Nikolaj Ehlers (Francois Laplante / FreestylePhoto via Getty Images)
The elite Danish prospect is too young for the AHL, but has already ran roughshod over the Quebec League. It's a problem he plans on solving by proving his NHL mettle with the Jets this fall – but Winnipeg also has a backup plan.
In terms of drafted prospects, few teenagers could top the season that Nikolaj Ehlers is coming off. The incredibly talented Halifax Mooseheads left winger put up approximately two points per game in the regular season, then paced The Herd with 31 points in just 14 QMJHL playoff games. He also helped Denmark win its first-ever game at the world juniors and was the most electrifying player in the entire tournament.
So what does he do for an encore?
The most obvious answer is to kick off his NHL career with the Winnipeg Jets. Ehlers brings the kind of high-end skill that Winnipeg needs to take things to the next level.
“I feel ready," he said. "I’ve been working to get better the past two years and I feel great now.”
The stakes for Ehlers are high, because as a 19-year-old drafted out of the CHL, he is too young to go to the AHL. If he does not make the Jets this fall, my sources tell me that Winnipeg will send him to Europe to play against men, just like San Jose did this past season with Nikolay Goldobin (who went to Finland). There has been talk about Ehlers going back to Switzerland, where his dad coaches Lausanne and Ehlers himself had played for Biel before arriving in Halifax, but right now his potential destination is still undecided.
This is very helpful news for Halifax, as the Mooseheads, like all CHL teams, can only play two import players. Timo Meier, the 2015 San Jose first-rounder, is already an integral part of the attack, while 2016 prospect Otto Somppi was just brought in this summer from Finland. According to CHL rules, Somppi cannot be traded to make room for Ehlers, because imports must have played at least a year with the squad before being dealt. Instead, the quick and skilled center would have to be sent home. Meier could be traded, but why would The Herd want to do that? Same goes for Ehlers (though imagine the haul they'd get in return).
It's all a moot point now and let's face it: Ehlers is probably going to make the Jets. Zach Fucale was a teammate of Ehlers in Halifax, but also faced the Dane when the netminder was traded to Quebec.
“He’s got tons of speed and we know in today’s game that speed kills," Fucale said. "He’s very intelligent and he’s always dangerous. Plus he’s got that little edge that makes him extra intense.”
As for Ehlers, he got a chance to see his future when the Jets invited him up for Game 4 of their playoff series against Anaheim in the spring. The MTS Centre was – no surprise – rocking.
“It was a pretty cool experience," he said. "All the fans were going crazy and I was sitting in the stands thinking ‘I want to be out there.’ It was amazing. It gives me more motivation to go out there and work my ass off, honestly.”
Ehlers had his gear with him that night, just in case. Obviously he's amped to join a franchise on the rise and with other top prospects such as Josh Morrissey, Nic Petan and two netminders in Connor Hellebuyck and Eric Comrie coming up as well, it's going to be fun to watch the Jets for the next decade. If Ehlers plays the way he is capable of, that future is going to become the present this fall.
“I don't have any plans other than playing in the NHL this year," he said. "It’s what my focus in on and it’s going to stay like that until they say otherwise.”