb. 17, he picked up a pair of assists and passed Jonathan Drouin's 29-game streak in 2012–13. During that stretch, Drouin picked up 65 points over 29 games. Ehlers has notched 68 points in 30. He's the fourth player since 2000 to have a streak of 30 games, joining Radim Vrbata (31 games, 2000–01), Sidney Crosby (34 games, 2004–05) and Alexander Radulov (50 games, 2005–06).
When he's stepped onto the ice this season, Ehlers has often been the most dangerous player on either team, using his speed to constantly create opportunities for himself and teammates. You can almost see his competitiveness and heightened hockey sense in his wide-open eyes. It looks like he's observing everything on the ice at once, figuring out his next deke, dangle or pass. He's constantly working on his game and boosting the performance of those who play with him.
"I try to learn every day from him. It's great to have him in practice, a guy that can challenge you," says teammate Timo Meier, who is from Switzerland, and played against Ehlers in the Swiss league before coming to the Q last season.
"In the beginning we didn't like each other because he wasn't on the same team [in the Swiss league]. I just always tried to get him out of the game and be really physical to stop him," says Meier.
Sherbrooke Phoenix winger Tim Wieser, also from Switzerland, had difficulty handling Ehlers in the Swiss league. "I really didn't like him because he was so good. I always tried to chirp him, but he played so much better when you tried to chirp him. It wasn't simple to keep him away from scoring goals," says Wieser.
In his CHL Rookie of the Year season last year, Ehlers scored 49 goals and added 55 assists for 104 points in 63 games. He was plus-65 on the year, tops in the league and picked up the Mike Bossy Trophy for best professional prospect. The Winnipeg Jets selected him ninth overall at the 2014 draft. This past fall Ehlers had an extended look at training camp with the big club, playing in exhibition games before being sent back to the Mooseheads in October.
This season he is averaging over two points a game and is in the top 10 in scoring despite missing the first month-and-a-half of the season while with the Jets, and a month while playing for the Danish national team. So far, Ehlers has been satisfied with his performance.
"My goal this whole season is to improve every time I step on and off the ice," says Ehlers.
Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff made a trip to Halifax in mid-November to check in on Ehlers. In a game against Bathurst, Ehlers put on a show, scoring a hat trick that included a goal with 29 seconds left to secure a 6–5 win.
Jimmy Roy, the Jets' coordinator of player development, sees Ehlers as a special player in their system. "The things he does offensively with the puck, and the dynamic player he is with the puck, creating scoring chances with his speed. That's the future of the National Hockey League, to have speed and skill, and he's definitely one of those players," says Roy.
The team would like Ehlers to get stronger and has helped with his workout routine and with keeping him healthy. Both are a challenge since he logs so much ice time in all situations with the Mooseheads, and he's played a lot of hockey this season. But on the ice, there aren't many areas of his game the Jets want him to change.
"When he has the puck on his hands, he's one of, if not the best player in the league," says Roy.