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Flying under the radar: Kyle Connor’s rookie season has been quietly impressive

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Tucked away behind Blake Wheeler’s career season, Patrik Laine’s 43 goals and Connor Hellebuyck’s Vezina-type season is Kyle Connor’s impressive rookie campaign.

I’d be open to suggestions, but you’d be hard-pressed to show me another rookie having a more impressive season than Connor is that is also seemingly flying under the radar in the National Hockey League.

Up until about week ago, no one outside of Winnipeg was talking about the former Hobey Baker runner-up. And there’s a good reason for that given that Laine was doing things that, historically, no teenager had ever done.

“Everything goes under the radar when you play for Winnipeg,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler this past Tuesday. “He’s been one of the huge X-factors for our team. Him stepping into our lineup and contributing at the rate he’s contributed at, it’s a huge reason why we sit where we are today. He was a got that you had high hopes for coming into the year, but obviously a little bit of a question mark. You didn’t really know what you were going to get. He’s taken the opportunity that he’s got this year and done a great job.”

Connor, like he has all season, just carried on working in the shadows of others. Piling up the goals until there was no choice but to take notice at what he’s doing.

Connor’s 28 goals are just one goal back of Brock Boeser for the rookie goal-scoring lead, something that Connor should surpass before the end of the season given his recent success in that department. He’s second the Jets with five game-winners.

“It’s nice to have the coach have confidence in you,” Connor said. “To be able to go out there and try to make something happen and get a chance for game-winnernner.”

Connor is picking up 1.8 primary points per 60 minutes played and his goals-per-60 is sitting at 1.3.

He also has a little streak going for himself, with two overtime goals in the Jets past two games, becoming the second rookie ever to accomplish the quirky feat.

And he’s done so by using his speed to create space for himself in open ice.

There’s not much of a case to be made for Connor and the Calder — that belongs to Mathew Barzal. But Connor should be in the conversation, if only for the recognition of what he’s done.

Unlike the Barzals, the Boesers and the Kellers and the Gourdes, Connor didn’t begin the season with the big club. Instead, the 21-year-old former Michigan Wolverine didn’t make the grade for the opening day roster out of training camp. He was just mediocre. And with a team oozing with offensive talent, mediocre wasn’t going to cut it.

Connor, banished to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, played four games for the Jets farmhand, collecting three goals and five points, before his stay across the hall at Bell MTS Place came to an abrupt end.

Injuries to Adam Lowry, Matt Hendricks and Mathieu Perreault meant the Jets needed some reinforcements, so Winnipeg recalled Connor on Oct. 16.

He hasn’t looked back since.

HockeyViz.com

Connor’s recalled came with a period spent playing with Bryan Little and Laine before he was promoted to the top line.

It hadn’t worked out with Laine or Nikolaj Ehlers on the top unit, and moving other pieces meant a cascading effect and a lot of line juggling. If Connor could fill in the void, the Jets could concentrate on getting their other three lines right.

So there was a chance and a challenge: prove he can keep up with the relentless pace of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler and you’ll stay right where you’re at.

Connor obliged.

Outside of a few hiccups — dropping down to the third and fourth lines at times — Connor has become an important piece on Winnipeg’s top line — a shifty player with a knack for finding enough space in front to get a quality scoring opportunity.

“He’s awesome. He’s gotten better and better as the season’s gone on,” Jets forward Mark Scheifele said after Connor’s game-winner on Friday. “He goes to the right spots. He battles hard in the corner, he goes to the right areas, he goes to the dirty areas. He does everything so well and obviously, his knack for scoring is top notch. He’s been really fun to play with this season. It’s exciting to see him grow like that.”

Connor has exploded for six goals in his past eight games, but it’s perhaps what he learned in an eight-game drought prior that’s played an important role in what he’s been doing lately.

“So, he’s played a lot of good games, but the game in Carolina, he doesn’t score, plays exceptionally well and I think he was really working hard all that stretch, he had that little block there where he wasn’t scoring,” Maurice said on Friday. “He seems to me that he’s relaxed a little bit when the puck is on his stick. Confidence for any player is such an important thing and can’t be given to anybody, you get one and then all the sudden you get that good feeling and then you attach that good feeling to some really good play. He’d been playing very, very well and not scoring, so he wasn’t very far off it and a little bit of confidence and away he goes.”

The only real pressure on Connor is what he puts on himself in Winnipeg. There’s enough heavy lifting happening, so Connor has had the freedom of figuring out his game and what works.

“Well, you can never be too comfortable in this league,” Connor said. “Something I learned through this year is you’ve got to bring it every day. You’ve got to prove yourself. I think I’m getting more confident every game I play but I don’t think I’m too comfortable. You come to the rink and you’ve got to prove yourself.”


