WINNIPEG — By his own admission, Nikolaj Ehlers isn’t a numbers guy.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of doing extraordinary things this season.
The Winnipeg Jets forward has been buzzing around throughout training camp, darting and dashing and providing glimpses of what might be to come during the 2021-22 campaign. After producing 21 goals and 46 points in 47 games last season, there’s a real belief that Ehlers is on the verge of reaching full superstar status.
Ehlers’ talent has long been apparent to his teammates and the Canadian teams in the North Division got a steady diet of it last season before a shoulder injury momentarily interrupted his momentum. But in this return to an 82-game calendar with contests against 31 other clubs, Ehlers is sure to continue turning heads.
What that translates into on the production side of things remains to be seen — and doesn’t really matter to Ehlers himself.
“I don’t worry about the numbers at all,” Ehlers said in a recent interview. “The numbers will come if I play the right way, if I play the way that I know I can. I’m excited for this year. I feel like I’ve taken steps every single year and I’m going to continue doing that.”
The Jets close out the exhibition season on Friday night with a game against the Calgary Flames and then will focus on preparations for Wednesday’s tilt against the Anaheim Ducks.
Ehlers has elite speed and a rocket of a shot and his willingness to look to take it with greater frequency has allowed him to find the back of the net with more regularity the past few seasons.
Adopting that mentality has been a process for Ehlers, since he also thrives on setting up his linemates, but it’s becoming more natural to him.
“I would say I’m definitely getting better at it,” said Ehlers. “There’s obviously still going to be situations where I wouldn’t say you make the wrong decision but you maybe should have shot instead. But it’s something I’ll be working on until my career is over. So it’s going the right way.
“I feel comfortable with that shoot-first mentality. And I think that like I’ve said many times before, when you have that mentality, other things will open up and it seems to be working and going the right way so it’s definitely something I’ll continue working on.”
It was difficult to determine what the more impressive feat on his first goal on Wednesday night in the 3-2 win over the Flames was — the rocket from just inside the blue line that beat Dan Vladar over the glove side bar down or the speed he reached during the end-to-end rush.
Count new Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon among those who were impressed by the feat.
“I guess I’ve got to figure it out, just lay the puck for Nik Ehlers behind our goal line and get a couple of second assists this year. I wrote that one down after the game,” said Dillon. “I think there’s a few guys sprinkled across the league that can do that and we’re fortunate enough to have one in (Ehlers).”
Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey has watched the transformation of Ehlers’ game and sees more big things on the horizon.
“When (Ehlers) is playing fast, he’s at his best and shooting the puck kind of coincides with that,” Morrissey said. “When you’re watching him, whenever he shoots, especially when he’s in full stride, there’s a chance that it’s going in.”
Ehlers, who is expected to start the season with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Andrew Copp, has worked at rounding out his scoring arsenal over the years to include going to the hard areas in front of the net.
But his shot remains a major weapon.
“He’s so darn dangerous. His game is just different,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “He’s a goal scorer, just like Kyle Connor. Those guys beat goalies from a distance. There are only a handful of guys who can beat goaltenders consistently from the outside, a small range. If you list them, they’re all really elite guys.”
That Ehlers has taken those steps forward and emerged as an elite player mostly without the benefit of playing top-line minutes or usage on the first power play unit has made the transformation even more impressive.
Ehlers averaged just under 17 minutes of ice time per game last season and while he anchored the Jets “second” PP unit, that group was responsible for plenty of goals and is expected to do the same this season. That Ehlers hasn’t been directly promoted to the top line outside of a few cameo appearances or to the top power play has long been a talking point among members of the fan base.
Earlier in training camp, Maurice was asked if he’d considered reconfiguring the first unit and putting Ehlers on it.
The answer was yes, but at least for the time being the plan is to use the two groupings — although the ice time distribution could be closer to equal.
“He loves that unit. I think they were maybe third in the NHL in goals per 60 minutes and he doesn’t necessarily want to come off it,” said Maurice. “So we’ll get (Ehlers’) unit quite a bit of time because we’ve seen it work at an elite level for a long time. The other unit, maybe (taking) less time before we make some adjustments to it, but having two units was good for us last year. It keeps all of our skilled players involved in the game and we’ll continue to do that.”
No matter who he plays on a line with or what power play unit Ehlers is driving, there’s little doubt he’ll be counted to make a big impact on the Jets’ fortunes this season.
And even if Ehlers is not focusing on projecting what type of totals might be possible, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him reach the 40-goal plateau or surpass 82 points.
That would represent another step forward and force folks who haven’t realized how talented he is to finally take notice.