WINNIPEG -- Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his scouting staff have excelled in the first round of the NHL Draft even as on-ice success has eluded the team since its arrival from Atlanta in 2011.
Two weeks after being hired by the Jets, Cheveldayoff selected center Mark Scheifele with the seventh pick in the first round the 2011 draft. The following year Cheveldayoff picked defenseman Jacob Trouba with the ninth pick, and the Jets continued to rebuild their blue line with Joshua Morrissey as the 13th pick in 2013.
Scheifele and Trouba emerged as key players in the Jets’ 2013-14 lineup, and Morrissey contributed with the Jets' American Hockey League affiliate, the St. John's IceCaps, in a run to the Calder Cup Final.
With Morrissey, Scheifele and Trouba on track, Cheveldayoff and his staff went to Philadelphia in June for their fourth crack at the draft and added left wing Nikolaj Ehlers with the ninth pick to the organization's growing collection of young talent.
The speedy, playmaking 18-year-old from Aalborg, Denmark spent his first season in North America with the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he teamed with Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Jonathan Drouin, the third pick in 2013, to torment opposing defenses. Ehlers finished fourth in the QMJHL with 49 goals and 104 points, earning him the league's rookie of the year award, offensive rookie of the year award, best professional prospect honor, a spot on the league's All-Rookie Team, and Second Team All-Star honors.
After returning to Denmark for four days following the draft, Ehlers traveled to Winnipeg to join his fellow Jets prospects at development camp at MTS Iceplex on the outskirts of the city. The Jets opted to allow Morrissey to miss camp after a long season, but Ehlers is skating alongside a glut of prospects that includes goaltenders Connor Hellebuyck and Eric Comrie and center Nicolas Petan.
"It was nice to get on the ice here, to finally get over here," Ehlers said. "I felt really good on the ice. I feel good and I'm happy to be here. I'm going to enjoy this week and see what happens here."
The Jets' growing pool of prospects means they won't need to rush Ehlers to the NHL, a problem that plagued the franchise when it was based in Atlanta. Cheveldayoff has emphasized a draft-and-develop philosophy during his tenure. The Jets twice returned Scheifele to the Ontario Hockey League, afforded Trouba a year at the University of Michigan, and have no plans to rush Morrissey into their lineup.
At 5-foot-11 and 163 pounds, Ehlers and his 104 points dismissed any concerns about his size in the QMJHL; however, he's aware he'll need to bulk up to succeed in Winnipeg.
"I want to put on some pounds," Ehlers said. "I guess that's probably the biggest thing that I have to get better at. It's hard to eat so much that you want to throw up afterward. I'm trying. I'm going to try until I [add weight]."
Before his move to Halifax, Ehlers played 11 games in Switzerland's top league with Biel in the 2012-13 season. Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane spent time with Biel that season during the NHL work stoppage and encouraged Ehlers to ignore any skepticism about his size.
"It doesn't depend on your size that much," Ehlers recalled Kane, who is 5-11 and 181 pounds, telling him. "It depends on [whether] you really want to play. I want to play. I love playing hockey every single day."
If size was a concern to the Jets, they did not show it at the NHL Scouting Combine in Toronto in May.
"I think they showed a lot of interest," Ehlers said. "It made me feel really comfortable. I just remember that they showed a lot of interest. I felt great going out of that meeting with the Jets."
Along with Kane, Ehlers had plenty of hockey savvy to rely on leading up to his selection by the Jets. The New York Rangers picked his father, Heinz Ehlers, in the ninth round of the 1984 draft (No. 188) before he went on to a long career as a player and coach in Europe.
Drouin is a likely bet to graduate to the NHL this fall with Tampa Bay, leaving Ehlers as the lead in Halifax's offensive attack. But before Drouin and Ehlers parted, the Lightning prospect instructed Ehlers about what to expect at his first development camp.
"I was prepared for all of this," Ehlers said. "I don't think that I have to impress anyone. I'm going to go out and play my game. That's what I did all [season]. That's why I’m here now. I'm going to keep on doing that."