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Little changes have made a huge difference in Ehlers’ game

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Sometimes the slightest change in fortune makes all the difference in hockey.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/12/2019 (1136 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Sometimes the slightest change in fortune makes all the difference in hockey.

Last season, Nikolaj Ehlers was one of best Jets on the ice by the underlying numbers. Despite his 21-goal season — his third straight hitting the 20-goal threshold — from a points perspective, it was a little underwhelming for him.

Ehlers was feeling the pressure to produce last season after disappointing play in two straight playoffs, and coming off of two straight 60-point seasons, his 37 points in 62 games likely didn’t prove what he wanted to. Even adjusting to an 82-game season, Ehlers’ pace would have netted him only 49 points, undeniably less than what’s expected of him.

Nikolaj Ehlers has shrunk the area of the ice he likes to take shots from overall in order to get more chances from the high slot. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

This season however, Ehlers has already piled up 27 points in 35 games, a 63-point pace right in line with the offensive performance he’s expected to give the Jets. Impressively, Ehlers has managed to get back to first-line production despite not getting much on the power play. His three points on the power play would see him need 82 games just to match his power play production from last season in 62 games, which was already a career low.

That means this offensive resurgence has all come at even-strength, but based on last year’s play overall, it isn’t something that should surprise anyone; Ehlers was doing the work necessary to create these results anyway, he just wasn’t getting the returns on his play. With that said, is there anything Ehlers has changed from last year in order to push the envelope and squeeze more production out of himself?

Compared to last year, there hasn’t been a drastic change in his play, but there are little changes all over the place that could account for breaking out of an underwhelming year.

Shooting wasn’t really a problem area for Ehlers last season, but he has shrunk the area of the ice he likes to take shots from overall, shooting less often from the inner slot, and less often from the perimeter, in order to get more chances from the high slot where there’s a bit more space to shoot from overall, while maintaining a significant level of danger on his shots.

The biggest change for Ehlers hasn’t really been goal-scoring though, it’s been playmaking. Last season Ehlers was recording just 0.11 primary assists every 20 minutes at even-strength, whereas this season that number has jumped up to 0.38 per 20 minutes, one of the highest marks in the entire league.

One reason for that has been Ehler’s increased ability to connect on passes to the slot, recording 1.69 every 20 minutes, compared to 1.18 last season, and that isn’t really as much a function of adding a new tendency to his game as it is a higher success rate on plays he was already making.

Last season Ehlers connected on 36.3 per cent of his slot pass attempts, an above-average rate but nothing particularly spectacular. This season he’s connecting on 47.3 per cent of those attempts, which puts him in the top 15 per cent of the league in slot pass completion rate.

Those passes are also finding his teammates in better shooting position as well, as Ehlers has increased his passes that result in one-timers from 0.83 per 20 minutes last season, to 1.26 per 20 this season; one of the highest marks in the league, once again.

Are those changes enough to drive up his primary assist rate by 345 per cent? Probably not, but it’s important to recognize that last season he was still wildly above league average from a playmaking perspective, but the players he was connecting with on those passes weren’t scoring goals, which is the plight of all good playmakers.

When you’re primarily a goal scorer, you have a certain amount of control over your own fortunes. You can still be unlucky for stretches, the puck can bounce poorly for you, goalies can consistently make big saves on great shots in short stretches, but playmakers have those factors to worry about with the players who receive their passes, plus misplays, poor shots or missed nets or hesitation that can rob them of assists. Ehlers has undeniably stepped it up, but he also deserved better last year, as well.

The even-better news than Ehlers pushing the play more is that other areas of his game haven’t been hurt in order to do so. Last season no player in the league completed transition plays at a higher rate than Ehlers did at even-strength; he was just a hair better than Mat Barzal, Taylor Hall and Jack Eichel at moving the puck up the ice. This season the same holds true; he’s a hair ahead of Artemi Panarin, Eichel and Patrick Kane.

Just like last season, Ehlers is completing more zone exits with control than any other forward in the league and, after finishing with the fifth-most controlled entries in the NHL last season, he’s currently completing the fifth-most once again.

The remarkable consistency in transition play for Ehlers makes him a known quantity for linemates to rely on to get them into the offensive zone and create the opportunity to score goals, and now he’s flexing his playmaking muscles even more effectively and seeing his linemates score on those plays he’s making, as well. As good as Blake Wheeler and Jack Roslovic are, Ehlers is the rock around which the Jets’ second line is built.

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

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