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Ehlers takes a step forward

21-year-old "excited" to be part of Jets future

by Mitchell Clinton @MClinton007 /

In his rookie campaign of 2015-16, Nikolaj Ehlers put up 38 points.

He beat that number in 2016-17 - in assists alone.

His 39 assists combined with 25 goals were a direct result of a lesson he learned at the end of his first NHL season.

"I was thinking 'I have to go out there and make something happen every shift. If I don't do that, well that's not good enough then,"' said the 21-year-old, who adds his mentality changed this season.

"I've learned how to play the game. I learned from Wheeler, I learned from the other guys. They teach me as much as they can, and I try and listen as much as I can. I feel I've taken a big step there as well."

Ehlers finished his rookie season on a line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. The dynamic trio - a combination of speed, skill, and finish - racked up 61 points in the final 26 games of that season.

But more valuable than those points was the lesson Ehlers - known affectionately as 'Fly' in the dressing room - learned from the veteran Wheeler.

"The thing with Fly is his skill set is so unique, even for this league. He's kind of in a rare category in terms of his talent," said Wheeler. "The thing you try to teach him is the simpler the better for a guy like that. You see him when he's moving his feet, he creates so many turnovers for our line. We seem to play with the puck all night when he's moving like that. From there, we possess the puck and his skills come out. He starts doing the fancy stuff that gets the crowd on their feet.

"It's a hard thing to teach a guy who has been able to skate around people his entire life. But he's growing. He's growing up before our eyes. He's a heck of a hockey player."

The Denmark native was one of eight players on the Winnipeg Jets roster that played over 10 games and finished over 50 per cent in shot attempts (50.42 per cent). But while the majority of the shots he was on the ice for were directed at the opponents' net, that doesn't mean everything went smoothly for Ehlers.

But that's another area where he's improved.

In his rookie season, while he was still learning the professional game, Ehlers had five points in a 30-game stretch between Nov. 4, 2015 and Jan. 10, 2016.

In 2016-17, he went through a similar stretch when he wasn't scoring goals, but he found ways to contribute. Fans recall the 15 games from Nov. 11 to Dec. 8 when Ehlers created scoring chance after scoring chance, only to hit the post or have the opposing goaltender come up with a big save.

But that didn't phase the young winger. Ehlers still made it on the score sheet with 11 assists in that time frame, just short of a point-per-game.

"I think part of it last year was mentally. It hadn't really happened before. But being in that situation, in that slump last year, it made me stronger mentally," said Ehlers. "It's something I wasn't prepared for. The guys in here, they helped me out. This year, I feel after two or three games when it wasn't going well, I was able to bounce back pretty fast. I feel like it went well last year."

The next goal for Ehlers is to improve his play in the defensive zone. He already knows where the work on that begins.

"Starts and stops. I'm not a big fan of that apparently," Ehlers said with a smile. "Starts and stops is the biggest thing I have to work on. Coming back into your own zone and getting in the right position right away."

So while he's proud of the improvements he's made in his individual game, Ehlers said it's hard to look past the disappointment of not making the playoffs this season.

But with the steps he's taken, and the "big step" the team took in 2016-17, Ehlers is already looking ahead to training camp.

"We have a great group. We know what we can do, we just have to go out there and do it like we had been in the last seven games," he said. "I think we have a lot of young, great players. It's going to be exciting to see what's in the future. We also have some veterans here who are going to come in with a lot of experience and hopefully help us secure that playoff spot next year."

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