Playing with sizzle came effortlessly for Nikolaj Ehlers; it was the minutiae of his craft that proved most demanding.
Of course, as one of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's most electrifying offensive forces, seldom was he burdened with putting to practice the A-B-Cs of being a defensively responsible forward. Others took on the tedious tasks and heavy lifting in Halifax, while the Danish-born forward applied the glossy final coat during two sensational seasons (2013-15) for the Mooseheads.
The human projectile scored at will through two regular seasons and a couple of playoff runs in the QMJHL and carried that badge of honour into his first campaign ('15-16) with the Winnipeg Jets. But the characteristics of that badge are weighted differently in the NHL, a place where one-trick ponies rarely persist.
Ehlers, drafted ninth overall by the Jets in 2014, certainly generated points during his first four seasons in the Manitoba capital but was perceived by many in the hockey world as a guy short-changing himself.
Showing flashes of brilliance with back-to-back 25-goal seasons (2016-18), he still had trouble with consistency, routinely disappearing from the scoresheet for seven to 10 games at a time when goals off the rush or from the perimeter didn't come. Venturing into those dirty areas wasn't part of his identity; and he struggled to replace the missing offence with a sounder defensive effort.
Ehlers was a potential star, still very much under construction but requiring alterations to the blueprint, a sentiment one of Winnipeg's current leading goal scorers (13G, tied with Mark Scheifele) didn't dispute during a conversation with the Free Press.
"At some point, you realize you can't be measured just by offence. If I kept doing that I wouldn't be here for much longer. It's something that I really started working on, and I'm gonna keep working on it, because you're not going to have a point every night, you're not going to have two points every night. That's the way it goes but you have to find other ways to contribute," said Ehlers, still just 23.
Coming off a career-low 37 points (21G, 16A) last season and six consecutive playoff games against the St. Louis Blues without a point, Ehlers vowed to change up his off-season preparations to become a more thorough player — and a deadlier shooter as a byproduct.
Over a matter of weeks, he reviewed every one of his nearly 1,300 shifts from the '18-19 campaign and, during the course of his homework, the light went on. The devil's in the details, he said.
"They're all a bunch of small details that I've been trying to put together and build my game off, and it's things like how to position yourself on the wall when you get the puck in the D-zone and get the puck out, skate literally all the time," said Ehlers, the left-winger on Winnipeg's highly effective second line, centred by Blake Wheeler. Jack Roslovic occupies the right side. In addition to a baker's dozen of goals, he has 10 assists.
"My strength is my skating, so I've tried to do that as much as I can, try to battle harder than I have and be in the right spots and shoot the puck more."
Even during a five-game dry spell last month, he wasn't discouraged. The club went 3-1-1 during the stretch from Nov. 2-12, he registered 15 shots and his plus-minus was even.
"I'll have those again at some point, right? But two or three years ago I had way more of them, and that's what you want to minimize, right? Even though I had that stretch, I still felt like I was doing the right things most of the time, getting pucks out, contributing in other ways. And that is something where in my first few year, for example, when it wasn't going in for me, nothing was going right," said Ehlers.
He was fully engaged Sunday afternoon against the Ducks, dropping the mitts against a bigger, tougher opponent in Anaheim captain Ryan Getzlaf, and later bulling his way to the net on a partial breakway with the scored tied 2-2 midway through the final period.
Maurice has been extolling the virtues of the speedy winger — his growth as a two-way forward and a staunch compete level — all season long.
"He’s maturing. He’s in more physical battles, more physically engaged on pucks now. His backcheck is better, his play along the wall has gotten better. He’s becoming a defensive contributor as well," Maurice said.
"On the simplest explanation, I'd say he's now thinking like a shooter every time that he touches the puck. That’s when all of the other things work for him. He’s playing at a higher pace, he’s looking for a hole, he’s looking for a way to get the puck to the net which makes him a threat. For me, he’s skating like a shooter and that is the driver."
Ehlers and Patrik Laine remain thick as thieves off the ice, and their playful rivalry based on offensive production remains in effect. But the Finn, who trails the Dane by five tallies, makes no secret he's an unabashed fan.
"He's been playing really well. He's using his feet the way he can. He's one of the fastest guys in the league and that's how he creates his offence," Laine said of Ehlers. "He has a really good shot and he has the instincts of a goal scorer like you've seen this year. He scored a lot of big goals for our club and hopefully he's gonna keep doing that.
"He would probably prefer to have more assists than goals, like he’s always said. I would love to have more goals than apples, but that’s just the way it is right now. "It's nice that he's doing well and I'm happy for him as a teammate and as a friend. Hopefully, he's only getting better."
Assistant sports editor
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