Ehlers’ best yet to come Talented Dane not pleased with production since returning from injury
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TORONTO — You would think Nikolaj Ehlers would be happy with his play right now, having scored 10 points, including three goals and seven assists, in his last seven games.
Especially when you consider his recent offensive outburst has come after missing the previous 36 games owing to a sports hernia that required surgery in November. The injury sidelined him for months, challenging his mental health along the way, and put what was supposed to be a breakout season on hold.
The mere suggestion the Winnipeg Jets forward has managed to quickly hit his stride leaves an odd taste in Ehlers’ mouth. He’s certainly glad to be producing — his 13 points in nine games prorates to 118 over an 82-game season — while he’s finding the scoresheet, there’s still part of his game he feels is missing.
“I definitely don’t think I’ve played my best yet. Playing an NHL hockey game at an NHL speed is something that I need to get back into, that I haven’t fully gotten into yet,” Ehlers told the Free Press following Thursday’s morning skate at Scotiabank Arena, ahead of the Jets game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. “I’ve played seven games and I’m still not there. I’m OK with what I’ve done until now, but I’m not 100 per cent thrilled with it. There’s been a lot of different situations where I definitely felt that I’m better than that.”
By his own admission, Ehlers struggled in his return to the lineup earlier this month, contributing just three shots in a 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. At one point, after getting stuck on the ice for a lengthy shift, he could be seen on one knee gasping for air.
It was a scene that suggested it might take some time before the speedy winger returned to the game-changing forward he’s become known as. Two days later, he followed that up with a three-point night in a victory over the Vancouver Canucks and hasn’t looked back, scoring at least a point in each of his next five games leading into Thursday.
“There’s obviously some relief that I’m scoring because I’m one of those players that you expect to produce,” Ehlers said. “But there’s been games where maybe I haven’t deserved it, or I haven’t made the right decisions and not played well. I know the type of player I am and the type of player I will be. I’m happy that we’ve been able to win games, but I still got a lot more to give to this team than I have been.”
Jets head coach Rick Bowness said Ehlers is exactly where the team expected him to be this early into his return to the lineup. Given Ehlers was unable to practise with the club for so long, and with only a couple of workouts under his belt since he’s been back, Bowness said it only makes sense that he’d be behind on some of his reads and responsibilities as he works to get back to game speed.
To help accelerate the process, Bowness has worked with Ehlers, in some cases one-on-one, going over game film to identify areas he can improve. Never did he expect Ehlers to return at 100 per cent, but he looks forward to continue working with him to unleash his full potential.
“He has elite speed. He’s one of those players, a lot of players have elite speed but they have to slow up a second to make the pass or make the shot,” Bowness said. “Nik doesn’t. He can make high-end plays or shots at full speed.”
There’s no complaining from Ehlers; in fact, there’s an air of gratitude to him for being able to play after such a long absence. He said he feels good; he doesn’t even think about the injury, outside of giving it a bit more attention in his pre-game routine.
Being away from the team was a tough pill to swallow. After a stellar 2021-22 season, in which Ehlers had 55 points in 62 games, including a career-high 28 goals, many were projecting he could eclipse 40 this year playing on the top line. It was especially rough early on, having to navigate a rehabilitation plan that began with no timeline.
The Jets medical staff knew something was wrong but couldn’t identify exactly what was plaguing him. Ehlers played with the hernia in Dallas against the Stars in the Jets second regular-season game on Oct. 17, and afterwards it was clear he needed time off.
“You don’t want to take anything for granted in this league. Injuries can happen, but you try and make the most of it.”–Nikolaj Ehlers
Part of the frustration, too, was that Ehlers has been dealing with injuries over the last couple years, including a knee-on-knee hit from Washington defenceman Dmitry Orlov last season that caused him to miss 19 games. Unlike his previous injuries, where he knew there wasn’t anything he could have done to prevent them, this one felt different.
“This one kind of came without a warning. It came out of nowhere,” Ehlers said, adding he has no idea how the hernia happened. “The hardest part mentally was the first five weeks before I got the surgery, where I didn’t have a timeline. I was just kind of waiting and waiting and sitting out and watching the guys play.”
The team tried a few different treatments before opting for surgery. Once the operation was complete, Ehlers said he was given a six-week recovery period, which helped ease his mind.
He finally had something to look forward to, adding it provided “a light at the end of the tunnel.” A timeline allowed Ehlers to completely alter his mindset and put his focus on working his way back.
“It’s not easy, but you find ways to get through it,” he said. “You don’t want to take anything for granted in this league. Injuries can happen, but you try and make the most of it.”
Given how long Ehlers was out, getting him back felt almost like the team had traded for an all-star mid-season. His teammates are impressed with what he’s been able to achieve since returning to the lineup, as much as they were inspired by the work he put into his rehab.
“Knowing how big a part of our team he is — he’s a big offensive creator for us — it’s been nice to see he’s having success now that’s he’s back,” said defenceman Brenden Dillon. “That he’s not even feeling 100 per cent yet, that’s something that’s probably a good thing for us, seeing what he’s been able to do so far. He’ll continue to put the work in.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.