Since debuting for the Winnipeg Jets in 2015, Nikolaj Ehlers has delivered solid numbers, scoring at least 20 goals in each of the past six seasons.
It feels like the 26-year-old forward still has more to give, though. If the Jets are to get back on track after missing the playoffs last season, they will need Ehlers to level up.
There is a lot to like about Ehlers’ game, specifically in transition. Out of 388 forwards who received 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time last season, Ehlers finished third with 24.5 possession-driving plays per 20. His 6.8 carry-ins per 20 were second behind New Jersey’s Jack Hughes.
Ehlers regularly turned those controlled entries into scoring chances for himself and his teammates. He had a hand in 97 chances following a successful carry-in, fifth most in the NHL among qualified forwards.
Despite those successes, Ehlers was not positioned as a go-to guy under previous Jets coaches Paul Maurice and Dave Lowry. Ehlers’ average ice time per game at 5-on-5 and on the power play were fifth and sixth among Jets forwards last season, respectively.
The key to getting more production from Ehlers might be as simple as giving him more playing time.
While in Dallas, new Jets coach Rick Bowness watched second-year forward Jason Robertson break out in a big way, leading the Stars with 41 goals.
Bowness’ decision to stick Robertson with Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz all season played a big role in that. Their 795:34 of even-strength ice time as a unit ranked second league-wide.
Meanwhile, Ehlers bounced around the Jets’ lineup. He spent the most time with Mark Scheifele and Paul Stastny (132:20), followed by Scheifele and Andrew Copp (110:25).
Bowness, hoping to recreate what he had in Dallas, is loading up the Jets’ top line with Ehlers, Scheifele and 47-goal scorer Kyle Connor.
That combination has plenty of potential. Like Ehlers, Connor is dangerous off the rush, and Scheifele is a skilled passer who can feed them the puck in the right spots.
“We’re going to give (Ehlers) that opportunity,” Bowness said recently. “That’s why that line’s together. Every strong team in this league has a clear No. 1 line, a dominant line. We’re going to give that threesome a good chance to become that, and Ehlers is going to be a big part of that.”
A changing of the guard is underway in Winnipeg. In stripping Blake Wheeler of the captaincy after six seasons, Bowness signaled that there will be opportunity for other players to take the lead.
Ehlers is at the top of that list.
“When you get to watch him every day,” Bowness said, “you learn to respect and appreciate more his speed and his skills and his vision when he does have the puck.”