Rookie Jets forward taking off

Connor picking up in NHL right where he left off, college teammate says


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One of Kyle Connor’s old college buddies isn’t at all surprised the Jets forward is making a name for himself not just as a scorer — he’s now up to 27 goals in his rookie NHL season — but as a guy whose defensive work is trending upward.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/03/2018 (1893 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

One of Kyle Connor’s old college buddies isn’t at all surprised the Jets forward is making a name for himself not just as a scorer — he’s now up to 27 goals in his rookie NHL season — but as a guy whose defensive work is trending upward.

Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Zach Werenski and Connor were teammates at the University of Michigan for one season (2015-16), winning a Big 10 conference championship together before bowing out in the NCAA’s Midwest regionals.

Werenski said he tries to catch the highlights of every Jets game and marvels at the kind of complete player Connor is becoming so early in his NHL career.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods Winnipeg Jets' Kyle Connor, right, celebrates his goal against the Colorado Avalanche with Blake Wheeler. Connor is continuing the scoring ways that made him a Hobie Baker finalist during his time at the University of Michigan.

“I like seeing who does what of my friends around the league. I’ve definitely kept up with what Kyle is up to and it’s no surprise to a lot of us,” Werenski told the Free Press on Thursday.

“Obviously, what he did in college hockey when I played with him was pretty unbelievable.

“Last year, there was that learning process for him and he’s really come into his own this year, and it’s been just awesome to see.”

Connor scored 35 goals and added 36 assists on a formidable line with Colorado Avalanche winger J.T. Compher and Vancouver Canucks centre Tyler Motte during his one and only Wolverines campaign, the season immediately after he was drafted in the first round (17th overall) by the Jets.

Werenski said Connor wasn’t a “rah-rah” guy in the dressing room and didn’t make a lot of noise on the bench, either.

But his work ethic, passion for the game and desire to be elite was undeniable, and had a major impact on the Michigan squad.

“That’s probably the most impressive thing about him, is he doesn’t look for attention, he doesn’t want the spotlight, he doesn’t really care for it. He just goes out there and does the job,” said Werenski, who was drafted nine spots ahead of Connor, debuting with the Blue Jackets a year ago.

Werenski led all rookie defencemen last season in goals (11), assists (36) and points (47), and was a finalist along with Jets forward Patrik Laine and eventual winner Auston Matthews for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top first-year player.

He said Connor made each of his Michigan teammates better players.

“Kyle’s so gifted offensively, he finds ways to score or get on the scoresheet it seems every single night. He just wants to be a hockey player and help his team win. He’d go out there and show his actions by the way he played, and that really stuck with guys on the team,” said Werenski, now 20.

Playing on the left side with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, Connor scored both Winnipeg goals Tuesday in a 2-1 overtime win over the Los Angeles Kings.

He has five tallies in his past four games and is tied with Nikolaj Ehlers for second on the team in goal scoring (27) behind Laine (43), but has played six fewer games.

After a 25-goal season with the Manitoba Moose in 2016-17, Connor was cut from the Jets out of training camp and began this season with the AHL club, but was promoted after just four games.

The offensive part of his game continues to shine, but it’s his commitment to being a more responsible two-way player that’s becoming more evident against some tough matchups.

“It’s something that I’ve worked on. You can’t have the puck on your stick the whole game, you’re going to play in the D-zone. You’re going to have those shifts where you’re backchecking,” said Connor, who’s still only a plus-one on the season.

“A lot of it is just learning, being in the right spot. It’s so positional in the defensive zone.”

Connor said he’s trying to use his quickness to halt the progress of opponents, he’s conscious of being on the right side of the puck when he’s battling along the boards and he’s working to maintain an active stick to break up plays and steal pucks.

“It’s as much skill as anything. (Pavel) Datsyuk was so good at that. I grew up watching him. He was my favourite player with the (Detroit) Red Wings,” Connor said.

“His ability to strip the puck is a unique skill and it’s something you keep working at.”

The strides he’s taken as a defensively responsible forward and a bit of a puck thief are making the right people notice.

“He has such fantastic speed, really good quickness from a dead stop. And he’s got great hands and he knocks it down,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said Thursday.

“He knocks something down, and you’ve got two guys (Scheifele and Wheeler) that can skate… arcing in to pick up something. Those stripped pucks, those takeaways that happen up to our blue line from their end, are a really big part of the way we play.

“(Connor) is a really well-conditioned athlete. His numbers were good right out of camp. He can get on that puck, strip that puck. Now that’s what makes him good. Twenty-seven goals is good. He may finish with more. That scoring ability and playmaking was there last year. But all of this other stuff he’s developed is going to become the strength of his game.” Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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