BANFF, Altta. — There’s no grey hairs, and certainly no signs of slowing down. If anything, the guy known to teammates as “Fly” is actually getting faster. But Nikolaj Ehlers, at the still rather tender age of 26, is already preparing to play his eighth full season in the National Hockey League. And the dashing Dane hopes he’s not only getting older, but wiser and better.
“I’m trying. I guess I try to show it more on the ice than I do off the ice. But I am trying to help those younger guys now, because I am getting older,” Ehlers told me Monday in a wide-ranging one-on-one conversation following his team’s practice here in beautiful Banff. “I’m kind of just trying to do what guys like Wheels (Blake Wheeler) and Stas (Paul Stastny) did for me. Because I know that helped me a lot. I’m going to try and help them out as much as they want to listen to me.”
The maturity, both on and off the ice, is quite apparent to anyone who follows the club closely. When the going got tough last season, it was Ehlers often standing in front of the media offering some hard truths. The finger of blame was never pointed at teammates, but squarely at himself.
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At the still rather tender age of 26, Nikolaj Ehlers is preparing to play his eighth full season in the National Hockey League.
This, despite being on pace to set career offensive highs if not for an injury that cost him 20 games. The ninth-overall pick from 2014 still finished with 28 goals (one off his personal best) and 27 assists in 62 games. None of that mattered, however, considering his team finished on the wrong side of the playoff line.
Ehlers got a taste of high-stakes spring hockey in 2018, when they marched all the way to the Western Conference Final. But it’s been a case of several steps back ever since.
“Of course it’s frustrating. You want to win. That’s what you play for,” he said.
“We’ve had good teams. It’s not like we’ve shipped off every single guy on the team. But obviously that one summer you lose a bunch of players and you kind of have to start over a bit with new guys and create chemistry and all of that stuff. Getting to the conference finals is not easy. It’s never going to be easy. Whether you have an unreal team on paper, it doesn’t matter. Getting to the playoffs is the first goal, and after that you keep grinding, because anything can happen. I think we have the team to go that far. But we need to prove that in the regular season.”
Indeed, this coming campaign is being seen as one of redemption, especially with so few changes to the roster. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff mainly opted to run it back, with only a handful of depth additions joining what still would appear to be a rock-solid core of which Ehlers is a key part of.
“Of course it’s frustrating. You want to win. That’s what you play for.”–Nikolaj Ehlers
“Surprised or not, I came back to play hockey and I came back to win,” Ehlers said when asked if he thought it would be a more newsworthy summer regarding his squad. “I think there’s a group of guys here that been together for seven, eight nine years now. We know each other really well. We’ve got a quality team here, we’ve got a good team.”
The Jets have spent the past three days in Banff doing plenty of bonding. They went fishing in groups of two on Saturday — Ehlers tells me he only caught “one little one” — then played a competitive round of golf on Sunday in teams of two. He and Josh Morrissey were pitted against Blake Wheeler and Mason Appleton. They finished second.
“I played pretty good on the front nine. And then I shut ‘er down, apparently,” said Ehlers.
“But we’ve had a good time. It’s been fun. Banff has been pretty amazing. Just spending quality time together has been very nice, to be away and just be together as a team before we get going. All the on-ice, you get that figured out. But it’s the off-ice stuff that makes you a team on the ice. I think with the new guys coming in and you’ve got a new coaching staff, you spend that time together, you get to know each other and you have a good time together.”
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One of the early reasons for excitement around the Jets is the fact new head coach Rick Bowness has put together a top line of Ehlers, Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor.
One of the early reasons for excitement around the Jets is the fact new head coach Rick Bowness has gone where Paul Maurice and Dave Lowry wouldn’t in putting together a top line of Ehlers, Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor. That’s your franchise centre and two most dynamic, explosive wingers. It has the potential to be one of the top trios in the NHL.
Connor (4G, 4A), Ehlers (2G, 3A) and Scheifele (2G, 1A) combined for 16 points in the preseason.
“They’re obviously two great players, there’s no doubt. I’ve never really been a guy where it matters where (the coach) puts me. I’m going to play the same way I play. But obviously with those two guys, they’re great, they’re smart, they’ve got speed and they’re fun to play with,” said Ehlers.
“But there’s still a lot of things that we need to clean up. It’s going to be fun to see, obviously we’re not going to play 82 games together, no one ever plays a full season together. Hopefully we can get some chemistry going, which has been going the right way, and then keep doing that.”
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“Coaching against him, every game you would say ‘look at the speed and look at the quickness of him.’ He’s able to get to open ice in a hurry and when he’s flying, he’s a tough guy to defend,” Bowness said.
Bowness saw plenty of Ehlers while behind the bench of the Central Division rival Dallas Stars the past few seasons. He’s thrilled to have such an explosive weapon now in his arsenal.
“Coaching against him, every game you would say ‘look at the speed and look at the quickness of him.’ He’s able to get to open ice in a hurry and when he’s flying, he’s a tough guy to defend,” Bowness said Monday. “He’s also very good at buying quiet time, just pulling the D back and then curling up and finding the second wave and finding time to make plays for himself. His speed and his quickness is very impressive. Again, a highly skilled guy and they find each other out there. Backhand passes, they’re putting pucks into areas that the other guy is skating into, so all three of them have great vision.
Bowness has also come to appreciate the quiet leadership role Ehlers has taken on, even if he doesn’t formally wear a letter on his sweater.
“He’s a guy that’s going to take a lot of responsibility for how the team plays and the success of the team. He’s another guy who takes great pride in his job and being a Winnipeg Jet and I love that about him,” said Bowness. “He will be a very, very important piece of our puzzle this year.”
Ehlers concedes last year was a struggle, not only with his injury but also COVID and the death of his beloved grandfather back in Denmark. Along with the team’s turbulent year, which included Maurice resigning in December, he desperately needed a mental reset this past summer.
“He’s a guy that’s going to take a lot of responsibility for how the team plays and the success of the team… He will be a very, very important piece of our puzzle this year.”–Rick Bowness, Jets head coach
“I went home and put my hockey bag away and didn’t really think about that for the next two-and-a-half months, besides working out,” said Ehlers. “For me it was a pretty good summer, travelling with family, and just spending time with family and friends at home. Obviously it’s always nice to get home after a long season over here where you didn’t get to see them as much, and even nicer when it didn’t go as well.”
Eventually, Ehlers broke out the tablet and began to review the season that was, breaking down as many games and shifts as he could. It’s a custom that began three years ago at the urging of his father, Heinz, the coach of Denmark’s national team.
“It’s the same thing over and over again. From three years ago when I started doing it, the things that I did wrong then, there’s still some of those that I do now,” Ehlers said of what he saw.
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Ehlers will be a key component of the Jets leadership group this season, whether he is wearing a letter or not.
Old habits die hard, it appears.
“But it’s also just about making it easier for linemates with certain passes and just being a smarter hockey player with and without the puck,” he said. “I played with the smartest guy I’ve ever played with, Stas, he made everything look so easy and made it easy for me to play with him. I want to try and become wiser out there.”
Spoken like the wily veteran that he’s become.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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