Nik Ehlers is ready to play pro hockey in 2015.
The Winnipeg Jets prospect told Sportinformation that the Swiss A league would be his preferred landing place if he doesn’t make the Jets this season.
Ehlers, the 9th overall pick of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, will be given every chance to make the Jets this season. He shredded the QMJHL last year, putting up over 100 points in just 51 games, and is unable to play for the Moose due to the NHL-CHL transfer agreement.
Read more about where Ehlers could end up next season after the jump.
At this point, it looks like the Jets have him penciled into their roster next season. Despite the glut of cheap, effective players still available on the free agent market – Brad Boyes, Jiri Tlusty, and Sean Bergenheim, to name a few – they have around two open forward spots in their depth chart.
But if Ehlers isn’t ready for the NHL this season, the Jets should be excited that he’s looking to play in Europe. Since he is ineligible to play in the AHL next season, Ehlers’ best option for pro hockey short of the NHL level is to look outside of North America.
Auston Matthews, the top-ranked 2016 draft prospect, has made headlines with his decision to play in the Swiss A league – the NLA – next season, but Switzerland makes even more sense for Nik Ehlers.
Before Ehlers came to the CHL as a 17 year old, he spent years playing in the system of Swiss club EHC Biel. Ehlers starred for Biel’s U15, U17, and U20 teams, and logged 11 games in the NLA the year before he moved to the QMJHL.
Biel isn’t Ehlers’ only connection to the Swiss A league; his father, Heinz Ehlers, is the head coach for NLA club Lausanne.
The NLA is one of the top pro leagues in Europe, and it would offer Ehlers a chance to pit himself against adults and against professionals. The Swiss league would bring Ehlers close to his family in a country he lived in for many years, and let him test his skills against better opponents.
While some NHL teams – most notably the Detroit Red Wings – have had success developing prospects as slowly as they possibly can in the CHL and AHL, there should be some concern that Ehlers hasn’t been challenged in the QMJHL the past two seasons.
Some have suggested that “scaffolding” is an important concept in player development: players will improve when placed in challenging circumstances, like a tougher league. In other words, conventional wisdom may be wrong; instead of worrying that prospects are being rushed, we should be worrying that they aren’t developing when left to tear apart junior levels.
Both philosophies have merit, but Nik Ehlers has made it clear that he has nothing left to prove in Halifax after two dominant seasons. It’s time for him to move up a level, but where he will move to is still yet to be seen.
Ehlers’ Fit With The Jets
The Jets seem to think highly of Ehlers’ chances of sticking in the NHL this season. In an interview with Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press earlier this summer, Paul Maurice said the following:
I do think we’re big enough and strong enough that we can have a young player like that (in the NHL) maybe even earlier than people would have thought. We are a draft-and-develop team, but the whole point of drafting and developing is when a player is ready, he’s ready.
Even more than that quote, though, their inaction in free agency this summer speaks volumes about where they see Ehlers next season.
In letting Jiri Tlusty, Lee Stempniak, and Michael Frolik hit free agency, the Jets lost three very capable wingers. The return of Alex Burmistrov will go some way towards addressing that, but there are still two conspicuous holes in their forward depth chart.
The Jets are counting on at least one rookie winger – maybe two – to step up at training camp and fill a spot on their roster for this season. To this point, they’ve made no move to add veterans to push the rookies for those spots.
It feels a little bit like what the Oilers did with Leon Draisaitl last summer, when they went into training camp with Draisaitl as the only option for the third-line center position. That situation ended badly; Draisaitl floundered in the NHL and was sent back to junior midway through the season, one year of his entry-level contract burned.
The Jets really don’t want to “Draisaitl” this one. Working in the Jets’ favour is that they have some excellent forwards to surround Ehlers with if he does stick with the big club. Pairing Ehlers with Alex Burmistrov could be an intriguing option; Burmistrov showed excellent defensive chops in his last stint with the club, and could be a good fit with the young, offensively talented Dane.
Nik Ehlers is the most exciting prospect in the Jets’ system. There’s a very good chance he will be a Jet this season, but if it isn’t in the cards, it’s good to know he is considering options other than returning to Halifax. Ehlers’ development could be very well served by a season in the NLA.