Photo via: USA Today
If it seems like Nikolaj Ehlers has been a top NHL prospect for years, there’s a reason. He was drafted #9 overall back in 2014. Dobber Prospects had him ranked #7 back in 2015, when Connor McDavid topped the list and Ehlers was ahead of the likes of Mitch Marner, David Pastrnak, Dylan Larkin, and Matt Barzal.
For an old prospect, Ehlers is still pretty young. The Denmark native will just turn 23 in February. 2018-19 will be Ehlers’ fourth trip through the NHL regular season. If he’s proved one thing so far, it had been his durability. He missed 10 games in his rookie year after taking a puck to the eye, then played 82 games for two straight seasons. After playing the first 40 games this season, his streak broke. He’s sidelined with what is thought to be a shoulder injury suffered at the beginning of a January 4 tilt at Pittsburgh and will be out more than a month.
Just starting his career, Ehlers already seems to have established a general profile to his game. In 2018-19 he has 15 goals in 40 games, on pace for 30 over a full season. That would fit right in with his 25 and 29 goals scored in the prior two years. 12 assists in the first 40 games this year is a drop from the 39 and 31 in the prior two years. This is true especially for even strength assists, where after 32 and 25 in the last two years, he has only 7 in 40 games.
It doesn’t look like bad luck. Ehlers’s individual point percentage on the power-play is an unsustainable 85%. At even strength it is 72.41%. His shooting percentage is running a little hot – 14.7% against a career 11.9% perhaps helps to explain the slight bump in goal pace. It doesn’t look like a drop in assists is his linemates’ fault. He played with Bryan Little and Kyle Connor for October, then played from November to his injury beside Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. If anything, regression or lesser linemates could hurt Ehlers’s numbers.
Ehlers has already put up memorable performances in his short career. He has four hat tricks over first four seasons. Hockey-reference.com lists only 35 players in history with that many hat tricks over their first four seasons. Two of his hat tricks came in the six weeks prior to his injury. We know his opposition pays attention to him, even with stars skating on his line. His 16 penalties drawn this year (per Natural Stat Trick) ties him at 11th in the NHL for the season. He’s created 7 rush attempts – tied for 17th in the NHL. While Ehlers starts in the offensive zone a bit more than the defensive zone, it is not by a wide margin.
The reputation is there in “real hockey,” but in Fantasy Hockey there are real flaws. They sum up as: no peripherals. Ehlers has a game that helps on the scoreboard but not in all the other categories we crave as fantasy players. He puts up a middling 2.5 shots a game, and provides virtually no hits or blocked shots. If you care about penalty minutes, Ehlers will be of no help. The only ancillary category where you can expect some support is plus/minus, because he gets to play with a great Winnipeg Jets team.
What is Ehlers’ road to stardom in fantasy hockey? 60 point seasons are excellent, but in a scoring environment where over 40 skaters who have played at least 30 games (as of this writing) exceed a point per game this season, 60 points is not a star to carry you. 60 points with minimal peripherals is more like an 8th forward in a 12 team league. One can hope Paul Maurice finds more ice-time for Ehlers: in the last two years, his playing time has been in the low 16 minute range despite skating with Winnipeg’s first line. This is largely due to a lack of power play time. Ehlers is 9th among Winnipeg skaters in PPTOI with about a minute per game at the man advantage. Then again, things are working very well in Winnipeg. Their power play ranked 5th in the NHL last year in percentage of opportunities converted. This year the Jets are second. Why shake it up?
In dynasty hockey, Ehlers is young, shoots well, and has very talented linemates on a top team. It is possible his skills could continue to mature and his role could expand. Still, from where we are starting and the cap his lack of physical stats, a top-100 player outcome is more realistic than a top-50 player outcome. Pay accordingly.