The skill and ability that made Nikolaj Ehlers such an attractive prospect for the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft are gradually beginning to materialize in the NHL this season.
Like any first-year player coming over from the junior hockey ranks, however, Ehlers has struggled to maintain a consistent level of play but has made the most of his 14:30 in ice time.
Unlike some of the high-profile rookie standouts such as Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings, Max Domi of the Arizona Coyotes and Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres, Ehlers is not playing first-line minutes. He instead occupies the third line on most nights with center Alex Burmistrov and left wing Chris Thorburn.
"He's got all of the skills, speed, shot and hockey sense," Thorburn said. "It's just a matter of him putting it all together consistently, which he has done for the majority of the season. He's growing. As he gets older, the more experience he gets, the more dangerous he is going to be."
Ehlers has shown a great wrist shot, playmaking ability and explosive first step off the transition; all considered major attributes in his game when he starred for the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Some nights are tougher than others; he has scored once in the past 21 games.
"There are no bad players in this League so that was the biggest adjustment," Ehlers said. "It was a little easier for me to adjust to the speed of the game because that's what I do best.
"I still have to put on some weight and get stronger, but I still have a couple more years to do that."
Eichel averages 18:59 and has played a top-six role for coach Dan Bylsma much of the season. He's also mired in a bit of an offensive rut with three goals in the past 15 games.
"I have a long way to go," Eichel recently told The Buffalo News. "I can do more. Scoring, faceoffs, power play, penalty kill. Everything."
Despite the fact Ehlers and Eichel play different positions, their drive, determination and strength are similar. Each forward has played 30 games; Ehlers has a better plus-minus rating (plus-2) and Eichel offers a greater shooting percentage (9.3-6.8). They each remain very active and capable of getting themselves in good scoring positions; Eichel leads all rookies with 97 shots on goal and Ehlers is third with 74.
They each can separate from a check, have no fear with the puck, possess soft hands and can zip a pass.
"[Ehlers] is mature above his years and the consistency will come," Thorburn said. "He's just looking to grow [each] day."
Ehlers scored a fantastic goal off a breakaway late in the third period of a 3-1 win at the Minnesota Wild on Nov. 27, his first goal in 15 games. After receiving a pass off a quick transition down the middle of the ice, Ehlers beat goaltender Devan Dubnyk on a quick wrist shot over the right shoulder. The highlight-reel goal offered just a taste of what Ehlers might be able to do on a daily basis once he gains more confidence.
Thorburn said finding consistency at a young age will be the toughest challenge faced by Ehlers.
"There are a lot of games, back-to-back games and a lot in a small stretch and junior [hockey] is similar to that but not the same kind of speed or physicality," Thornburn said. "He has done a great job protecting himself and adapting to the NHL lifestyle."
Jets coach Paul Maurice is happy with the progress Ehlers has shown and he knows his offensive game will only improve with more experience. Maurice has no intention of rushing the 19-year-old at this stage of his career.
"I'm not worried about Nik Ehlers' offense," Maurice said. "Where he will go from being a good NHLer to a great NHLer is all the other pieces that go around his offence."
Eichel played his first game against the Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 6. It was supposed to be the first meeting between the top two picks in the 2015 NHL Draft -- No. 1 Connor McDavid and No. 2 Eichel. McDavid did not play because of a fractured clavicle sustained in a 4-2 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 3.
There is no new update on the status of McDavid, other than the fact he continues to work out on his own in Toronto. McDavid was among the rookie scoring leaders before his injury. The Sabres and Oilers are scheduled to play again in Buffalo on March 1, when McDavid is expected to be back in the lineup.
Eichel did provide NHL fans with some excitement in the early stages of his game against the Oilers.
After winning a puck battle against Leon Draisaitl in the right-wing corner, Eichel headed to the high slot, controlled a feed from Brian Gionta and shot a backhand that beat goaltender Anders Nilsson 6:58 into the first period of a 4-2 loss.
Eichel told the Times Herald he needs to play better away from the puck.
"Play in the faceoff dot translates to us getting the puck and how I play away from the puck translates to when I have it," Eichel said. "There's a lot of things I need to work on and get better at. I just don't want to try to put too much pressure on myself now. I'm definitely enjoying this experience. But at the end of the day, you want to see results for yourself and your team."
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma can sense the frustration, but knows patience is the key.
"You don't know if you think it's going to come easy, but it's come easy to you in the past," Bylsma said. "I think he's getting good opportunities. Maybe he hasn't got it in the same areas or there's more pressure (with) NHL guys checking him. I think he's finding that how and when he's going to score a goal."
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer