Nik Ehlers has been the subject of much criticism over the past month. The Jets have been eliminated from the post-season twice now over the past two seasons, with Ehlers contributing zero goals in both appearances. This has spawned several knee-jerk reactions from fans who want the young winger traded for someone who can do more when it matters most. I will dive into why this would be a terrible decision, seeing as Ehlers has been a perfectly fine player in the playoffs falling victim to small sample variance.
1. He has been incredibly unlucky in the post-season
Goals are a small sample stat that are not always indicative of a player’s ability over short periods. While Ehlers has yet to score in 21 playoff games, he has recorded 42 playoff shots. Fortunately, shots and chances are a better predictor of future results than results themselves (for more on the matter, read here). His career sh% of 11.8% is much more reliable than his playoff sh% of zero. Reason being, it’s gathered from just under 300 games instead of a dismal 21. What his career sh% suggests is that five goals should have gone in in that span.
Simply put, zero goals on 42 shots isn’t sustainable. This is a trend that will not continue over time. Shooting percentage regresses to the mean, and Ehlers is no different. His slump is nothing more than variance across a small sample.
2. “But playoffs are different than the regular season”
A common rebuttal is that the playoffs are a different animal and small players like Ehlers disappear. But do they really? This narrative that small players falter and the big boys take over is baseless. Seriously, consider the fact that someone as small as Patrick Kane has won the Conn Smythe Trophy. Players go through similar slumps during several different points of the season. The timing of Ehlers’ just feeds into the myth.
In fact, Ehlers has been nothing less than his usual self in the playoffs, which is a really good hockey player. His shots per minute at 5v5 were the highest on the Jets this last post-season. His shot quality wasn’t bad either; his individual expected goals was 7th among Jets skaters. He has also been a good all around player. Of the Jets skaters with at least 100 minutes of 5v5 ice time over the past two post-seasons, Ehlers is third in xGF%. This means that while he was on the ice, scoring chances have been heavily tilted in the Jets favor.
Before you write these off as meaningless stats that don’t mean anything and that anyone using them should “watch the games,” ask yourself if you’re truly watching, because critiquing Ehlers and his lack of goals seems like a case of not paying close enough attention. Goal scoring makes up less than 1% of a game. When we watch hockey casually or socially, these are the plays we hone in on the most. These numbers however, account for the other 99%; the stuff that happens on the ice but doesn’t wind up in the box score. When I see Ehlers in the playoffs I see a player who’s snake bitten, not a player who’s playing bad, which is a huge difference. I see someone dancing his way into offensive zone unscathed and creating chances the same as he does during the regular season. But because of small sample randomness, the shots just haven’t gone in.
Oh well. Sometimes it happens.
3. Overreacting and trading has a bad history…
Instead of overreacting, let’s look at the rhetoric in Edmonton surrounding Jordan Eberle shortly before he was shipped off to the New York Islanders. He was accused of the same things as Ehlers. “Soft player. Can’t perform come playoff time. Need to trade him for someone who doesn’t disappear.”
You Can't win with Eberle! Trade his 20-25 goals for 15 goal player that you can depend on in the playoffs. Give up a few goals for grit!
— Larry (@Larry47418218) May 15, 2017
Fuck Eberle. His lazy ass needs a lay-up pass to score, basically. IF the Islanders make the playoffs, bet his weak ass he disappears. Also: Matthew Barzal is a miracle worker to make Eberle decent.
— Arefin S. Siddique (@arfguy) November 17, 2017
Eberle had 22 shots in 13 playoff games up until that point, with zero goals and only two assists. But fast-forward to the 2019 playoffs where Eberle’s shooting percentage came a lot closer to his career norm.
Jordan Eberle's first postseason appearance resulted in him becoming a scapegoat for a dysfunctional team.
— Adam Gretz (@AGretz) April 17, 2019
— Tim Manzella (@TjM_1) April 16, 2019
Eberle wound up recording nine points in the Islanders eight playoff games, scoring four times on 25 shots. He went from scapegoat to hero, with the only difference being puck luck. The Oilers on the other hand were on the outside looking in, and are being ridiculed for their awful asset management.
If there’s one thing we should not want Kevin Cheveldayoff to do, it’s to follow the Edmonton Oilers’ blueprint of selling off high end talent for stupid reasons. Doing so leads to, well, just take a look at the Oilers roster – stupid results.
But maybe you’re still buying into the “can’t win with Eberle narrative” because after all, the Islanders did just get swept by the Carolina Hurricanes. However, as Murat Ates of the Athletic recently pointed out, Ehlers has produced more points in his first 21 playoff games than Pavel Datsyuk did in his first 25. You know, the same Pavel Datsyuk who was a part of two Stanley Cup Championships?
So should we really want to trade Ehlers based off of a wrongful assumption that he can’t score in “crunch time” and turn into the laughing stock of the league? Because overreacting to small samples will do this. People are very skeptical of predictive numbers, but time and time again they prevail, making the ones who failed to acknowledge them look foolish.
4. He’s on a great contract
Lastly, the Jets should most certainly not trade Ehlers because he is on a team-friendly deal. It is without a doubt one of Chevy’s best. Ehlers’ closest comparable is William Nylander who will be owed just under $7M per year for the next five seasons, while Ehlers will only be making $6M per in that same span, plus an extra year of UFA status.
If the Jets are desperate for a defenceman and need to ship out a young winger, Kyle Connor is a lock to earn upwards of Ehlers’ annual salary on a long term deal. This isn’t to say that the Jets should trade Connor either. He’s a young star with a great shot and an uncanny ability to beat the goaltender when he’s in all alone. But Connor is a worse all around player than Ehlers who will cost more. His per minute shot and entry contributions are all significantly smaller despite being glued to Scheifele and Wheeler’s hips.
Connor also scores less than Ehlers per minute at 5v5. In fact, Ehlers scored the most at 5v5 on a per minute basis of all Jets last season. This isn’t a knock on Connor, rather, an admiration of how effective Ehlers is for the money he makes. So if the team is wanting to fill a need by trading a young asset, Ehlers should be at the bottom of that list.
The team actually falls apart a great amount during Ehlers’ absence. Their expected goal share started its monumental collapse while he was injured in January and February. While there are plenty of variables that go into this, one of the biggest missing components was what Ehlers is able to accomplish when transitioning from the neutral zone to offensive zone. He is an absolute wizard with controlled zone entries, something the Jets struggle with mercifully without him. He is a unique talent and a treat to watch. Barring an amazing return, trading him will be a mistake of epic proportions.
If there’s anything to take away from all of this, it’s to not be concerned about Ehlers and his zero playoff goals. It’s frustrating, I know. As someone who’s emotionally invested in the team I understand wanting to point fingers and lash out. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that the goals for our young winger will come, and that selling low on Ehlers will only come back to bite the team.