Coming off the worst season of his NHL career, Nikolaj Ehlers of the Winnipeg Jets changed his bedtime ritual over the summer. This had nothing to do with the scientific approach to sleep professional athletes and teams seem to be taking now, but there was still a huge element of self-improvement to it.
Every evening before turning in this off-season, Ehlers would take his iPad with him to bed and watch each one of his shifts from one or two games last season. By the end of the summer, he had viewed each one of his 1,299 shifts – 1,190 in the regular season and 109 in the playoffs – from the 2018-19 season. And it looks as though it has already paid off. Ehlers has roared out of the gate for the Jets with a goal and five points in four games. In the Jets’ first game of the season, a 6-4 loss to the New York Rangers, Ehlers had eight shots and finished the game with three assists. The goal came Tuesday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins and could not have come at a better time. Including last year’s disastrous playoffs when he was shut out in the Jets’ first-round loss to St. Louis, that was Ehler’s first goal in 19 games. But it wasn’t so much that he scored it as the way he scored it, jumping on a soft pass by the Penguins in their own zone and using the Pittsburgh defender Marcus Pettersson as a screen before firing a low snapshot into the net
Basically, those were the kinds of things he was seeing himself not doing when he watched his shifts over the summer. “It’s a lot of small details,” Ehlers said during the NHL’s pre-season media tour. “It’s small things like how to come in with your stick on the forecheck on the guys and how to maybe not…I wouldn’t say panic, but maybe not just throw the puck away. Try to have some patience with it. A little more patience than I do have, shoot a little bit more. Stuff that I do know, but I also have to actually work on it.”
So far, so good on the shooting more thing. Through four games, Ehlers leads the Jets with 17 shots, which puts him fourth in the league and in the company of Alex Ovechkin and Auston Matthews. And it’s no easy feat having that many shots when you have guys such as Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler on your team. The bad news is that Ehlers has just one goal to show for it, but the analytics people are pretty constant in their belief that these things do tend to even out over time. They certainly did not during the playoffs last spring when Ehlers trailed only Laine with 16 shots in the series against St. Louis, but had zero goals. The concerning thing is that Ehlers has actually played 21 career playoff games and has zero goals.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t touch me at all,” Ehlers said. “Not scoring in the playoff sucks. There’s no other word for it. It sucks. But it’s not like I get to the playoffs and I just shut myself down. I work as hard as I can to help this team win every single day. I’m happy with where I'm at right now. I wasn’t happy with my season last year because of injuries and I wasn't going the way I wanted to, but it’s a new season.”
One thing that Ehlers saw himself doing a lot last year was getting rid of the puck too quickly, both on shots and passes. And if this season is any indication, that part of his game is changing. Two of the assists in his first game came because he was willing to hang onto the puck and wait to find an open man. Getting playing time on the top line with Mark Scheifele and Wheeler certainly helped, but Ehlers knows he has the talent level to be able to play and produce with top players.
“Like I said, just throwing the puck away when I do have time and a little bit of space to have some patience and keep the puck on my stick,” Ehlers said when asked what he saw on those late-night highlights. “Stops and starts, (things) that Paul (Jets coach Maurice) keeps telling me to do. Positioning in the defensive zone. There’s a lot of small things. I’m ready to work on it. I think it’s something that’s hopefully going to help me.”
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.