In the last 20 years, 61 players have averaged 1.25 points per-game or more in a season. None have done it averaging less than 18 minutes of ice-time, per-game. That’s what Winnipeg Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers is doing right now. Granted, we’re only a couple of weeks into the season, but when you combine Ehlers’ world-class talent with his carefully crafted deployment, he’s got a shot at becoming one of the most productive players in recent memory.
Seven games into the season, Ehlers is averaging 1.57 points per-game -- no player with at least five games played this season is averaging more. He’s not on his team's top line or top power play unit and Ehlers is averaging the fewest minutes per-game of any of the top 15 players in points per-game. Yet, there he is tied with Mark Stone at the top of the list in points per-game among players who have played five games or more.
A compelling argument can be made that the 5-2-0 Jets' best player so far has been Ehlers. And while the natural inclination might be, ‘Get this guy some more minutes!’, head coach Paul Maurice believes he can maximize Ehlers' output by playing him at the right time against the right competition.
“Take a look at last year, at the two lowest minute games that Nikolaj Ehlers played,” Maurice said Thursday. “I think they’re both going to be under 12 minutes….and I believe he had six points in those two games. So, some of this isn’t about hey, the guy who’s playing the best plays most. Maybe take the guy who’s playing the best and find a weakness on the other team and that’s where the real advantage comes.”
According to Sportlogiq’s strength of opposition differential model, which measures the quality of competition a player faces relative to the quality of linemates he had, Ehlers and Paul Stastny have benefitted more than any other Jets forwards in terms of deployment. This is partially due to the match-ups they’ve had and partially due to the skill level of these two players. This isn’t to say Ehlers and Stastny aren’t capable of facing tougher competition, but how they are deployed gives the Jets a big match-up advantage and Maurice knows it.
“I’m not looking to change where Nikolaj Ehlers is,” added Maurice. “I can play that line more, I know I can. If you come off the bench third and you’re a skilled player, you’re going to put up points.”
The Jets' game against the Ottawa Senators on January 23 is a good example of this. Winnipeg entered the third period trailing 3-2. The Jets' top line, centred by Mark Scheifele, started the period. Adam Lowry’s line took the next shift, an offensive zone face-off a little less than a minute later. Ehlers, alongside Stastny and Andrew Copp, hopped over the boards next. Third line up against the Senators' third defence pair of Mike Reilly and Josh Brown. A few seconds later -- tie game.
The Jets would go on to win the game 6-3 with Ehlers' line adding the fifth goal as well.
Ehlers is a first line talent playing middle-six minutes and picking apart the opposition in the process. An elite skater and puck-mover, Ehlers' stats when levelling playing time at a per-20 minute rate are eye popping. He is averaging 1.91 points per-20 minutes played -- first among players with at least five games played. His underlying numbers that contribute to his elite level point production are equally as impressive.
Ehlers can move the puck through the neutral zone as well as any player in the game today.
“He’s playing with two really good players that he can really maximize what he’s good at, that dynamic skating,” said Maurice. “Those other two guys are so smart, they get to the right holes, they defend very, very well so he’s not hemmed in his own end.”
As Jets fans know, when Ehlers picks up steam through the neutral zone, good things usually follow.
On the list of problems an NHL team faces, how much playing time to give to an elite player who eats up lesser competition is a pretty good one to have. Another good problem on the horizon for the Winnipeg Jets is where to put Pierre-Luc Dubois when he is set to play his first game with his new club? The obvious thought would be second line centre behind Scheifele, but given the success Stastny and Ehlers have had together, is breaking them up the best path forward?
The line of Ehlers, Statsny and Copp has been terrific through seven games this season with an expected goals for percentage of 57.3.
If Dubois does bump Stastny down, perhaps the Jets' second and third lines will perform even better. Time will tell. Again, too much centre depth would be a welcome conundrum for the Jets. For now, Maurice has Ehlers in a perfect spot and is getting the most out of his 24-year old, dynamic winger who is making the most out of the carefully selected opportunities he gets.