Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Breakaway Woes of Nikolaj Ehlers

With his blazing speed, shifty hands, and ability to lose defenders it’s no surprise Nikolaj Ehlers would get more breakaways than the average forward. What might surprise you is that he hardly ever converts on them.

Ehlers possesses a wicked shot, a filthy set of hands, and a creative mind rivaled by few in all of hockey. So what’s keeping him from scoring on those breakaways he creates so many of?

It’s hard to find stats on which Jet has the most breakaways, but let’s be honest, no Jets fan who regularly watches the team is going to dispute that Ehlers gets a ton of them. Yet his conversion rate, especially lately, is low.

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Go back through all of Ehlers goals from his breakout 2016-17 campaign. You’ll see lightning quick releases, fast hands and feet, and pretty goals galore. Yet, discounting a penalty shot goal against Tampa Bay, you won’t see a breakaway marker.

Ehlers hasn’t had much luck on breakaways this season either. The dashing Dane has 21 goals already this year and could easily get to 30 if he keeps rolling along. There are 26 games remaining for the Jets, after all. Yet it looks like he’s on pace for another year without converting one of his many breakaways.

On the other hand, go through Ehlers highlights from his first year as a pro in 2015-16, and you’ll see not one, not two, but three breakaway goals. Not flukey ones either. All are well-placed shots.

So what gives? What’s changed from his first pro season to now? How hard can it be to score on breakaways? Hey, Matt Hendricks has a breakaway goal (sort of) this year, and Brandon Tanev has a couple in his career. Shouldn’t they be a cake walk for a guy like Ehlers?

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Let’s take a closer look at what ails the Jets most electrifying young player on the breakaway. After all, if he ever figures out how to consistently finish on those, his already impressive totals will rocket up.

Keep it Simple, Ehlers

One of the more common laments among Jets fans when Ehlers misses a breakaway is “Why doesn’t he just shoot?” There’s some merit to that critique.

If you look at Ehlers breakaway goals and penalty shot goal, he keeps things pretty simple. He doesn’t try a ton of fancy moves, though goodness knows he’s capable of them. He stickhandles once or twice, then quickly releases the puck.

Those little stickhandles may look like throwaway moves, but they’re actually important. It allows Ehlers to release the puck in a way the goalie doesn’t see coming. It’s one thing to kick the leg and let everybody in the building know you’re going to shoot, but those quick little fakes keep goalies from being too sure when or even if the shot is coming.

Ehlers has a go-to move of sorts on the breakaway and it involves going to the backhand to try to out-reach a goaltender along the ice. He counts on his speed (not a bad idea) to get him from one side of the net to the other before the goalie can seal the far post.

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Speaking as a veteran of many beer league shootouts (seven-for-ten in my lifetime, no big deal) there are a few problems with this move. One: it’s easy to see coming. Almost every player dekes backhand first and almost every goalie can read it.

Another problem is the whole key to the move involves outreaching the goalie, not lifting it over him. Ehlers is fast enough to do it, but he’s shooting on 6’4 goaltenders with some of the fastest post-to-post coverage the game has ever seen. They may not be as fast as Ehlers, but they’ll still get there before he does because they start moving early, and have the long legs to get there first.

If Ehlers is determined to go backhand, as most players do, he’d probably have better luck lifting it over the goalie’s glove than outreaching him. He tried putting it through the five-hole against Colorado and it almost worked. That could be another option.

Another move I have yet to see Ehlers try but one I’ve no doubt he could pull off easily is the cutback to the forehand after faking backhand. Ehlers has the quickness and the deftness of hand to pull this off. The only question mark is, as with the backhand, whether he could beat goalies to the post.

At the end of the day, however, breakaways aren’t as complicated as Ehlers has unfortunately been making them. He’s in his own head a little bit on the breaks, and he needs one to perhaps get his confidence back on that front.

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Really, it may be the only hole in Ehlers offensive game. And if that’s the only element missing, the Jets have a lethal weapon on their forward core. The idea is just to make him a little more lethal.