Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/1/2021 (381 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Not even a few scares with COVID-19 could mess up what was a productive off-season for Nikolaj Ehlers.
The speedy Winnipeg Jets winger hinted at a couple of close calls with coronavirus while preparing for the season, which included having to take nasal swabs after he was notified of being a close contact.
"I think I did three or four tests and was in self-isolation two or three times, where I've been in close contact. You work hard and then you end up with a small break where you can't do anything and then you go back to working and it's kind of a little bit on and off," Ehlers said Thursday following Day 5 of training camp.
"But I'm not the only one who has been through that and I'd been able to work out with my strength coach and a couple other guys back home and I've been able to skate. It's a weird world right now, but it's been a good off-season."
A silver lining to the global health pandemic was that Ehlers was able to spend an extended visit back home in Denmark, hanging out with his friends and family that he rarely sees in a normal year. But that didn't mean business wasn't his top priority; while he always works to improve his speed, Ehlers also plans to shoot more this season.
It's something head coach Paul Maurice suggested he focus on.
"I think that he is right when he says I play my best hockey when I play as a shooter," Ehlers said. "You're going to make your plays but I play faster, I skate more when I play with that shooter’s mentality. It's something that I'm working on."
He should have plenty of opportunity, too, having been moved up to the top line alongside Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. It's not the first time the trio has played together, but it's spot that has been mostly occupied by Kyle Connor in recent years.
"We're trying to find some chemistry. We're working hard on it," Ehlers said. "We can’t wait to get into it."
With Ehlers on the top line, Connor drops down to the second, albeit seemingly equal, second trio with centre Paul Stastny and Patrik Laine.
"When you play on that line, you’re going to draw an awful lot of firepower, so you can’t just be good at one end of the rink. Kyle Connor came in and was maybe a little ahead of Nikolaj Ehlers in the defensive parts of his game, but we had always thought that Kyle, Mark and Blake were really fast and they would work fantastically together — and they do — but you’re almost overly weighted to speed on one line," Maurice said.
"Nikolaj has made developments in his defensive game. He understands how important it is in the defensive zone and what you do with the puck in the offensive zone and your risk profile and who you’re playing against. All of those things young players never think about before they get to the NHL and they’re all critical pieces. Who you’re playing against, the D you’re playing against. He’s a more mature person, a more mature player and I would say, and his numbers would say, that he’s earned the right to play against the other team’s best. It’s going to be a big challenge for him. This is another phase in Nikolaj’s development."
Mathieu Perreault was absent from camp again Thursday, and Mason Appleton slotted in again with centre Adam Lowry and winger Andrew Copp on the third line.
Appleton has shown he can score at the AHL level, and his skating, puck pursuit and checking ability is NHL worthy. Full-time duty with a couple of seasoned pros who make playing the shut-down role an art form, could well be in the store for the product of Green Bay, Wisc.
But Maurice hinted the battle for jobs if far from over, mentioning a couple of players by name.
"Jansen (Harkins) looks good (in Wednesday's scrimmage). He looks strong. There's going to be some competition in that spot. (Kristian) Vesalainen's had four really good days. He's changed his body composition, he's a year into real pro hockey, and now he's starting to look like a guy that's going to play in the National Hockey League," said Maurice.
"So, there's some competition there for sure. I don't have that bottom-six set other than I like my options with that... it's on in practice now because there's truly no guarantees with what we're going to do on the wings there, especially."
Harkins was also a non-participant at the Iceplex and isn't expected to skate Friday, while Perreault is expected to rejoin the main group at 11 a.m.
When it comes to special teams' preparation, the Jets have barely scratched the surface with their regular season set to begin Jan. 14. Winnipeg starts the 56-game season in the all-Canadian division against the visiting Calgary Flames Thursday night at Bell MTS Place, sans spectators.
Maurice said while the emphasis has been on five-on-five systems, the power-play and penalty-killing units will rightfully get some work in, likely starting Friday.
"That will be in each one of our practices going forward, so yes, we’ve been more heavily weighted toward five-on-five defensive, heavier drills early. We’re still going to do those next week," he said.
Last season the Jets' power play was deadly 20.5 per cent of the time, 15th best in the league, while their penalty killers worked at 77.6 per cent, or 10th worst among 31 clubs.
"Our duration of practice (Thursday) was at an hour and 20 (minutes), which is about 10 to 20 minutes shorter (than earlier in the week). We’ll start cutting back the duration a little bit, then we’ll start adding in special teams," said Maurice.
"There’s not nearly as much a toll physically when you’re running special teams, so that’s kind of how we lighten up as we go."
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.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).