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Ben Bishop injured after making terrific glove save (Video)

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After missing five games with a lower-body injury, Ben Bishop made his return to the Stars lineup on Friday night against Ottawa. Unfortunately for Bishop, he seems to have run into some more injury trouble tonight.

The veteran netminder was hurt after he made a fantastic glove save on Jets forward Bryan Little on Sunday night. The Stars Twitter account already confirmed that he suffered a lower-body injury and that he wouldn’t be returning to the game.

Kari Lehtonen took over between the pipes for Dallas.

UPDATE:

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Jets must hope Ron Francis comparison sticks for Paul Stastny

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So far, Paul Stastny has been a pretty fantastic fit for the Winnipeg Jets.

Through four games, there are certain signs of “new car smell” that will wear off. The playmaker isn’t likely to maintain a 28.6 shooting percentage, and his giant possession stats should settle down to “very good.”

Still, it’s that mixture of little things and bigger elements, like all-around play and clever passing, that help Stastny make an already-imposing Jets forward group downright scary. Patrik Laine told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen that it’s all about that “extra half-second” that Stastny opens up for snipers, but head coach Paul Maurice really provides the fun comparison.

“He does so many of the things Ronnie Francis would do,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said, referencing the Hall of Fame center he coached for six seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes. “He has such a great understanding of what’s going on on the ice, the adjustments the other teams are making and what’s happening around him.”

Rosen notes in the quote above that Maurice coached Francis for six seasons in Carolina, but amusingly enough, he might want to evoke “Ronnie Franchise” from his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Consider this:

  • When Francis was traded to the Penguins, they’d missed the playoffs in seven of their previous eight seasons. Pittsburgh went on to win their first Stanley Cup with key contributions from Francis.
  • As of this writing, the Jets/Thrashers have never won a playoff game, let alone a playoff series. Yet, when you look up and down that lineup, it’s a nightmare for defenses. The Blake WheelerMark Scheifele — Roving Lucky Winger (currently Kyle Connor) combo is now supplemented by Stastny, Laine, and Nikolaj Ehlers, and Mathieu Perreault helps to round out a murderer’s row lineup.
  • Both players are all-around, “cerebral” players who happen to be gifted playmakers.
  • In each case, you’re getting quality players with plenty of motivation, who might also benefit from not being, “the guy.” (Or “The Franchise.”)

So far, Stastny is averaging 16:11 TOI per game in four contests with the Jets after falling between 18:30 and 19 minutes per night in recent times with the St. Louis Blues. As a pending UFA and competitor, maybe Stastny would prefer more minutes and heavier usage. Perhaps that will come with time, or failing that, injuries.

Then again, maybe this is the ideal scenario for a player who’s often been judged as much by healthy paychecks as he has been by steady play. As the Athletic’s Craig Custance noted upon word of the Stastny trade on Feb. 28 (sub required), he might finally be falling in the optimum spot in a lineup.

“Paul is a really good third-line center,” texted one NHL head coach after the deal. “Best position for him.”

All due respect to Bryan Little‘s useful, defensive-minded line, but even now, it seems silly to consider Stastny’s trio with Laine and Ehlers a “third line.” Still, Stastny and his young wingers can be deployed strategically, leveraging situations as to make things downright uncomfortable for opponents.

Chances are, there will be a taker for Stastny, 32, who will probably pay him at such a rate that he’ll be asked to do more than be a very, very nice complimentary player in Winnipeg. That might really complete the parallel to Francis, who was an overwhelming piece on loaded Penguins teams and a top player on Whalers/Hurricanes squads that struggled.

(Granted, it’s fair to consider Stastny a “poor man’s Francis,” which again … is far from a bad thing.)

Going back to being a big fish in a medium-sized pond isn’t such a bad thing, although much like Francis, Stastny might enjoy this run enough to decide to stick with a contender at a more moderate rate. His lifetime earnings make you think he could afford such a move, if nothing else.

If not, this one run could be a fun peek at that alternate route.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Why the Golden Knights got involved in Derick Brassard deal

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If Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee is to be believed, getting forward Ryan Reaves and a draft pick while not having to give up anything but some cap space was the meal ticket.

McPhee, who spoke to the media in Las Vegas during the first intermission of their game against the Vancouver Canucks on Friday, said they added grit to their lineup with Reaves after the Golden Knights were one of three teams involved in a wild trade that ultimately sent Derick Brassard from Ottawa to Pittsburgh.

Reaves, McPhee said, is a tough guy who can do more than just dole out physical punishment.

