Even the Halifax Mooseheads couldn’t have expected Nikolaj Ehlers to be this good this soon.
With the sixth pick in last year’s CHL Import Draft, Mooseheads’ General Manager Cam Russell was hoping for an impact player to help lessen the sting of losing Europeans Martin Frk and Konrad Abeltshauser from last year’s Memorial Cup winning team. He chose the Danish-born Ehlers from Biel of the Swiss ‘A’ league and the decision started paying off right away.
Most 17 year-old rookies take a while to adjust to the pace of the QMJHL, but Ehlers isn’t your average first year player. Through his first 43 games, the right winger had 28 goals and 64 points, establishing himself as arguably the league’s top rookie. From his first game in a new league and a new country, it was obvious he has special talent. “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact I played with men last year”, says Ehlers, referring to his strong start in the CHL. In addition to the 34 games he played with the Biel U-20 team, he played 18 games in the Swiss ‘A’ league. “That helped a lot. And I have good coaches here who have supported me from the start. That has really helped me.” Something else that ultimately worked in Ehlers’ favor was last season’s NHL lockout. The work stoppage enabled two of the game’s bright young stars, Patrick Kane and Tyler Seguin, to play with Biel. “They taught me a lot on and off the ice,” says Ehlers of the two NHLers. “When NHL players go to Europe during the lockout, some people might think they’re cocky or that they are just there to have some vacation. These two guys were not cocky. They played as if they were just our teammates. They supported me, too. They helped talk me into coming to Canada. They were a big part of that decision.”
Ehlers’ play so far would seem to have him on track to join Kane and Seguin in the NHL in the next few years. He has an impressive skill set: very good speed, excellent hands and vision and a willingness at 5’11” 163 lbs to go to the corners and to the net to make something happen. His fast start to the season made scouts take notice and earned him a spot in the recent CHL/NHL Top Prospects game. “I think it was a great experience to play in that game,” says Ehlers. “There was a lot of great players and I definitely think that if I work hard and play well the rest of the season that I can be one of the first round picks. That’s why I came to Canada.”
Coming to Canada from the larger European ice surfaces took a bit of calibrating for Ehlers, but it’s was when he went to Poland to play with Denmark at the World Junior Division I, Group A tournament in December that he felt out of synch. “It was much, much harder to get used to the big ice surface again than it was to get used to the smaller ice coming from Europe, “says Ehlers. “I talked to several guys from the ‘Q’ who were at the same tournament as me and they said exactly the same thing.” Still, Ehlers posted six points as Denmark won all five games at the tournament, earning a spot in next year’s top division at the World Juniors in Toronto and Montreal. “We have about 4,500 hockey players in Denmark and now we’re in the top group in the under-18 and the under-20 and with the men. It’s great for such a small country like Denmark to be in all three ‘A’ groups. It’s a great opportunity for young players like me and others to show the world that we can play hockey, too.”
Mooseheads fans have incredibly fortunate to have the chance to cheer for some of the CHL’s most exciting players over the past few years. Stars like Nathan MacKinnon, Zachary Fucale and Jonathan Drouin are the types of players that are worth the price of admission. Thanks to his creative, high-tempo style, Ehlers has become the next in the line of fan-favorites. The admiration is mutual. “I think it’s great how everybody loves hockey here in Halifax and in Canada”, says Ehlers. “I would love it if it were like that in Europe. Everybody is really into the game and loves the game and supports us every single night. It’s great to have fans like we do here in Halifax.” Ehlers also has found a natural fit with line mates Brent Andrews and Andrew Ryan. “We have a great chemistry together”, he says. “We’re great friends on and off the ice and that helps a lot. They’re two big guys and they give me some time and space to do what I can to get some points for the team. I think it’s great playing with them.”
Another impressive aspect of Ehlers’ game has been his durability. He hasn’t missed a game due to injury, and has only been out of the Halifax lineup during the World Juniors and for the Top Prospects game. His offensive production has been consistent and he shows no signs of wearing down. “I’m feeling great,” says Ehlers, who is at the same weight he was to start the season. “I’ve been working out with the team and working out alone. I’m trying to gain weight right now. I know I need to gain some weight to play in the NHL and that’s my goal. I’m at 163 lbs and I would like to be at about 185 or 190. I think that would be a good size for a player like me.”
As for his goals for the remainder of the season, they are pretty straight-forward: “I want to win a lot of games with the team. I want to show the scouts that I can be a first-rounder; that I want to be a first-rounder. I want to win the cup this year. We’re definitely going for it this year again. Everybody’s going to work hard for it, so we’ll see.”