Record: 52 – 20 – 10
Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/9/2017 (287 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A setback last season turned out to be no setback at all for Kyle Connor, who is gunning for full-time employment — without interruption — with the Winnipeg Jets.
Following a tremendous pre-season, he earned a spot in the Winnipeg lineup. In the team's season opener — a come-from-behind 5-4 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes — Connor recorded his first-ever NHL point, an assist on career goal No.1 for Finnish rookie Patrik Laine.
Eighteen games and an upper-body injury later, Connor was demoted by the Jets on Dec. 9 — his 20th birthday, to be precise — to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League after struggling to find success or consistency in his game. He had just one goal and three assists with the Jets, while registering a minus-8 rating.
The 20-year-old forward from southeast Michigan said he was pretty dejected after being shuffled to the Moose. But the move was a wakeup call for the offensively gifted former NCAA standout with the Michigan Wolverines, who admits there were elements to his game that needed development in the minors.
"It was tough because I definitely felt at the time like I belonged and could make a difference (for the Jets)," Connor said Friday, after the club's 'mini-camp' prospects skate at the Iceplex. "But looking back, there were things I needed to work on and I understand that. Talking with the coaches, they really stressed that to me when I got sent down.
"It took a little bit of an adjustment but I figured it out. It was nice to get the results to show the hard work was paying off."
Almost immediately, Connor took on a leading role with head coach Pascal Vincent's squad, firing 23 goals and supplying 19 assists in 49 games before a late-season recall by the Jets. At that time, he was one of the AHL's hottest shooters, earning at least a point in 14 of his last 19 games, including 15 goals.
After practising with the Jets during the club's last road-trip of the season, he was inserted into the lineup against the Nashville Predators on April 8 — Winnipeg's final home game of the season — and scored midway through the third period to spark a 2-1 comeback victory.
Going out on a high, particularly as the Jets posted seven straight triumphs to close out the season, only reinforced the drive to control his own destiny, Connor said, noting he's fully aware he won't be gifted a job this fall.
But it's entirely plausible he could wind up on the club's second line on the left side with Bryan Little up the middle and Blake Wheeler on the right side, if head coach Paul Maurice sticks with a top line of centre Mark Scheifele, Laine and left-winger Nikolaj Ehlers.
A return to the AHL for Connor isn't out of the realm of possibility, either.
"I try not to think about it too much but you do wonder where you could slide in," he said. "There’s a lot of possibilities. But at the end of the day, it’s just going out there and focusing on what you can do to be a better player. The other stuff you can’t control."
After returning to the Moose for the team's final two games of the year — and scoring in both — Connor took just a few weeks off to play some golf with buddies and travel with his family before commencing daily on- and off-ice workouts near Detroit.
"It was a good off-season, focusing on getting stronger and faster and working on every part of my game on the ice," said the 6-foot-1 left-winger, who has added about 12 pounds to his frame since his inaugural Jets development camp in July 2015, just a week after the team selected him in the first round (17th overall) in the NHL Draft from the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL.
"I had to get stronger and it’s something I wanted to work on. At the same time, you don’t want to lose any speed, because that’s one of my assets. So, you have to find that balance. I thought I did a good job."
The Jets coaching staff, led by Maurice, ran the prospects through a fast-paced, 65-minute skate Friday that was heavy on offensive-zone puck possession drills.
Connor said the practice reinforced many of the things he worked on during the summer.
"I think my play toward the end of the season really took some strides but I worked on some specific things," said Connor, who scored 35 goals in his lone campaign in Michigan before turning pro. "Things in the offensive zone like holding onto pucks, winning one-on-one battles... it's not so much just strength but knowing how to position yourself and where to put your stick. Those are skills, too, and you can have to keep developing that to be a better player down low."
Assistant 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).