“Ryan is a big strong guy that brings some grit, some strong depth to our hockey club,” McPhee said. “He’s a unique player. These players, tough guys in this league, many of them have been rendered obsolete because they can’t play. (Reaves) can play.

The deal was convoluted, McPhee admitted, saying that it’s something that happens with three teams involved. He said it took four transactions to make it work.

“We gave up some cap space, we have a lot of cap space and a minor league player to do this, so we picked up two assets,” McPhee said. “I thought it was a good deal for our club.”

McPhee said he spoke with Pittsburgh a couple days ago, and the deal for Reaves came together quite quickly. He said the issues with the deal were more on the side of Ottawa and Pittsburgh and once those were worked out, the deal was made.

McPhee said he doesn’t necessarily believe the club needs to make moves.

“But if there are opportunities to make the club a little bit better, one percent, two percent, three percent, you do it if it’s not going to affect chemistry,” he said.

This may only be part of the story here for the Golden Knights.

Sportsnet’s John Shannon reported that Vegas may have got involved in the deal to block the Winnipeg Jets from getting Brassard.

Even though the Jets and Golden Knights wouldn’t meet until the third round of the playoffs — a lot would have to go right for that to happen — Vegas essentially made sure that if the scenario ever came to fruition, they wouldn’t have to deal with Brassard in the series.

If true, that’s some next level stuff by McPhee and Co.

McPhee played down those reports in his presser, saying it wasn’t a “material” part of the deal.

“We saw an opportunity to pick up Ryan Reaves and a draft pick in what was a simple transaction for us,” he said.

TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported that the Jets were disappointed not to land Brassard after going “hard” after him. The move would have solidified Winnipeg’s spine, with Mark Scheifele, Bryan Little, Brassard and Adam Lowry down the middle. Winnipeg’s already a scary team without Brassard’s services. The fear factor would only have improved with him.

The Jets, reportedly, offered three pieces for Brassard, in what was a “solid” package. Given what Pittsburgh sent Ottawa’s way, that likely means a first-round pick, a roster player and a high-level prospect.

The Jets are now forced to look elsewhere, and perhaps they have the league’s newest team to blame for it.

A Jets-Golden Knights series would have a little more on the line if it comes to be this spring.

MORE: Pro Hockey Talk 2018 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Jets lose Mark Scheifele for 6-8 weeks

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In looking at the year in fantasy hockey, two Winnipeg Jets forwards ranked among the highest scorers for the calendar year of 2017: Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, who both managed 87 points. Maybe they aren’t household hockey names, but those two scorers are tied for third in points since Jan. 1.

Now we’ll see how effective Wheeler can be without Scheifele, for quite a bit of time.

The Jets announced that Scheifele was placed on injured reserve today, with head coach Paul Maurice estimating his time missed at six-to-eight weeks.

No doubt about it, that’s brutal. PHT’s Scott Billeck reports that Wheeler described Scheifele as “irreplaceable” last night, following that scary spill into the boards (see the video above this headline).

Early on, it seems like Wheeler will need to step into Scheifele’s shoes in more ways than one, as the Jets will tinker with him being the team’s new top center. It will be interesting to see how much of the burden Kyle Connor can carry, while Patrik Laine rounds out the top trio. Mathieu Perreault also gets bumped up to the second line alongside Nikolaj Ehlers and Bryan Little.

Perreault allows the Jets to, at least possibly, maintain a standout strength: having two strong scoring lines. Depth remains a question.

The Jets are currently battling it out with the Predators and Blues for positioning in the Central Division, so this could deal a blow that might cost them to lose their grip on a round of home-ice advantage, something that’s not frequently discussed regarding this franchise. The Predators already had a decent cushion for the top spot, though it’s far from unassailable:

Predators: 49 points in 36 games played
Jets: 48 points in 38 games
Blues: 48 points in 39 games

Looking forward, the Jets face an erratic schedule where they’d likely lean on Scheifele to get through tough road runs in January and then try to stock up on points during a home-heavy February.

From Jan. 9-25, the Jets play six of seven on the road. They follow that up with a massive 10-game homestand from Jan. 30 – Feb. 20. If Scheifele were to miss two months or more, he’d be out for all of that time, so some of this comes down to how he heals.

A lot of this is tough to stomach, but consider what happened to Scheifele’s opponent last night, as Connor McDavid missed the rest of his rookie season after falling into the boards. It’s an unfortunate break, yet this could also be worse, especially if he recovers as expected (or better than expected).

And, let’s face it. The Jets haven’t navigated bumps in the road very often as a franchise stretching back to the Atlanta Thrashers days. You need to roll with the punches come playoff time, so perhaps this will give them some of that experience early?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.