WINNIPEG – Paul Maurice isn’t prone to hyperbole.
Sure, the head coach of the Winnipeg Jets isn’t afraid to offer a compliment when warranted, but it’s rarely over the top.
So you can imagine why more than a few eyebrows were raised after his answer to a question about the development of Jets sniper Kyle Connor.
“I would say quietly become an elite player, right? Because there is more than just putting the puck in the net,” Maurice said. “This guy, I think he’s going to be thought of — he’s got a long-term deal so I don’t mind saying it — I think he’s going to be a top-10 player in the National Hockey League.”
No matter how you slice it, that’s high praise.
Connor’s ascension to an elite goal scorer at the NHL level didn’t follow a linear path.
Chosen 17th overall by the Jets in the 2015 NHL Draft after spending three years with the USHL’s Youngstown Phantoms, Connor spent one season dominating NCAA hockey, putting together an impressive campaign that included 35 goals and 71 points for the University of Michigan Wolverines.
But there were also some disappointments to deal with along the way, as Connor was overlooked for the U.S. World Junior team in December of 2015.
Then, in 2016, he was robbed in the Hobey Baker Award voting, as Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey came away with the award.
Connor signed his first contract in the spring of 2016, choosing to turn pro rather than go back to school.
Coming out of his first NHL training camp, Connor made the team. But his transition to the NHL was anything but smooth.
There were glimpses of brilliance, but with only one goal and four points in 19 games, Connor hadn’t earned the trust of the coaching staff and his ice time was limited.
In December of that year, Connor was assigned to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.
After a block of roughly 10 games, Connor found his groove. The goals started coming in bunches and his confidence grew.
How did Connor get himself back on track?
“I remember being quite impressed with his ability to self-evaluate himself,” Moose head coach Pascal Vincent said. “There was no uncertainty in what he needed to do to get better. He’s a guy who processes the game really fast. He’s got an amazing set of hands and feet, but on top of that, he reads the play really well. It gives him the chance to correct and adjust right away. He knows when something is not going right and he knows how to fix it because he has a really good understanding of what his game should look like.
“He became more consistent and it came to a point where he was the best player on the ice most nights. He won the MVP of our team that year. By the end of the season, you could tell that he wasn’t going to be back (in the AHL). He’s an NHL player and he’s going to be really good.”
Connor, who had 25 goals and 44 points in 52 games with the Moose, was recalled by the Jets and scored in his first game back against the Nashville Predators.
Call it the carrot for all of his hard work.
Oddly enough, he didn’t make the Jets out of training camp the next fall but was recalled quickly — and he hasn’t looked back.
As the Jets prepare for the play-in series with the Calgary Flames, Connor is reunited with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler on the top line.
He’s coming off career-highs in both goals (38) and points (73) — in just 71 games — and blossoming into the player the Jets envisioned when they called his name.
“He’s kind of rounding into that aspect of his career now where he’s not just a talented kid anymore, he’s starting to grow up. His body is filling out a little bit,” Wheeler said. “He’s an incredibly explosive player, kind of a twitchy guy, very quick in and around the net, has really quick hands and the ability to make quick decisions.
“A guy that puts up 70-plus points in college hockey is going to have a ton of offensive scoring ability. For him, making that transition to the NHL, when a guy has so much success like that, you’ve got to learn how to battle for it at the NHL level. All the best guys aren’t coasting around out there and just getting points, they’re the guys working at it every single day. It took him a year in the AHL to figure that out and when he came back, he was a guy that was as hard on the puck as anyone we have on our team.”
Wheeler isn’t the least bit surprised when it comes to Connor’s goal-scoring ability.
“There was never any question of if you would get him into scoring areas if he was going to be able to finish at the NHL level,” Wheeler said. “Just a matter of him learning how to get as many of those opportunities as possible. He learned very quickly that he didn’t have to run anyone through the wall, he didn’t have to necessarily out muscle anyone on any puck, his speed and quickness was going to get that done for him and he learned to use that. Now he’s in scoring areas all game long and it’s one of the reasons he’s so effective.”
Another factor for Connor are his soft hands and quick release.
“Some guys just have that ability to put the puck in the net,” Jets centre Adam Lowry said. “He’s so quick to spots, he’s so good at finding these soft areas. You might not think he’s open, you might think he’s covered, and then he takes two steps and now he’s got a foot and a half. And his release is so good he’s able to get those shots off in those quick areas. He’s so shifty.
“When you look at our team, he might get underrated in the goal scoring sense. He flies under the radar a little bit. But he’s good at so many different things. He can score off the rush with his speed. He’s got such an accurate shot. He’s so good around the net with his hands. He scores goals in different ways. It’s so hard to defend him.”
At the time of the pause in March, Connor was tied for sixth in the NHL in goals and he led the Jets with seven game-winners.
“From the day he came in, you saw the talent. You saw the ability to make plays at a high speed to create space, to finish, to set guys up,” Jets forward Andrew Copp said. “He’s really found a great way to not only be a part of a line with him and (Scheifele) and (Wheeler), but can definitely drive it at times.
“He scores timely goals, scores goals in overtime. He’s the guy we rely on the most at times to get a goal when we need it.”
Like all players, there are areas of Connor’s game he can still improve on, but the incremental growth is apparent.
His board play has improved and he’s even been included on the Jets’ penalty kill, which is representative of his defensive awareness.
“He works really hard and he’s a great skater,” Maurice said. “Maybe the hardest thing for a young player to learn is how hard you have to work but then how hard you can work. He knows his reads. Skilled guy, and we talk about him being this elite goal scorer and I agree he is, but he has become an elite player.
“Because if you’re sharp enough and smart enough to kill penalties and you have a willingness, his defensive stick is very, very strong. He’s developed into a guy I don’t coach anymore. You watch his video, there’s nothing consistent that you have to show him that he has to improve. Now, the experience that he gets every year goes into his memory bank, and his decisions get faster and his confidence grows.”
The biggest thing for Connor when it comes to increasing his goal totals the past three seasons, from 31 to 34 to 38, is diversification.
“I’m just trying to build,” Connor said. “From when I came in just out of college to right now, I’m just trying to fine tune everything. When I came in, I wasn’t really used to playing net-front on the power play either. You learn different situations, tipping pucks and just trying to be (better) all-around and to be able score from anywhere. That’s where I improved the most.”