PHILADELPHIA – Nikolaj Ehlers is a two-sport star who credits his time on the soccer pitch with helping his game on the ice.
Ehlers, who played for Denmark’s national team until he was 14 before concentrating on hockey, was selected by the Winnipeg Jets with the ninth overall pick in the NHL draft on Friday night.
The five-foot-10, 176-pounder was fourth in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with 104 points (49-55) in 63 games with the Halifax Mooseheads this past season.
He feels that his soccer skills have helped him develop more speed on the ice, one of the key elements of his game.
“I think I’m a fast forward,” he said. “I think I have a lot of speed I can use on the wing. I like to set up some nice plays and I like to score some goals.”
Ehlers was the first player from the QMJHL to be selected in the 2014 draft. The 18-year-old took the league’s rookie of the year and offensive rookie of the year honours.
Ehlers also had 28 points (11-17) in 16 post-season games for the Mooseheads.
“I found myself becoming more of a fan when I watched him play,” said Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. “Any time he got the puck, you felt like something was going to happen.
“He’s not the biggest guy when it comes to size, but he plays with such good hockey sense that he knows when to take an opportunity to go, and not really put himself in harm’s way to try to make a play.”
Ehlers’ speed helps compensate for his relatively slight build.
“He doesn’t have a lot of weight on him so you’re going to want him to continue to grow, but he’s a pretty strong player,” said Cheveldayoff. “The way he plays the game and the way he moves out there, he has some hidden strength that a lot of players maybe his size don’t.”
Ehlers said he planned to hit the gym over the summer.
“Obviously, I’ve got to get a little bit bigger and stronger,” he said. “I can use my speed to get out of the rough time on the ice, but I’m not afraid to get hit or hit somebody.”
Cheveldayoff said the youngster is a well-rounded individual.
“His hockey sense is right up there,” he said. “And his character’s not far behind. This is a player that every time we had an opportunity to meet with him, we didn’t want the interview to end. He’s going to be an exciting player for a long time.”
Ehlers’ father, Heinz, was drafted 30 years ago by the New York Rangers (No. 188 overall). He spent his 16-season pro career in Europe.