When it comes to impact additions, Nikolaj Ehlers definitely fits the bill.
At a time when so much of the focus is going to be on who stays, who goes and who (or what future assets) could be brought in before the NHL trade deadline arrives March 21, the Winnipeg Jets are set to welcome back the dynamic Danish forward Friday night for a critical tilt with the Dallas Stars.
Although the final confirmation won’t come until after the morning skate — just to ensure there are no unexpected setbacks — Ehlers declared himself fully healthy to reporters Thursday afternoon and said he’s ready to go after missing the past 19 games with a knee injury.
Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry doesn’t make a habit of announcing lineup decisions in advance, though where he had Ehlers skating (with Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp) provided a pretty good indication of what his plans are.
When right-winger Austin Poganski was placed on waivers with the intent of reassigning him to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League if he clears, offered one more not-so-subtle hint.
“I think he’s real close. Look where (Ehlers) was, that would probably answer your question,” said Dave Lowry. “You bring in top players and put them in your lineup, it makes you a better team.”
It’s tough to argue against that premise.
With the Jets entering the contest six points behind the Stars in the Western Conference standings, getting Ehlers back even after an absence of nearly six weeks is sure to provide a shot in the arm for a team looking to lock down its first three-game winning streak since early January.
Ehlers is a penalty-drawing machine, a zone entry maestro and his explosiveness adds another dynamic to the Jets offensive attack that has been held in check more than expected this season — despite the eight-goal outburst against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday.
Copp returned from a concussion and quickly delivered the game-winning goal and added an assist in the 8-4 triumph.
The addition of Ehlers immediately stretches the Jets offensive depth and provides the potential for the scoring to be spread out a bit more evenly — though Adam Lowry has helped in that regard by notching four goals and six points during the past seven games.
“You bring in top players and put them in your lineup, it makes you a better team,” said Dave Lowry. “Both of these guys have missed periods of time. There will probably be some hiccups, but the expectation is that he’s ready to play. (Copp) came in and gave us a real strong game. We’d expect the same.”
Whether or not Ehlers can deliver similar results remains to be seen, but he’s clearly motivated to make up for lost time after being relegated to the sidelines after a dangerous play by Washington Capitals defenceman Dmitry Orlov that earned him a two-game suspension for kneeing.
Ehlers said Orlov reached out to offer his apologies, which was appreciated but didn’t help him get back into the lineup any sooner.
“I mean, yeah. It was nice of him, you know, to shoot me a text. But it was also, I mean, he went in there full-on knowing he was going to go for my knee,” said Ehlers, who has 13 goals and 25 points in 34 games this season. “So, does it help a lot? No. I was out for six weeks, and he was out for three days.”
Asked to look back at the moments after the injury was inflicted, Ehlers acknowledged he wasn’t immediately sure about the severity of what had transpired.
“I mean, I did feel that something wasn't right. But, I mean, I skated off by myself and, no, I actually thought that I was going to be fine and keep playing,” said Ehlers. “But when I stood up the second time on the bench, it did not feel good. So, I kind of realized at that point that I wasn’t going to be playing for a little while. But you never know until you get the actual result and, well, it is what it is.”
What it was for Ehlers was a case of incredibly unfortunate timing, as he was just four games removed from notching a season-high four points against the St. Louis Blues.
On the flip side, the extended time on the sidelines due to the nature of the injury meant Ehlers could return home to Denmark to spend some quality time with his family after the death of his grandfather, someone he was very close with.
“Everything that happened prior to that, with my grandpa passing away, being able to go home. ... You don't want to get injured, but if there's a right time to get injured that was it,” said Ehlers. “I went home and spent a lot of time with my family and my grandma, of course. So, I’m really thankful that I got to go home.”
Ehlers has dealt with serious injuries before during his career and worked his way back from them, but knee issues bring a separate challenge with them — especially for someone who uses his skating ability as a weapon.
However, Ehlers knows his body well, he’s got a high pain threshold and he’s not expected to need much more time to get back up to speed.
“Yeah, I mean, I've never really had an injury like this. But I've been out for six weeks more than once in my career,” said Ehlers. “So, injuries take time. Yes, you do everything in your power to get back as quick as possible, but if you go back too early and get injured again, that's not going to help anyone. So, I've obviously done everything I could to get back as quick as possible, but injuries take the time that they do. We've done everything the right way, and I feel good, I feel confident, and I feel ready to go.”
What we know for sure is that Ehlers’ presence alone is sure to provide a lift at a time when the Jets are doing what they can to keep their playoff hopes alive.
“Oh, it's huge. He’s so dynamic,” said Adam Lowry. “He does things on both sides of the puck that are so prevalent for us. He transports the puck through the neutral zone better than anyone on our team, and he brings an element of speed that he’s elite at that and he really pushes defenders back.
“He can create something out of nothing, it seems. He gets the puck, he gets a step on a guy, and you can kind of really drag in and kind of drag the team to help play faster, as you're just trying to keep up with him. So, he’s an elite offensive player and we’re really looking forward to having him back.”