Kyle Connor hasn’t been in the spotlight much this summer. Not compared to the last two summers, anyway.
In 2015, after putting up his second straight 30 goal season in the USHL, the Winnipeg Jets nabbed Connor at 17 overall, far below where every expert had picked him. Some even had him as a top-ten selection.
Needless to say, Jets fans were excited.
Two years ago I ran around my neighborhood with no pants because the Jets got Kyle Connor. Make me that excited again tonight @NHLJets
— Finnish Rap Fan Acco (@BrianFromAIH) June 23, 2017
Last summer capped off a banner year for the native of Shelby Township, Michigan. He tore the NCAA apart before getting snubbed for the Hobey Baker award, then signed his first professional contract.
The hype surrounding the 2015 first rounder fell off somewhat after that, however, as excitement around Patrik Laine reached a fever pitch. Then Connor struggled in his first NHL season and had to be sent to the Manitoba Moose.
And from there, in the eyes of some fans, it was out of sight and out of mind for a player who had wowed them all year long the previous campaign.
But Connor wasn’t idle in his time in the AHL, nor was he pouting. No, he was too busy doing to AHL goaltenders what he’d done to goaltenders in the B1G conference and the USHL before that.
It took Connor some time to adjust, but once he did he went on a tear. He finished with an incredible 25 goals in just 52 AHL games to lead the Moose, and would surely have scored over 30 had he spent the full season there.
At the end of the year, he earned a recall to the big club and got to spend some time on the third line rather than the fourth. He didn’t waste the opportunity.
After the game, Jets head coach Paul Maurice praised Connor’s play all over the ice, both before and after the goal. Connor showed improved defensive awareness and puck protection in his return, and then went back to the AHL and scored some more to round out his season.
Do an AHL breakout and a successful recall at the end of last year mean Connor is ready for the big time? Many fans believe so. The question is: what can we reasonably expect from Kyle Connor next season?
Opinions seem to be divided on where Connor fits in this coming year. Most would agree he’s got the skill to be a top-six player but has he reached that point yet? Some say yes.
Come @ me, bros.
— Dr. Rocktopus (@alistair_mowat) July 7, 2017
Others don’t believe Connor is ready for the Jets next year at all. That line of thinking is hard to back up, given Connor’s development in the second half and the Jets shift in philosophy over the last couple of seasons in handing the reins of the team over to their youngsters.
Connor has the skill to be a major part of the Jets top six next year if he can prove he belongs there. His speed is not an issue; I’ll never forget watching him chase down and catch Nikolaj Ehlers from behind during his first development camp and then strip him of the puck. You’d be hard pressed to find many full-time NHLers who could do that.
His shot stood out hugely in his time with the Michigan Wolverines, but he wasn’t using it much at the NHL level last year before his demotion. Once he got comfortable with the Moose, his shot reared it’s formidable head again.
The quickness and vision that made Connor such a highly touted prospect before last season began to show up as well and the Moose were seeing a very different, far less tentative player than the one the Jets had sent to the AHL in December.
Connor had also improved his puck protection and board play, and since size was (and remains to some degree) a big concern with Connor’s transition to the pros that was relieving to see. A big summer in the gym from him, and the accompanying pounds of muscle, could go a long way toward putting him on the Jets’ opening night roster.
The question now is whether Connor continues that upward trend. If he does, if he builds on the year he just had in Manitoba, he’ll be contending for a top-six forward spot. Even if he doesn’t get it, he’s going to add a dynamic element to the third line the Jets have never had.
Connor and Roslovic sporting the Jets jerseys while doing their PR work. Foreshadowing?
— BlueBomberJet (@GbusJets) June 26, 2017
A good comparable for Connor (in terms of expectations, not in terms of style) is fellow 2015 draftee Mikko Rantanen. Taken tenth overall in 2015, Rantanen made the jump to the NHL that year, but didn’t register a single point and was sent down to the AHL. He tore straight through the AHL, much like Connor did, and then made the Avs full-time the next year, looking very comfortable in the NHL after a year’s AHL seasoning.
Rantanen’s solid numbers with the Avs are partially a result of getting lots of responsibility on a bad team, but imagine what kind of numbers Rantanen might’ve put up with the linemates Connor could have next season. Connor’s speed could mesh beautifully with Blake Wheeler, among others.
The nice thing about Connor’s scenario is that there’s no pressing need for him to play top-six minutes. If he earns them, he’ll get them. If not, the Jets can use him on what promises to be a much stronger, much younger third line than last year.
But it wouldn’t be wise to bet against Connor earning those top-six minutes. After all, he’s risen steadily since his draft year, from torching the NCAA to victimizing the AHL. No, he’s not going to have the same kind of success in the NHL he had with the Moose last year, but if he plays a full season 20 goals isn’t out of the question.
The Jets have done a great job assembling a stable of skilled young forwards. Next year, another foal from that stable will be ready for the racetrack.