WINNIPEG – The Winnipeg Jets top draft pick from 2014 makes no bones about wanting to crack their roster right away, even though Nikolaj Ehlers may know it’s a longshot.
“Yes, I mean I want to play, I want to give everything I have to make the team this year,” said Ehlers, as 24 of the team’s young prospects skated together Thursday for the first time since July.
“But I’m not the one making the decision. The only thing I can do is give my best every single day, every single practice, workout, game. And that’s what I’m going to do.”
At 18, Ehlers is one of the youngest prospects, but his resume from just one year in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League shows the kind of talent he possesses—49 goals and 104 points, rookie of the year and the Mike Bossy Trophy as the top professional prospect. He capped it with CHL rookie-of-the-year honours.
Keith McCambridge, coach of the Jets AHL farm team the St. John’s IceCaps, will be taking Ehlers and the 23 other top-rated prospects to the Young Stars tournament in Pentiction, B.C. this weekend. They’ll face off against their counterparts in the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames organizations.
“Obviously, you can see why he was drafted where he was,” McCambridge says of Ehlers, who he has seen up close only twice—once Thursday and earlier at the Jets’ prospect camp in July.
Ehlers has the kind of speed that makes a hockey scout’s eyes blink twice and looks like he was born on skates.
“You can see why he was able to put up the numbers he put up in the Quebec league. It will be again a nice test to see how he looks in these games.”
Ehlers is on a line with Scott Kosmachuk, 20, another junior star from the Ontario league, and Adam Lowry, 21, who has graduated to the from junior to the IceCaps, where McCambridge said he saw the six-foot-five centre grow, figuratively at least.
“He was a real strong contributor for us in the back half and a real important guy in the playoffs,” said McCambridge, who took the IceCaps to the Calder Cup final.
“I think it was huge for my development,” Lowry said of his first full season with St. John’s.
“I struggled early on and didn’t necessarily get off to the start I would have liked to. But I think going deep into the playoffs and just learning the pro game and learning centre a little more . . . I think it made me a much better player.”
Lowry is ready for the weekend.
“Your third time going into the Young Stars tournament you definitely know what to expect,” he says.
“It doesn’t change anything. You obviously want to go in there and be an impact player and make an impression going into main camp.”
Lowry may be a late bloomer compared to some but he brings size to the line he will play on in Penticton and, with 17 goals and 16 assists in 64 games in the AHL last season, has played at a higher level than Kosmachuk or Ehlers have yet seen.
Another AHL player who could be close to making the transition to the NHL is defenceman Josh Morrissey. He saw only eight games with the IceCaps last season in the playoffs, though, and spent the bulk of 2013-14 as captain of the Prince Albert Raiders in the WHL, where he had 28 goals and 45 assists in just 59 games.
“I thought for a young defenceman he was excellent,” says McCambridge, who praises his skating, hockey vision and the kind of presence that people notice when he walks into a room.
His AHL experience will be valuable in Jets camp this season, suggests the coach.
“He now has those AHL high-end playoff games under his belt so he’s even going to have more confidence going into this camp.”
“It just helps me be more comfortable around older guys. . . Last year I was a little bit nervous and this year I just feel good and ready to go.”
He’s still just 19 but managed to add 10 pounds to his six-foot frame during the summer and, like the others, wants to make the transition to the NHL as soon as he can.
“I’m coming in with my goal being to make the Winnipeg Jets this year (but) you know all I can control is myself so I’m going to do everything I can.”
The Jets have shown they aren’t going to rush any player’s development but they aren’t going to wait either, if they think he’s ready.
While the Jets let forward Mark Scheifele mature in junior for a couple of years before sticking him in their lineup, defenceman Jacob Trouba went straight from a freshman season at the University of Michigan to their blueline without even a whistle stop in St. John’s.
In their rookie year last season, Scheifele became a top-six centre and Trouba one of their most reliable defenceman.