Nikolaj Ehlers. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Jets prospect NIkolaj Ehlers is transitioning smoothly to the NHL thanks in large part to his blinding speed, something he's had since he was a child.
The Halifax Mooseheads turned every game into their own episode of The Flash the past couple years. Nathan MacKinnon had unbelievable wheels and insane hype following Sidney Crosby's footsteps out of Cole Harbour, N.S. But the man who succeeded MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin as Halifax's go-to scoring machine, Nikolaj Ehlers, was arguably even fleeter of foot.
No one could catch Ehlers, a kid so athletic he once suited up for Denmark's national junior soccer team. He ripped it up for 49 goals and 104 points in 63 games in 2013-14. Last year, he was even better, notching 37 goals and 101 points in just 51 games, with 31 points in 14 playoff games to boot. Representing Denmark at the 2015 World Junior Championship, Ehlers appeared to be in fast-forward at all times, skating circles around many of the planet's top under-20 players.
But we easily could've chalked all the superlatives up to typical elite prospect hype, right? Of course Ehlers lit up the QMJHL. Of course he was the fastest player, right up there with Connor McDavid, at the 2015 WJC. The Winnipeg Jets took Ehlers ninth overall in 2014. He better be lighting up his fellow kids.
All the excited chatter feels more legitimate this year, however, seeing Ehlers skating in NHL rinks as a top-six forward on a playoff-caliber team. His six-foot, 172-pound listing is extremely generous – I'm 5-foot-9 and stand virtually eye to eye with him – but the size deficiency hasn't hindered his ability to blow away opponents with his speed at the NHL level. Not one bit. He's as blindingly fast as ever. Even during the rare moments when he coasts, waiting for an outlet pass, he still seems to be zooming past people. Ehlers, 19, might well be the fastest player in the game today.
I decided to tell him this last week – "Nik, I'm pretty sure you're the fastest player in the world now" – and see how he took it. Is he aware of the physical advantage he has over most of his competition?
"It’s something that I’ve always had," Ehlers said. "I’m not saying that I haven’t been working at it at all, because if I want to keep having it, I've got to work on it as well. I have had it since I started playing hockey, but I’m still working on it."
The wheels have helped Ehlers keep pace manning the right wing on the Jets' second line, with Mark Scheifele in the middle and Mathieu Perreault on the left side. That trio has stayed intact throughout the Jets' first 15 games, with Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler on the top unit, forming a rock-solid top six. Ehlers has four goals and nine points, ranking eighth and seventh among NHL rookies in the respective categories. A shooting percentage of 7.7 will improve for a player of his skill, so a spike in goals should come soon.
"I feel pretty good, I feel comfortable on the ice," Ehlers said. "I’m playing with great players, which makes it a little bit easier for me to feel comfortable. I play a lot. It’s nice to be able to play here."
He averages 14:59 of ice time per game and has topped 16 minutes in three straight contests, so he'll continue to get opportunities. Especially while he, Scheifele and Perreault have played such dominant possession hockey. Perreault ranks seventh, Ehlers 13th and Scheifele 28th among the NHL's individual leaders in score-adjusted Corsi. They are first, second and third on the Jets. Per puckalytics.com, the Jets' second line has spent 138 minutes and 41 seconds on the ice together at 5-on-5, posting a Corsi For percentage of 60.0. If Jets coach Paul Maurice has any awareness of numbers like these, he won't split up Ehlers, Scheifele and Perreault anytime soon. Don't count on GM Kevin Cheveldayoff lending Ehlers to the world juniors this time around, either. He's eligible for the tourney one last time, but the Jets kept him past the 10-game threshold and burned a year of his entry-level deal for a reason. He's a big part of their immediate plans.
Ehlers enjoys the team chemistry. He gets along well with his linemates but says the Jets aren't a cliquey team, that they all bond as a big group off the ice instead of splintering into smaller clusters. And in Winnipeg, a hockey-mad market, he's slowly but surely getting noticed. He says he can still shop for groceries or catch a movie incognito…sometimes. Other times, Jets fans recognize him. He says "it's awesome" when that happens.
"You know what? In Denmark, it's different, because hockey isn't that big, so it's more over here," he said. "It's crazy in Winnipeg. They love their hockey and we love the fans. They're amazing every game."
Ehlers, an articulate young man who speaks six languages, admits his life his changing around him now. From the moment Winnipeg drafted him, he offered potential to transform the Jets into a more dynamic offensive club. So far, so good, even though he'll endure inevitable peaks and valleys as his slight frame adjusts to the grind of a full NHL season. He's taken the first few strides toward stardom, and they've been predictably explosive. Now can someone please arrange a race between him and Carl Hagelin?
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin