What to think about Nikolaj Ehlers and his dynamic skill set?

Mar 25, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Winnipeg Jets left wing Nikolaj Ehlers (27) shoots on goal against the Los Angeles Kings during the first period at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 25, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Winnipeg Jets left wing Nikolaj Ehlers (27) shoots on goal against the Los Angeles Kings during the first period at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /

When Nikolaj Ehlers first came to Jets camp back in 2015 with the expectation of making the roster, I was completely mesmerized by his toolkit. He had this creative mindset, combined with explosive speed and a shiftiness he was more than willing to use. He was electric, and having been captured by Ilya Kovalchuk’s power and speed combination for a decade in Atlanta, Ehlers was the closest thing I had seen since. Incredible speed. Deception. A willingness to shoot. And a player who got you on the edge of your seat the moment he got the puck.

After lighting up the QMJHL his draft + 1 year to the tune of 37 goals, 64 assists, and 101 points in just 51 games, it seemed he was ready for the NHL. He was. And his rookie season gave both statistical and practical reasons for optimism; he scored 15 goals and 38 points in 72 games as a 19 year old, while also proving he could beat NHL goaltenders with his shot, transport the puck at an elite rate, and create chances off the rush like few other players.

He was destined to be a franchise player, right?

Well, over half a decade later, I still can’t exactly tell what he is. At 27 years old, most players have hit their offensive peak and statistically, their best years are behind them. Yet with Ehlers, I have this nagging suspicion that he could completely break out at any time. Is that because it’s easy to notice players of his skill set, tempting human biases with optimism?

Surely that plays a part. There is also the opportunity factor. Both Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor have played significantly more minutes than him both on the top line and on the top power play over his career. The nice, kind, and forgiving side of me says, “he’ll produce more when he’s given a better opportunity”, while the other side ruthlessly suggests that “you have to pass the top players to become a top player,”. And plainly, he hasn’t done that. Wheeler’s 90+ point seasons and Connor’s 30 goal floor have certainly justified that. Ehlers hasn’t ever scored 30 (though he did score 29 in 2017-18). In order to become the best, you have to be better than the current best.

So part of his lack of opportunity is due to better players ahead of him – at least in Paul Maurice’s eyes. You could see Ville Heinola in the same way. While the talent is there, he hasn’t done enough for any coach to consider him the 6th best defenceman on the team – the fact there’s a veteran logjam can be considered irrelevant.

Yet if you look at the total points across the NHL from Ehlers’ rookie season in 2015-16 to now, he ranks 71st in points per game out of the 451 forwards who have played at least 200 games over that span. That puts him in the 15th percentile – a top line forward – despite never being granted that ice time.

Of course, Scheifele, Wheeler, and Connor are all in the top 35, ranking 22nd, 25th, and 31st, respectively. And yes, they were granted that ice time. Would Ehlers be there given the same opportunity?

You can never be sure.

Which brings us to today. Both Wheeler and Pierre-Luc Dubois are gone, opening up two top 6 slots and ample power play time on the top unit. Ehlers’ game is still electric, still tantalizing, yet now there are reasonable questions marks about how easy to he is to play with. Whether he is too unpredictable, too high risk/high reward, or whether he has enough hockey sense to capitalize on his mouth watering talents.

There were times last season where Rick Bowness employed both Connor and Ehlers as the wingers to Mark Scheifele. That, to me, seems like one of the highest risk, highest reward lines in the NHL, a unit that could score three but also allow three on a nightly basis. But it could be an option if Bowness wants to stack a line and go all out attack.

For me, the ultimate question is this: what’s his ceiling? At 27, has he shown us his ceiling? It’s hard to predict a player of this age having more to give, but I can’t help but feel that way. When he was 20 years old, I figured his best case scenario was 40 goals and 90 points, a franchise winger who impacts the scoresheet in elite ways.

That valuation has dropped over the past few seasons, but there’s a nagging feeling that he still has 35 goal and 80 point potential, at least. Is it ridiculous to use the term “potential” on a 27 year old forward? Maybe. But Ehlers hasn’t played more than 75 games since 2017-18, his third year in the league. What he has done though, is stay below but in the vicinity of a point per game, and score goals at a rate that suggests he has a few 30 goal seasons in him if he can keep healthy and stay on the ice. And he’s done all that without top line minutes or power play time on the top unit.

I can’t tell if this is the season where he consistently plays top line and top power play. But if he does, he should be able to find 30 or 35 goals, and 70 or 80 points.



Time will tell.