As far as Nikolaj Ehlers is concerned, he’s ready to take the next step in the NHL with the Winnipeg Jets. In terms of his junior career, he’s been there and done that, with little more to prove with the Quebec League’s Halifax Mooseheads.
“I feel like I’ve proven what I can do (in the QMJHL) and what kind of player I am,” said Ehlers, the ninth overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft. “I also think it’s time for me to play against bigger men.
“I feel like I’m ready.”
Ehlers said he is no longer under contract with the Mooseheads, but the team still holds his North American rights. So in the event he doesn’t make the Jets, he’d be able to play in Europe. The 19-year-old Danish import grew up playing hockey in Switzerland where his father, Heinz Ehlers, is a head coach in the Swiss league.
Last month Ehlers told Swiss News Agency Sportinformation that if he didn’t make the NHL, his first choice would be to play in Switzerland. However, this week the forward backtracked slightly on his European emergency plan.
“I don’t have any other plans other than playing in the NHL this year,” said the talented winger. “It’s what my focus is on and it’s going to stay like that until they say otherwise.
“I’m excited to start this season.”
This summer Ehlers spent time training in his native Aalborg, Denmark, with his older brother Sebastian as well as in Switzerland, where his father coaches Lausanne HC. In the past, the 6-foot, 180-pound forward has credited his dad for putting him through a rigorous summer training regime to get him prepared for the season.
With the Mooseheads, Ehlers averaged more than a point per game and finished third in league scoring with 37 goals and 64 points in 51 regular season games. He led all players in the playoffs with 31 points (10 goals, 21 assists) in only 14 games. At the 2015 world junior championship in Toronto, Ehlers played a big role in helping Denmark reach the quarterfinals of the tournament for the first time and avoid relegation.
His biggest thrill however, came at the end of the season, when he was called up by the Jets for Game 4 of their playoff series against the Anaheim Ducks. He brought his equipment with him, but sat in the crowd during the game. Winnipeg was swept in four straight, but being there for the exciting finale to their NHL season left a big impression on Ehlers.
“All the fans were crazy,” said Ehlers. “We were sitting in the stands and just thinking, ‘I want to be out there,’ it was amazing. It gives me more motivation to really go out there and just work my ass off, to be honest, and just make the team this year.”
By the looks of it, the Jets are going to give Ehlers every chance to stick with the top club this season.
“The only goal I have right now it to make the team and get better all the time,” he said. “I want to be able to make the changes that I have to make to become a better hockey player.
“I see an opportunity and I’m going to do everything I can to grab that chance.”