Nikolaj Ehlers Needs Top Six Linemates

Is it time for Nikolaj Ehlers to get back on one of the Winnipeg Jets top two lines? –

This years rookie crop of NHL players has been a good one.  Highly touted rookies like Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid (before his injury), the Killer D’s of Max Domi and Anthony Duclair have lived up to the hype.  Another rookie who started out hot was Nikolaj Ehlers.  Then something happened.  What happened though?  What is next for the young Dane?

Ehlers started this year on fire.  He also started the season on wing with Mark Scheifele and Mathieu Perreault both of whom are fast skaters with great vision. Perreault has turned into an amazing play-maker and Scheifele can snipe with the best of them.  When these three played together they could have been one of the fastest lines in the game.  Playing with offensive players and playing second line gave Ehlers 4 goals and 6 assists in the first 17 games (1 goal and 1 assist in his next 15 games).  Things were looking good. 

When a team struggles, the coach changes things up and usually the first thing is line juggling.  Paul Maurice reunited Mark Scheifele, Mathieu Perreault and Drew Stafford who were a winning combo from last season.  This has been a wise choice.  Over the last 10 games or so, some may say they have been the Winnipeg Jets best line.  Naturally, the Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler line has stayed together and has been just fine as it has been for four plus seasons.  This however, has left young Ehlers in an unusual position as a third line player.

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Nikolaj Ehlers is an offence first, highly skilled play maker, and goal scorer.  He scored almost at will in junior hockey.  Our eyes do not deceive us.  Talent oozes from him.  We saw that for the first few weeks of the year and now we only get glimpses.

Players of Ehlers style, size, and skill-set need ice to work with.  They need to play with talented players.  They need to have players that can skate with them, ones that can set them up, and ones that can create space for them.  I like Alex Burmistrov and Chris Thorburn but not with 27.

Looking at the rookie scoring leaders Artemi Panarin, Max Domi, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Duclair, they all play within two to four minutes a game of ice-time of each other and of Ehlers.  Panarin plays more than the rest at 19:06 a game. Ehlers and Duclair play nearly the same around 14:30 a game with Duclair having 19 points to Ehlers 12.  It is fair to say Panarin, who leads in points, does so due to playing time.  That may have something to do with it. Most important however, it’s who he plays with.  When you play with Kane/Hossa/Toews on a regular basis, you’re going to produce.

The strategy of playing an offensive player like Ehlers on a line with a defensive player like Burmi and a grinder like Thorby doesn’t make sense to me.  It may help his defensive game but that is about all.

Could the Winnipeg Jets regret not giving him a chance early before it is too late? The Phoenix Coyotes did this with Daniel Briere who is a player with a very similar skill set to Ehlers.  Briere spent the better part of four seasons being called up from the minors only to be put on a fourth line for a few games.  When he failed to produce, he was sent back to the minors.  Eventually, he was traded. He then proceeded to have a long career scoring and playing on a first or second line.  That is unlikely here but it is a similar set up and is just as confusing.

The player formerly called Nik would be better suited playing on the first or second line.  For example, if he plays with Wheeler’s speed and Little’s play making he would get to play his game.  I think of a player with similar stature, Johnny Gaudreau.  He is now a proven performer in the league despite his size and it’s because he is on the top line.  He has the green light.  He gets the minutes (twenty a game) but he plays with Calgary’s best players.  That is the key.

A player like Andrew Ladd plays the way a third line winger should.  He also will do his job with any two players on his line.  Andrew Ladd scores twenty-some goals a season on any of the top three lines while Ehlers definitely will not but he may score the same amount or more as Ladd if he plays a full season on the first line.  You are further ahead with that scenario than the one you currently have.

Ehlers has all the tools to be a scoring machine but he just needs a bigger work area and some better helpers than he currently has.

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Comments

  1. Todd Leroux says

    Sorry, due to my extremely limited attention span, I read your article in about 30 seconds. Hence, I apologize for any comprehension-based errors.

    Having said this, I agree completely and was thinking similarly.

    I would also like add a couple of points not touched on (potential comprehension-based errors, hereafter).

    First, Ladd is on the block (I think): Little and Wheeler are not necessarily complemented by his skill sets i.e. they can do it on their own: another player can be inserted without a complete loss in production; and, the 1st unit PP ain’t great and he’s on it.

    Second, did we not see Ladd off the 1st line during the Ranger’s game (at times)? In other words, the Little/Wheeler factor is being recognized by the powers that be.

    Third, ‘Yes’ Ehlers needs a skilled complement to excel.

    Fourth, is it me or does Scheifele have limited puck sense? (i.e. doesn’t complement Ehlers)

    Fifth, shake up the team and really develop what has been touted ad nauseam (i.e. the future) as it might rattle the core to let them know that anything is possible, so…better be willing to go outside one’s comfort zone (also recall Lowry sent down).

    That’s it from me.

  2. I can’t really say I disagree with the logic and comments. I would have much preferred seeing Petan, Ehlers, and maybe Armia (or any other young interchangeable RW) as the third line. Burmi playing in 4th line is a better fit as he can’t contribute offensively on 3rd line minutes.

    The Canadiens did a great job putting Galchenyuk, Gallagher, and Ellers together and letting them play and learn together. I’d be much happier with that scenario.

    As for Ladd, not sure he scores 25 goals playing with Burmi as his centre. Ehlers is still the primary LW of the future but until the Ladd situation is resolved nothing will change other than tinkering with 4th line.

    As much as we would like to see him score and play in better roles we need to resist the urge to push the 19 yr old too soon. He’d face a lot better players than him in the top 6 and there’s no guarantee he can produce the same way he did in first 10 games. Early season success for a young player can be dangerous. Opposition players adjust to him and if he does t do the same…you end up on 3rd line.

    If I had my wish Ehlers would be in Europe playing in Elite Division but Jets have consciously made the decision to keep their salary budget just above cap floor.

    Lots of interesting things to come for sure!!

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