Jets will want key question answered before giving Connor long-term money

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With a superb rookie campaign in which he seemed to fit perfectly on a line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor put his stamp on the Winnipeg Jets in a big way.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/01/2019 (1425 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

With a superb rookie campaign in which he seemed to fit perfectly on a line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor put his stamp on the Winnipeg Jets in a big way.

Scoring 30 goals as a rookie is pretty rare — in fact, Connor is one of just 13 players who have done so since the 2004-05 lockout, and four of those players were 23 or older.

The players who were able to score 30 or more goals as rookies at 21 years old or younger were Sidney Crosby, Patrik Laine and Jeff Skinner at 18; Auston Matthews at 19; Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin at 20; and Logan Couture and Bobby Ryan at 21. Looking at that group of names, it’s clear that simply by virtue of hitting 30 goals as a rookie, Connor is virtually guaranteed to be an impact player offensively, but with a cap crunch looming for the Jets with Connor, Laine and Jacob Trouba all requiring new contracts this summer, the question the Jets must ask is, “Can he be more?”

Kyle Connor had dinner with his family in Shelby Township.

…Simply by virtue of hitting 30 goals as a rookie, Connor is virtually guaranteed to be an impact player offensively

Looking at that list of players, the only ones who aren’t two-way forces are Jeff Skinner and Bobby Ryan, and while Skinner has continued to be one of the NHL’s best goal producers, Ryan has struggled with injuries and never quite lived up to the promise he showed when he was playing with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in their primes.

Ryan is a good player in his own right, averaging 26 goals and 56 points every 82 games in his career, but he’s not worth his $7.25-million cap hit, certainly not until 2022, so if Connor is at a similar talent level to Ryan, injuries not withstanding, the Jets need to know before getting his signature on a new deal.

While I’m sure finding his best lineup was the No. 1 priority for Paul Maurice when he juggled things earlier in the season and put Nikolaj Ehlers on the top line instead of Connor, it gave Connor a more challenging situation to play in, away from the Jets’ two most-gifted all-around forwards.

Offensively, Connor is doing just fine, on pace for 27 goals and 59 points, about the same as last season, allowing for a margin of error to account for luck, but if the Jets are going to shell out the big bucks for him, the question should be whether he can carry a line on his own.

To find out, we can compare his on-ice performance this season to last year.

The big thing that jumps out right away is how different the passing is while Connor is on the ice this season

The big thing that jumps out right away is how different the passing is while Connor is on the ice this season, but I think we need to be careful how we analyze passes to the slot here for two reasons.

First, the combination of Scheifele and Wheeler has been the most effective forward duo in the NHL at controlling passes to the slot for a couple seasons now, capable of controlling dangerous passes so effectively that they can be outshot over full seasons and still outscore opponents by a wide margin. Removing Connor from that line will undoubtedly hurt him there on both sides of the puck.

The other reason is that wingers, for the most part, don’t have as big an impact on stopping passes to the slot defensively. The influence that wingers have in their own zone is mostly from covering the points, stopping south cycle passes from opposing defencemen to forwards and being ready to break out. So while Connor’s line with Laine and Bryan Little has been torn asunder this season in allowing passes to the slot, the blame there rests more on Little and the defencemen they play with than it would on the wingers.

 

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There’s good news in the stats, too, that Connor has managed to maintain a positive high-danger chance differential despite being outshot. That is likely in no small part due to his willingness to take the puck into dangerous areas, and while his line gets lit up by passing, it doesn’t give up as many chances as you would think.

Regardless, while Connor is on the ice the Jets have been outscored and outshot at even-strength so, overall, I think we can say with a good amount of certainty that he can’t currently carry a line on his own. That’s not a huge deal for a good scorer at the age of 22, but it’s something that the Jets will likely be keeping a close eye on in the second half of the season.

If Connor were able to take a step and become a line-carrying talent in the second half, it would make sense for the Jets to go long term with him at a decent salary, but as it stands, considering that they’re not a cap team, don’t be surprised if they end up trying to get him signed to more of a bridge-type deal.

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

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