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This article was published 28/12/2018 (795 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
During the early stages of the 2018-19 NHL season, it seemed like Winnipeg Jets foward Nikolaj Ehlers was carrying over some of the offensive struggles he endured a year ago. After breaking down his work in October, it’s fair to say I was quite confused as to why nothing was working for him.
Puck luck can be a merciless beast but thanks to his persistence Ehlers has broken through, and two months later as the squad nears the mid-point of the season, the talented player from Denmark is on pace for a career-high in goals (33) and as many points as last season (60).
The question now is this: Has Ehlers simply stuck to what he was doing before, or has he been playing even better than before? Fortunately, we already have his early-season data recorded, so we can split his season from that point on and directly compare him to himself.
In some ways, Ehlers’ performance hasn’t changed much, yet despite great play in the first month of the season he’s absolutely taken it to another level since then.
The biggest and most notable change for Ehlers comes when we look at where his shots are coming from. In the first month of the season, only 20.2 per cent of his scoring chances on net were coming from the high-danger area, and since then it’s a whopping 52 per cent, meaning his scoring chances have a much higher expected goal rate, on average.
Also greatly improved has been Ehlers’ passing game. Currently, he ranks 31st among all forwards in the NHL in successful passes to the slot, fifth best league-wide in successful east-west passes, and first among all players in the NHL in successful passes off the rush, meaning that if you’re quick enough to keep up with Ehlers on a controlled zone entry, be ready to receive a pass and take a shot because he’s better than anyone at setting players up for it.
These improvements in small areas of the game to create goals have Ehlers now out-pacing all Jets forwards in scoring chances generated per 20 minutes of ice time, and his 8.6 scoring chances created per 20 minutes ranks him 24th in the NHL among forwards, close to players like Washington's Evgeny Kuznetsov and Toronto's John Tavares.
The move closer to the net for his shots seems to have come at the expense of his chances off the rush to some extent, so it will be interesting to see if Ehlers remains one of the league’s elite in the other area where he stood head and shoulders above the rest of the Jets — scoring chances created off of zone entries.
Early in the season, Ehlers was creating the third-most scoring chances off controlled entries in the entire NHL, and the second-most off of a combination of controlled entries and dump-ins. His rank there has fallen slightly — seventh and and sixth in those categories, respectively — but that still puts him in an elite category.
While Ehlers’ personal scoring chances off the rush are down, the chances coming off his neutral-zone play and entering the zone remain consistent as the season wears on, with his passing game easily his biggest strength once he gains the offensive zone.
A big part of what makes Ehlers so dangerous, aside from the fact that he is one the NHL’s elite transition players, is that he can hurt opponents in multiple ways. Most players who are as skilled as he is with passing the puck don’t shoot very often, and when they do it’s often from the perimeter to create rebounds for teammates to cash in on. Ehlers is a rare combination of passing and shooting skill, and has displayed a willingness to get into the dirty areas to knock pucks into the net that would make any fourth line grinder proud.
At just 22 years old, the only real weakness in Ehlers’ game is his defensive play, where he can be prone to the odd lapse in coverage, and cheat a little bit out of the defensive zone. But if he can improve there, he could go from one of the better younger players in the game to a legitimate NHL star.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.