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This article was published 4/2/2018 (1186 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Nikolaj Ehlers already had plenty of flash to his game, but his growing reputation for grinding defensive play is an underappreciated addition to his skill set.
It's not something you would have expected, based on his freewheeling, explosively offensive junior career, but the 21-year-old Winnipeg Jets forward has gone to school on his all-round game. He is only 6-0 and 172 pounds, but he's learned to check.
"It's going the right way," said Ehlers Saturday. "I need to push myself everywhere. I think the thing I've improved the most on is my defensive play over these last 2 1/2 years and it's something I've gotta keep working on for the rest of my career. So, there's not something I'm perfect at. I never will be so I've still got a lot of work to do."
If you listen to his coach, Ehlers is well on his way to becoming an elite two-way winger every NHL team covets and the trigger for that improvement came when star Mark Scheifele went down with a major injury on Dec. 27. Scheifele's absence had a ripple effect throughout the lineup as the Jets coaching staff plotted how to cope.
In the 15 games since the Jets are 10-2-3 and Ehlers, playing on a line with Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault, has been a big factor.
"In the last month he's been fantastic at it," said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. "So, Mark goes down. How the bench gets run changes. Who comes off the bench against certain players? Bryan Little's line (is) playing a lot of nights against the other team's best -- certainly on the road and he's been -- I'm trying not to exaggerate this too much -- fantastic relative to where he was. But even in non-relative terms, he's been very effective in the defensive parts of the game."
At the same time, Ehlers goal-scoring has dried up. An empty-netter in Saturday's 3-0 win over the visiting Colorado Avalanche ended an eight-game drought. Furthermore, two goals against the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 7 were his only output (in addition to eight assists) in 11 January games despite averaging 2.64 shots per game.
"Right now I'm playing with Bryan Little and Perreault and they're great players, they've been in the league for a lot longer that I have. They're exciting to play with and we're creating a lot of chances right now but we need to find a way to put it in the net."
Maurice is content with the tradeoff.
"He's not putting the puck into the net quite as much (but) I'm not worried," said Maurice. "The line is winning, the line is scoring. Matty Perreault's got a nice run of points going into the last game, Bryan Little's doing some scoring for us, so it's all part of that.I'm sure (he) would've like to have finished on a few of those chances but what he's paid to do is help the Winnipeg Jets win and, almost from the time Mark went down, his all-around game took right off."
Ehlers' diminished production is probably directly related to the quality of the opposition his line is facing. If he was healthy, Scheifele's line would normally attract a rival's most dilligent defenders and Little would get the next best. Now, Little's line is the prime target.
"The difference between playing against their shutdown line or their A line and their A set of defencemen is huge compared to the 5-6 (defencemen) and the bottom-end (forwards)," said Maurice. "The bottom end are usually a little bit more physical but they've still gotta catch you, right? There's not a lot of big, physical guys with hands that are playing on the bottom end. Those guys are in the top end. He's playing against the higher calibre and when Mark went down that line had to take some of that responsibility.
"We've got Blake (Wheeler) playing with teenagers and 20-year-olds (Patrik Laine, Jack Roslovic and Kyle Connor), so I find a different matchup for them. That's why I really like the way Nikky's been playing because he's really been shutting teams down."
UP NEXT: The Jets had a day off Sunday and return to the practice ice Monday. Winnipeg hosts the Arizona Coyotes Tuesday night in Game 4 of a season-long 10-game homestand.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.