March 20, 2019

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Connor capitalizes on opportunity

Forward reaps reward for hard work

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Trevor Hagan</p><p>Winnipeg Jets' Kyle Connor, right, is making the most of his time playing on the team's top line with Blake Wheeler, left and Mark Scheifele, centre.</p>

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Trevor Hagan

Winnipeg Jets' Kyle Connor, right, is making the most of his time playing on the team's top line with Blake Wheeler, left and Mark Scheifele, centre.

NASHVILLE — Floating just isn’t part of Kyle Connor’s makeup.

The Winnipeg Jets forward has always preferred the role of pursuer rather than being the guy who hangs around gathering up the scraps.

He’s been duly rewarded for his zealous approach to his profession, scoring 51 goals and adding 48 assists in 143 NHL games since he left the University of Michigan after just one year to join the Jets.

Connor had 18 goals this season prior to Thursday’s game against the host Nashville Predators, in which he had three sits on net but no points. He’s playing with two of the NHL’s premier offensive performers — centre Mark Scheifele and right-winger Blake Wheeler — but doesn’t patrol the periphery of the offensive zone while they get their hands dirty.

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NASHVILLE — Floating just isn’t part of Kyle Connor’s makeup.

The Winnipeg Jets forward has always preferred the role of pursuer rather than being the guy who hangs around gathering up the scraps.

He’s been duly rewarded for his zealous approach to his profession, scoring 51 goals and adding 48 assists in 143 NHL games since he left the University of Michigan after just one year to join the Jets.

Connor had 18 goals this season prior to Thursday’s game against the host Nashville Predators, in which he had three sits on net but no points. He’s playing with two of the NHL’s premier offensive performers — centre Mark Scheifele and right-winger Blake Wheeler — but doesn’t patrol the periphery of the offensive zone while they get their hands dirty.

The 22-year-old winger’s motto is pretty simple.

"If you want the puck, go get it," said Connor, who scored 31 goals in his rookie campaign a year ago. "I don’t want to be floating, waiting for something to happen. I want to make it happen. I always wanted the puck on my hands growing up, and nothing’s changed.

"Playing this game against good players, they’re going to have the puck, and you’ve got to get that work ethic going. You can’t just wait for plays to happen. You have to demand the puck. I play my best when I have that mentality, too."

Connor’s been instrumental in the Jets’ splendid run since New Year’s Day, scoring five goals and adding four assists in his last eight games. He’s usually the first in on the forecheck, yet has the legs to race back and help prevent damage in his own end.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice said Connor has carved out his own identity, despite sharing the ice with premier performers such as Scheifele and Wheeler.

"What Kyle was able to do is become his own man on that line, have his own game and not change it to the two other players that he’s with, which is difficult to do when you’re a young player," Maurice said. "So, you get your chance with Scheifele and Wheeler, you just want to make that work, right? Because it’s a very lucrative spot to play. So, he’ll feed pucks to them, try to keep them happy, defer to the veterans, all that kind of thing.

"I go back to a game he played in Carolina last year on the road, where he didn’t get a point but he finally got to the realization of, ‘All I’m going to do is go out there and work as hard as I possibly can.’ It was almost, I felt, (out of) complete frustration. And then he started to score, it just came for him.

"He went back up now with (Nikolaj Ehlers’) injury and he’s looked like he’s in his playoff form."

Connor refused to alter his game during a recent rough patch, but the 10-game scoring drought from Dec. 14 to Jan. 6 weighed on his psyche.

"It was tough, anyone will tell you that. It was one of those things where I thought I was playing well and I knew it had to be a matter of time," he said. "You have to stick with it. No matter how bad it seems at the time, you stick with what drives you and things work out."

Veteran Jets centre Bryan Little said that’s a mature response from a young player who’s shown no signs of moping during tough stretches.

"He’s realized early that if you slip into a bit of a slump, you still have to play hard and play the right way. Doing that gets you out of those tough times faster," Little said. "He’s a guy that puts everything into getting back on track, and that’s what you want to see from a young player."

An injury to Ehlers has resulted in Connor’s return to the top line, but he’d previously spent time to the left of Little on the second forward unit.

Connor and Little have been paired up killing penalties lately, combining on a short-handed effort the other night against the Vegas Golden Knights. In that instance, Connor’s blazing speed was rewarded after a nice feed from Little.

"He has that ability to beat guys flat out in a foot race, but he’s really fast side to side, too," Little said. "He’s fast, mobile with the puck. And that backs the defence off, gives him and us more time."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
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).

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History

Updated on Friday, January 18, 2019 at 8:09 AM CST: Final

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